Diego Quemada-Diez on The Golden Dream

All great debut features come from a place of true inspiration. For Diego Quemada-Diez, those places are dotted all over; with his knockout first film, The Golden Dream, which follows the lives of a group of teenagers as they embark on a mission from Guatemala to the U.S., the elements of his work can be traced back to the director’s influences (of which there are many) while also standing entirely on their own.

He sat down with HeyUGuys for a lengthy chat about the movie, and the political, social and deeply personal aspects that came to shape not only The Golden Dream, but his life.

Warning: this interview contains spoilers.

I found the film to be very powerful, but very sad as well. Did you have any inspirations? Were you thinking of other films while you were making this one?

I’ve been a cinephile all my life, so I have a lot of influences. All the films that have touched me deeply, in a way are a part of what I do now; so yeah, I could talk forever about so many films and so many directors, specifically for this film I worked from Shane, the George Stevens film, I found it very moving. I remember when I was four years old, I saw it and I cried a lot. I was like, one day, when I grow up, I want to make people feel something as profound. And yet, Shane has a sad ending. I love also Karismäki, and in regards to the sadness, I think Karismäki films are quite sad as well. But there’s always a learning, there’s always a growth, a catharsis, that comes from those experiences that film can give you – this condensation of reality.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, in Memories of Underdevelopment, says that there are two kinds of film. One that wants to keep reality as it is – you want to keep the establishment – so he claims that those films have happy endings. So you come out of the experience in the theater thinking everything is okay. Then he says there are kinds of films that look for a transformation in the viewer; they look to impact the viewer. Normally, you come out of the theater with a little sense of rebellion, that things aren’t great the way they are. ‘Cause you’re looking for a transformation in the viewer that could also make a transformation in society. And I couldn’t have a happy ending with the story of migration [in The Golden Dream] because the situation is so bad. Not only the journey that people take to the United States, but mostly the situation within the United States – that is very close to slavery. There are so many millions being deported, and so many people in prison, and there are so many people being abused.

There is so much hypocrisy about the issue, and it is so close to slavery; you see photos of the ICE raids, and you see people chained, their hands and their feet, and they could spend up to three months to a few years in prison, just because they crossed the border. So, it’s very absurd – I also talk to migrants who were tortured, even children, to sign the voluntary exit. And once you’ve signed this piece of paper, every time you go to the United States without documents, we don’t believe there are ‘illegal’ people in the world; there are people without documents. You could basically commit a crime, so they can punish you as they wish. So there’s a lot of things about this issue that [I] feel indignation, and that’s part of what you want to tell the story. So it couldn’t have a happy ending. Especially because what I wanted to express in film is also that it’s like a trap; the United States either traps, and at the same time it uses you, and at the same time it creates a situation that provokes.

So you know, the economic situation, you know, the United States funded all the wars, it’s destabilised every government in America so they would work for the U.S. interests, and it has destroyed national production – ‘send the guns’ – you know about this. The gangs were created in the United States, in the prisons. And then in the nineties, and in the 2000s, quickly, the United States would take various gang members and drop them off in the middle of Guatemala. So by dumping them in the middle of nowhere, they just took over the area, so now there’s a huge gang and violence issue – so the United States is very much responsible for this problem. When now there is so much talk about Obama… it’s just the consequence of years of policy. So they can just make this wall bigger and bigger, but what I wanted to express with the film is that we need to look at the root cause of the issue, which aren’t economic and political. And we can’t just keep building the walls.

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And you kind of do that through the eyes of children. Do you feel that you had a strong connection with the children characters in the film?

I think in a way, the kids are me. But on the other hand they’re also part of us. Like Juan [the central character, played by Brandon López) is very selfish and can be very materialistic and individualistic. And we all have that part of us. So what I wanted to show was his transformation through the story. So he would go from being a racist and complete asshole to opening up to the other, and to learning, because behind the migration issue there is a post-colonial issue to me. It’s a fight for the territory – ‘this is mine / no, this is not yours’. So I wanted to express the idea… the idea of film, the complex things about, the hardest thing on film is to express your idea without saying it direct. Like now, I’m saying it – but I probably shouldn’t say it. So I wanted to talk about the theme of the film, which was beyond nationalities, beyond borders, beyond languages, beyond races, we all share the experience of being human beings.

And borders are absurd, as are the things that separate us are absurd. Which can sound very utopic, but in a way, it’s not; we share one planet, and borders and nationalities are very recent, artificial creations. And this militarisation of borders is extremely recent, and it’s been happening for fifty years or so. It wasn’t like that before, you know. So I thought, why don’t I express this idea? Through the research I got to this conclusion, that by showing the conflict between a mixed race Guatemalan who believes in the Western motto, and who’s individualistic, materialistic, selfish, and against an indigenous who has a totally, completely different cosmogony. And a different cultural, different way of looking at things and a different way of relationships. So through this clash, these two worlds, which is the Cowboys and the Indians, and the colonisation of the United States behind this conflict, and the Cowboys are winning and they’re still winning, and the indigenous cultures are totally being destroyed in parlour with the Earth. So through this clash, in spite of the Westerner changing the Indian, I wanted the Indian to change the Westerner. So through this dramatic arc of the story, the Westerner starts opening himself to the other, opens himself to a new way of looking at life, and he starts realising that he’s not alone – he can now do anything.

But that was part of my own learning process, right? Because in Chauk (played by Rodolfo Domínguez), the indigenous character, he’s a mix of four different friends of mine. Jack, Pedro, Lopez, and then Rodolfo, the real actor; so he’s a mix of all that, so the construction of the character comes from all these different sources of different friends of mine. Through them, I learned about other things. In a way, this is what I learned from their culture. And all those cultures are part of the Mayans – so it’s a Mayan who is alive. He’s not a Mayan in a museum; Mayan culture is alive, and they have a lot to teach us. In a way, we were like ‘okay, we’re going to make the American dream fall apart, and we’re going to make the ancestral knowledge of indigenous cultures be what we can learn from. So it’s also a call to us in Latin America to start believing more in ourselves, and to start believing in how much wisdom and knowledge there is in cultures in Latin America, instead of always looking North to the United States, to this very materialistic, fake society.

So there is a lot of me in the character, the girl [Sara, played by Karen Martínez]; she is a woman who believes that she can transform reality through art. There’s a part of me also that believes that – if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have made this film. And I love her [Karen] as someone who, in real life, she makes street theatre – she’s trying to help her community and her country through consciousness. There’s a lot of things in the characters that are parts of me; the negation of her own femininity in order to survive, sometimes where you have to negate your identity to survive in a very tough world. But most importantly, what you learn what the lead character learns through the obstacles in his journey. That’s a lot of what I’ve learned in my own life, and that’s what I wanted to share.

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On the topic of the kids, how difficult was it casting them?

Well, I saw six thousand kids. I wanted to talk about migration and economic issues, right, so I looked for them in the slums of central America, and for the indigenous character, in the mountains. I wanted to talk about rural migration; migration from central America, then migration from Mexico. And it couldn’t happen any other way around, but as far as finding the Mexican in the city and the Guatemalan in the rural town, but that’s just the way it was. It was very difficult; it took me nine months, and it was a very intense process, because it was very dangerous to start with. Just to go into these places; but you always go in through [the] leaders of those communities, and they’re the ones who open the doors and who know everyone there, and that’s how we were able to do it.

I would ask them [the children] to dance; it was one of the first things. The first thing I would do was ask, ‘do you want to go to the United States?’ That was sort of the requirement. And then I asked them to dance, to see their connection to the body, I would give them an improvisation or two. I would just talk to them to learn about them more. The day we found Juan, it was incredible – because at the beginning, I thought he would also be very brown-skinned. But when this kid [Brandon] showed up, and he was very white, it was perfect. I was like, ‘shit, it’s perfect. He’s an actual racial contrast’. So he’s not only a contrast of cultures and beliefs, but there’s also a race issue. So it was like, it’s gotta be him. And he danced extremely well; he’s a hip-hop artist [in real life]. All the kids are artists; Rodolfo’s a musician, Sara does theatre, and Brandon is a hip-hop artist. So they’re all in this very violent environment where they live, they’re all creating peace and they’re all trying to create peace through art. They’re trying to transform the world through art. So I wanted to give them a voice – give a voice to the young, and give a voice to young artists that are working to make the world better.

I didn’t want to make them victims. I didn’t want anyone to feel, ‘poor children’. I wanted them to be very strong and powerful and inspiring; they would be extremely brave, and defy death. Because that’s what migrants are doing; they’re risking their lives to help their loved ones, or to realise their dreams. So it was so important to give them a voice, but at the same time to make them very human, not to idolise them or make them seem perfect, to give them faults and make mistakes, and to create a migrant who would betray them. So you don’t think, ‘oh, migrants are good’.

Aside from the characters, there are a lot of beautiful landscapes and settings. It kind of tells the story as it goes along. Aside from obviously the political things, was there anything else about those particular places that made you want to shoot there?

I was clear that I wanted to shoot the United States as grey, cold, no trees, no nature – just freeways, concrete, asphalt, darkness. I wanted to show it as the ugliest place on Earth. Like, you would get there and feel, ‘why did they want to come here?’ I wanted, in a way, the veil of the illusion of the American Dream to fall and show the real face of the United States model – where, if we continue like this, there will be no trees whatsoever on the planet. There would be only shopping malls and freeways. I wanted to show the beauty of Mexico; that you would get to the United States, and think, ‘why didn’t they stay there?’ Why didn’t they see their own power, their own beauty?

Not to discourage them; everyone makes their choice, and of course they make the decision because they’re forced, in a way, to do it, by the economic and political divide. I had a lot of influence by romanticism; I love romanticism as a movement from the 19th century, and the paintings. If you look at the film through romanticism, there’s a lot of ruins. In this film, there are ruins everywhere, if you’ve noticed (laughs). Every place is almost like a ruin. The trains are like falling apart; there’s a scene in the church where he cures him, but nature is just taking over. In a way, it’s a commentary on this Romantic theme of desire and reality; how difficult that is to blend. So it’s a commentary of collapse, of industrial revolution, of industrial civilisation, of this model that we thought would bring happiness; that we thought, through material progress, we would actually be a happier society, and we’re realising we’re not. And in a way, it’s like yeah, there’s nothing wrong with material development – it has a positive side – but it’s our human development, our spiritual development, that we’ve abandoned. We live in times where money is the number one thing, where transnationals can go anywhere they want – the borders are totally open to transnationals – and they’ve been closed to human beings. What are we thinking?

So I wanted to show this collapse – not the collapse, but the falling apart of this model, that I guess probably started here in England with the industrial revolution in a way –


(Laughs) It’s not that – it’s a model that’s been extremely successful in many ways. Not to blame anybody in particular, or any country, it’s just something that had to happen for our revolution. But that’s also something that’s symbolised by the train [in the film]. It’s our obsession with progress – it’s just now we need to consider other values, not just material progress.

Through the film, whenever they’re travelling on a train, the train is pretty much engulfed by human beings – which is kind of symbolic about how we take over everything, or how nature maybe creeps back.

Yeah, well in a way, it’s kind of how I was thinking the train as a character. And also that it was part of the factory [the factory at the end of the film where Juan finishes up]. It’s what brings the raw materials and the cheap labour for this factory to work, for this very big, big machine which is symbolised by the factory. Which is the sick thing; that the same workers, the same migrants are the ones who are…  I mean, the sequence I never saw it when I was writing, I saw it in the edit, when I was like ‘holy shit’. It seems like the ‘meat’ is actually the migrants. It’s all the dead migrants. Well, that’s what I felt – it’s like they’re all eating each other, the workers, the migrant workers, and they’ve got all the bodies of people there… That machine is part of the train. The train brings the raw materials to the United States. I was always thinking the train was an extension of the factory, but I never thought there would be this connection – that the ‘meat’ would be the dead migrants. I guess that was part of an unconscious thing that needed to be expressed.

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I’ve always read different directors saying that there are three films while you’re making a film; the one that you make when you’re writing a film, the one that you make when you’re shooting, and one you make when you’re editing. What do you think of that process?

Yeah, it changes a lot. I’m always open to the process of doing whatever; for example, the writing for me was always important, but it was always Sara’s story. And then in the editing, and through her acting, we realised that it was her story for half the movie, and then she was gone. We shift protagonist. So I loved that; but for me, my mind during writing was try not to think of her as the protagonist. I actually like it in Psycho when they shift protagonist in the middle of the movie, so it was like, okay, we’ll begin the protagonist in a way that people will feel is her, and then suddenly, boom, she’s gone. But that happened through her performance, through her character, through the editing – there are a lot of things that surprise you.

I also thought I needed more exposition at the beginning of the story, where we explain a bit why they left and things, and we actually shot some scenes that sort of explained a little bit, but they all went out the window when editing. I was like, we don’t need this, let’s just see them go, let people imagine why they leave. It’s pretty obvious if you see their neighbourhood why they go. When you’re writing, you’re constantly doing drafts; it’s a drawing that you’re constantly doing different drafts. And the final movie is the final painting, but you’ve done hundreds of drafts, you’ve tried things, you’ve moved things around. And it’s part of the great process; I think every artist does it. Like a sculpture, you start with this very rough thing, and little by little you polish it until it becomes the final thing – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. You can’t expect to just make something perfect five minutes from the get-go, it doesn’t work that way. There is a process of condensing the truth in what you want to communicate; the key is to focus on intention. What you want to communicate. That’s the focus always – the intention, the intention, the intention. Which was above and beyond everything that separates us – I wanted to tell the story of migrants, I want to make people feel for them, I want to show the situation from their point of view, I want to show the absurdity of the militarisation of borders, I want to build bridges between the North and the South, I want to make somebody in the United States and England and France feel for a migrant who we normally just despise.

So you focus on the intention, the intention, the intention, and you attract what you need to attract for that. The movie comes alive, and you start trying to listen to it and listen to the characters.

Do you have any plans for your next film?

I’m doing some research about it, and it’s another film that takes place in Latin America in contemporary reality. It’s a bit early to talk about – because I still need to do a lot of writing – but it’s going to be sort of a political thriller. Well, not really a political thriller, but anyway…

In the way The Golden Dream is, but at the same time isn’t, a road movie?

Yeah. I gotta do something different; I can’t do a film with kids. I need to find new challenges, I can’t make a film about a journey. I don’t want to make the same film over and over. It’s totally different, and I’m going to put all my effort into it and make it the best film possible. There’s always a pressure of, ‘well, is the guy who did The Golden Dream’… we’ve got fifty-seven awards so far, so it’s a bit… I hope my body of work is coherent, and that it’s stable. That I can not only make one good film but many, I would hope.

But there is a pressure one puts on oneself. But I need to be finding new challenges, and have the courage to create, which is the hardest thing. You wonder about that great musician who’s just created a great piece, and you’re like shit, the new record is…

Like the first great album. What about the second?

(Laughs) Yeah, but there’s a lot of people who have been able to create great albums and great films. I wouldn’t go to Hollywood to make films nowadays – I would go maybe later on when I would be able to have some conditions – but I don’t want to be one more director who made an interesting first film and was crap after that. So I certainly want to keep creative control, and say something authentic – not that I am totally closed to the idea of Hollywood one day, but I have to be very careful. But of course, you want to get to bigger audiences, and it’s kind of hard nowadays to have a place in the box office. I hope that people get to see the film, it’s engaging, and it leaves you with something.

But to wrap it up, I am very grateful to England, because the first inspiration was In This World by Michael Winterbottom. It follows two Afghanistan kids from a refugee camp to London; I wanted to do the same thing, and I ended up just going fiction all the way, having more script, ‘cause I just couldn’t get the money together. And of course, I am grateful to Ken Loach, to all he taught me in the three films I’ve worked with him [Land and Freedom, Carla’s Song and Bread & Roses] and Barry Ackroyd [frequenter cinematographer for Loach] and to Chris Menges [director of The Lost Son which Diego also worked on] who was also Ken’s cameraman, and whose method is the method we’re applying, and the method is totally British. So it’s not only me – it was my masters, and the masters of my masters. So I thank them, I thank Barry Ackroyd, I thank Chris Menges, and I thank Brian Probyn, who Ken and Chris learned from. So it’s a whole lineage of British documentary cameramen that this whole style comes from.

And also, neorealist cinema, free cinema, and the new Latin America cinema from the sixties, Rodrigo D from Columbia; there’s a lot of films from Passolini, Rossolini, Karasmaki, Kurosawa… so one is not so important. Another one is Michael Haneke; I took a lot from him in The Seventh Continent. That’s where the images of the snow [used in The Golden Dream] comes from – it’s like a rhyme. So it’s all these influences from all these masters, so thanks to them – and thanks to all the poets I love, and thanks to all the musicians; there are so many things that inspire you, your work becomes… it wouldn’t be the same without them.

The Golden Dream is out Friday 27th June.