Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Which Way Home


A while back, I saw a very good movie that documents the lives and plight of migrants who attempt to ride Mexican trains to aid in their cause to cross the border into the United States. The movie was called "Sin Nombre" and was a work of fiction based on real events.

Tonight, I saw the perfect companion piece to this movie. "Which Way Home" is a documentary -- nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 and directed by Rebecca Cammisa -- that follows a group of children ranging from 17 years old to as young as 9, if you can imagine, who face these unbelievable hardships and dangers of riding the trains to find a better life in America.

Whatever your politics are regarding immigration, they can and should be left at the door here, as there is no refuting the courageous and emotional journey these kids set out on -- nearly all of them either trying to reunite with their families already in the country, or to find jobs to help their families back home.

They leave notes for their mothers before they leave, and talk to them on borrowed cell phones on the tracks -- forced laughter keeping them from crying, as their mothers pray for them on the other end of the line. They light up when they are asked how they imagine the United States to be, and their answers are heartbreaking in their simpleness and naivete.

The most poignant of these comes from 9-year-olds Olga and Kenny, who come from Honduras. Olga, who hasn't seen her mother in three years, happily describes reuniting with her family in Minnesota and playing in the snow with her sisters -- before breaking into tears. They want to be doctors. We last see them walking away along the rails, dwarfed and enveloped as they merge with hundreds of their fellow travelers.

One aspect documented here that I was not aware of is the existence of Grupos Beta -- an organization formed by Mexican Immigration, which, rather than enforcing the law, provides water, medical aid and educates the migrants about the dangers they will face. In light of the illegalities and polarizing politics that frame this heinous underground world these people have chosen to travail, I found this example of genuine humanity to be impressive.

Young migrants ride 'The Beast.' (HBO)
Through all of this, I was -- and still am -- unable to comprehend that these are children, who are facing thirst and starvation, corrupt cops, being raped and left for dead by their own smugglers, some of whom are even hired by their parents ... and the train itself -- referred to as "The Beast" -- which regularly and viciously takes their lives.

"It tore him into three pieces," one kid says, remarking on a graphic newspaper photo showing the remains of a recent victim. "That's what happens when you fall on the rails."

Someone asks him, "So you're going back to Honduras then?"

"Nah, you're crazy man," he responds, laughing and without hesitation. "No, I'm not going back to Honduras."

Their parents are left to wonder where they are, if they're still alive, and to sign death certificates when they're not -- sometimes having to endure the wait of DNA releases because the bodies of their children are too decomposed to identify.

Earlier I mentioned the politics of immigration. This is a film that does not tread in that area but rather addresses the situations that may lead to the immigration problem in the first place. Are there things that can be done before illegal immigration becomes a last resort for these desperate people?

A director of a rest area, set up along the rails to allow traveling migrants a place to sleep, makes an empassioned speech, bordering on a plea, about the harsh realities that face every one of these travelers.

As he speaks, perhaps it is most important to reflect on how awful their lives must be back home that they are willing to risk all of these horrors -- to hear these words, and still have the unwavering determination to venture on ...

Mexico is the passage of death for you.
The freight train can be your best friend
because it will help you travel.
But it can also be your worst enemy.
It can kill you.
The United States is not the passage of death,
the United States is 'Death itself.'
At the border during the day, temperatures go from 120
up to 140 degrees.
And this jug (holding up a drum-sized container)
will not even last you for 3 days of traveling.
It is proven that at the border
out of every 100 migrants,
between 10 and 20, or more, will die.
Maybe many of you here will die.
Many of you will never see your families again.
Many of you here will never return to your countries.
Because you will die on the way.
Now brothers
who really wants to get to the United States?
Raise your hand.

Everyone ... (he acknowledges)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: The Sunset Limited


There's nothing quite like the feeling when a movie comes along at exactly the right time to knock you over the head with its magnitude. I've had this one queued in the DVR for nearly a month, but I just got around to watching it tonight -- and I find it very interesting that I may very well have not been as receptive to it then as I am now.

I don't know if there's anything I can write that would do it justice, because I don't know if the movie is that good or if I just had a personal connection to it. Is this a recommendation? A tired, old so-called review? Some clumsy way to communicate something, but uncertain as to what that something is? I don't know. Some things don't really fit into a category.

The movie is "The Sunset Limited" and is an HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character play. The characters, named only "Black" and "White," are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed) -- I'll assume you can figure out who is playing who.

The entire play/movie is a conversation between the two and takes place in Black's dingy apartment in the New York ghetto, near a train station where White has just attempted to jump in front of a train (The Sunset Limited line specifically), and Black happened to be there to save his life.

Was it by chance that Black happened to be there? Was it divine intervention? Like the movie in its entirety, this is not clear, but the two begin an extraordinary and powerful discussion about humanity, the meaning behind our existence, faith, God and the afterlife.

Black is an ex-convict, who apparently has quite the personal relationship with Jesus -- and some pretty intense "jailhouse" stories -- while White is a college professor, hopelessly lost despite -- or perhaps more likely, because of -- his extensive education and finds the majority of Black's life-affirming, Bible-thumping diatribes to be exasperatingly nonsensical. But to casually label him as depressed or an atheist is to callously rob this character of the extraordinary depths of the anguish, darkness and emptiness that have driven him to this point.

Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson (HBO)
Here we must discuss the acting. Both are terrific, but Jones really stands out for me in this. Countering Jackson's upbeat, kind-hearted and optimistic outlook as his character remains nobly determined to help his guest see the light, Jones brings a tangible heaviness to his portrayal, a quiet and exhausted approach to the conversation behind dark eyes that are sunk deep into their bags. You know he hasn't slept for days. You know he's carried the burden he's carrying for years.

What clinched this movie for me is the shocking and unmistakable shift in both tone and power. For most of the film, Black is the dominant character. He's determined to save his guest's life, he's making him coffee, he's making him soup, he's initiating the entire discussion and he never wavers in his belief that he is right, he has God on his side, he is doing God's will and White will see the light.

But very quietly, darkness begins to take over, and the complete and utter despair that is inside White begins to emerge as he spews a chilling monologue that reveals his perception of the world and the futility of humanity. The use of lighting here is perfection and the words are frightening, the weight of which carries us to the end of the conversation, where we feel a palpable sense of transference, and we're witness to a poignant plea from one character that is undeniably relatable.

I found this movie to be a perfect adaptation of a dialogue-driven play -- where the theological conversation is truly compelling  and the end is of the satisfyingly unsatisfying variety that I'm so fond of.

Most importantly, it's a movie where you need to hit the bar immediately after to discuss, because there are a myriad of questions, interpretations and feelings that can be derived from its content. Who is the one really being tested here? What if White is already dead? What does the apartment signify? Who's better off, the believer or the non-believer? Why is faith a good thing? Or perhaps most chilling, the thought that at first lurks in the background before slowly and deliberately enveloping you no matter how hard you try to suppress it:

How disconcerted are you that you relate most closely to White? ...