By Nikola Grozdanovic | The Playlist October 15, 2013 at 6:00PM
A young girl walks into a derelict public bathroom marked “Damas” in someone's handwriting. She looks to herself in the mirror for courage and begins to cut her hair, tape over her breasts and put a baseball cap on. A young boy leaves his aluminum shack of a home with nothing but a backpack. He goes to a garbage dump site, walks over to his friend who works there, and the two of them walk off together. Not a word has been spoken so far in Diego Quemada-Diez's "La Jaula De Oro" ("The Golden Cage") but the level of investment is already palpable. A sure sign of capable filmmaking if there ever was one, Diez makes his film feature debut as a director but is no stranger to the filmmaking process. He represents a great example of what someone can learn and get inspired by when working on professional film sets, because he's worked within the shadows of camera departments for movies like "21 Grams," "The Constant Gardener," "Man on Fire" and "Any Given Sunday" among a fistful of others. The things you can pick up from guys like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Fernando Meirelles, Tony Scott and Oliver Stone are worth their weight in celluloid gold and if you were to judge him by his first feature, you'd have to say that Diez has been a diligent sponge, absorbing everything from the master craftsmen he's worked with.
The three teenagers that open up the potent story of migration are Sara (posing as Osvaldo), her boyfriend Juan and their friend Samuel. Together they decide to leave the dilapidated confines of their life in Guatemala and join the rest of the flock that's migrating north, chasing the ever-elusive American dream for a chance at a better life. Along the way they cross paths with a pensive and kind-hearted Indian boy called Chauk who offers them what little nourishment he can. He sparks a connection with Sara who accepts him as the fourth member of their group, much to Juan's boyish machismo. What follows for the rest of the film is an adventurous road trip full of misfortunes and acts of human kindness and cruelty in equal measure, and the examination of one of the world's biggest delusions.
It's a wonderful thing to experience a film unshackled from Hollywood conventionality and unburdened by the necessity for simplistic storytelling. It doesn't take long to realize that Diez's concerns lie in authenticating something that's been a serious socio-political issue in North America for years: examining the trials of what exactly it takes to pull off a successful border crossing. The term “success” couldn't be used more loosely. After a couple of swerves and unforeseen events in the film, the realization that you're not watching entertainment hits you like a train carrying more than just its wagons. So if you like to watch movies to escape your own reality and forget about your daily troubles then La Jaula De Oro is probably not for you, because you'll be escaping into a cruel world that feels all too real, with trouble around every corner.
Apart from the influences that Diez channels into the fabric of his film (you could see bits and pieces of Stone, Inarritu, Meirelles and even Scott lingering in many shots), a couple of bold decisions have made "La Jaula De Oro" the artistic festival success that it's turning out to be. In order to add to the authenticity there is a plethora of riveting portraits of real migrants, who are among the 600 thanked in the end credits for the making of the movie. The grainy and raw look that only Super 16mm can capture cloaks the picture with a sense of verisimilitude, infusing the moments of joy with true happiness and those of foreboding with real fear. Then there's the courageous and effortless gut-punching performances from the four kids who don't have to utter any words to be understood. Chauk speaks a language no one understands; not even the viewer is privy to it by way of subtitles, but you wouldn't be paying attention if you didn't think he was the most empathetic of the lot.
As part of the Un Certain Regarde section at this year's Cannes, "La Jaula De Oro" won the “A Certain Talent” prize for its ensemble cast. It's been doing festival rounds ever since and won top honors at the 9th Zurich Film Festival, too. If you're lucky to catch it, you'll see that there's little to wonder why it's mostly getting praises everywhere it turns up. Diez has created one of the year's most scathing looks at one of the world's most misrepresented human acts. The public's immediate association with Guatemala being a prison works in the film's favor, and even goes a step further by putting to question which prison is worse and who holds the keys. [A-]