Hoping to protect herself from the journey ahead, 15-year-old Sara cuts her hair, binds her chest, and changes into a dirty T-shirt and a baseball cap. Emerging as a slouching teenage boy, she leaves her home in a Guatemalan slum for a better life in the United States.
This poignant scene opens director Diego Quemada-Díez’s award-winning film, La jaula de oro (The Golden Cage), which recounts the journey thousands of migrants take to the U.S., through the eyes of four teenagers. The film provides an unflinching look at the harsh realities that migrants face during their journey.
The teens ride atop “La Bestia” (The Beast)—the nickname for the train used by migrants as a quick but dangerous form of transportation across Mexico—along with hundreds of fellow travelers who dream of reaching el Norte. Along the way, they encounter criminal gangs and narcotraffickers who use extortion and the threat of kidnapping to recruit migrants as drug mules in exchange for their passage. Despite the challenges, Quemada-Díez, a Spanish-born director who immigrated to the U.S. 18 years ago, brightens the story with glimpses of the generosity of strangers who feed and give shelter to the young migrants.
The film (its 57 awards include the Gillo Pontecorvo Award at Cannes in 2013) is distinguished by its documentary style and the use of actors with no prior experience. Quemada-Díez, who is actively pursuing a U.S. release, spent eight years researching over 600 migrant narratives to develop his story line. “I wanted people to see the root of why migrants are leaving,” says Quemada-Díez, adding that he hopes audiences will reflect on the poverty and violence at home that propels so many young people to make such dangerous journeys.
Watch an exclusive AQ Q&A with Diego Quemada-Díez