‘I rode “The Beast” as research for my film’

maxresdefaultDiego Quemada-Díez as told to Stephen Woodman

Back in 2002, I was living by the railroad tracks in Mazatlán on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

I started talking to migrants who were passing through town and I was deeply moved by their stories. It struck me that they were heroes who were putting their lives in great danger for the sake of their families. I wanted to share their stories. I hoped that by giving voice to migrants through film I could help generate dialogue, empathy and understanding.

The screenplay to my feature film “The Golden Dream” was based on over 600 testimonies I had gathered over the course of seven years.

I decided to concentrate many of those testimonies into a group of three teenagers traveling on the freight train through Mexico that migrants call “La Bestia” (The Beast).

Juan, the lead character, sets off on the journey believing in the western model of progress and the American Dream. He’s accompanied by Chauk, a Tzotzil Mayan boy who speaks no Spanish. I wanted to portray Juan learning from Chauk, and adopting his different outlook towards people and the environment. People always want to change indigenous thinking and behavior, so I wanted to portray this process happening the other way around.

The dynamic was largely based on my own experience of learning from Chak, an indigenous Mexican who is a very good friend of mine.

Through the third character Sara, I introduced the drama of migrant women and sexual exploitation. Several studies show that the majority of female migrants are raped en route to the United States. During my interviews, one woman told me that when she was a little girl her mother disguised her in order to allow her to continue the journey. I was shocked by that detail and I decided to include it. Sara wraps a bandage over her breasts and hides under a baseball cap. In an attempt to survive, she has to negate her identity and become someone else.solorzano01-600pix_0

We filmed in chronological order so the actors would actually have an experience instead of simply acting a part. I learned that method from my mentor, the British director Ken Loach.

For the seven-year research process I traveled through Mexico visiting various migrant shelters. I also went to Guatemala and the United States.

In Los Angeles, I visited various deportation centers for children. They call them homes, but they are much closer to prisons.

I also visited meat-packing factories in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to include them in the film because it’s dangerous, tough work that only migrants will do.

Researching the film was very dangerous at times. On a few occasions, I survived being kidnapped or shot. In Sinaloa, a drug dealer called Vitamina thought I was filming him. He approached me, put a gun to my head and said he was going to kill me. Finally he let me show him footage which convinced him I was not filming him at all. He eventually let me go and said next time I better talk to him first.

I learned that day that you always have to talk to all the locals and let them know what you’re doing.

I included a similar scene in the film as a kind of homage to Vitamina. If he hadn’t have let me go, I wouldn’t be here today.

Later, when we filmed the movie, I already knew which areas to avoid. We would always hire locals and let everyone know what we were doing. That way, the filming process went quite smoothly.

Getting the film funded and accepted was no easy task, but I kept persevering. Finally, I was invited to Cannes to present the project to different industry professionals at L’Atelier. In the end, people were impressed by the amount of research and the photographs. I was finally able to present the film at Cannes a few years later.

I’ve had to push for the finished film to be distributed in the United States and it still hasn’t been seen as much as I would like. I think it is vital to show the point of view of migrants right now.

Globalization has taken jobs abroad, so I understand that people want to protect their livelihoods and local economy. But it’s important that people realize that migrants are not criminals.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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