The ongoing search for a better life becomes a desperate fable of escape from poverty in Diego Quemada-Díez’s debut feature The Golden Dream (2013). A coming of age drama of sorts as four kids up sticks and hike towards America, it never shirks away from the horrors of their journey, including kidnappings, gangs and gun-ho border patrols. Juan (Brandon López), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martínez), three Guatemalan teens, head northwards in search of a new start in the States. On the way they meet a young Tzotzil boy, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez) – who doesn’t speak Spanish – but strike up a partnership with him as they wade through the dangerous world of migrant travel.
Samuel initially baulks as soon as he sees the heavily armed border crossing and ultimately proves to be the lucky one for turning back. The rest may have expected a rag-tangle adventure, but instead discover a painful truth where desperation amongst fellow migrants, racism and cheap labour makes their lives next to worthless – just part of a conveyor belt allowing the US to exploit their foreign workforce. Quemada-Díez filmed The Golden Dream chronologically using natural light and real locations, utilising Super 16 film to give his first feature a documentary shimmer. He also worked as a camera operator on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003), with whom he shares his penchant for opulent landscapes and narratives, and a sense of beauty amidst unforgiving reality.
It’s Ken Loach, however (with whom Quemada-Díez worked on Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses), whose vérité style and political undertones carry over here. The three young leads – all non-professionals – have been exceptionally well-cast. López as Juan, the group’s de-facto head, is especially perceptive as an actor, brooding and forthright, who knows just what he wants until he sees it for himself. Meanwhile Martínez, who tapes up her chest and cuts her hair to make her look like the male Osvaldo, is a powerful young heroine. The Golden Dream’s Spanish title translates to The Golden Cage, the name of a song about how Mexican migrants arrive in the US to find cheap, often exploitative work but aren’t given migration papers, left as effective prisoners to the country. Here, the youngsters are prisoners of a dream that will tragically go unrealised for themselves and for countless others.