First you’re viciously beaten for 13 seconds. Then you’re given a hug by the same tattooed brutes who’ve been battering you. Then they give you a gun. “To complete your initiation, you have to kill a rival gang member,” says film-school grad and first-time director Cary Joji Fukunaga. “Children as young as 10 years old join the Mexican gangs in this way…”
He should know. To capture the brotherhood and brutality of Mexican gang culture for his terrific debut feature Sin Nombre – “nameless” in Spanish, Fukunaga hung out with the real-life gangs – and the people who’s tasted their violence first-hand. “I met a guy who had major machete wounds over his arms and head,” remembers Fukunaga. “He’d been assaulted by a gang for trying to protect a girl. This guy’s story – trying to save this girl, failing to do it and having to run for his life – is what I structured the film around.”
Bagging Fukunaga the Best Director prize at Sundance, Sin Nombre sees young gang-member El Casper (Edgar Flores) on the lam from his own revengeful clan. He collides – in a spray of rain and blood on the roof of a moving train – with a teenage girl (Paulina Gaitán) making the treacherous journey across the border to the US, as Fukunaga movie genre-hops between gangster pic, roadtripper and romance.
As for the machete-men themselves? Charming gents, apparently. “They’re not too scary when you meet them,” smiles Fukunaka. “If you didn’t know they were in a gang, you wouldn’t hold back from hanging out with them.” Apart from those massive, scary tattoo all over their faces. “Well, yeah!” he laughs. “The tattoos are definitely symbolic. The clown smiling, for example, is the tragedy of life. A lot of it has to do with destiny. There are three places they’re heading: prison, hospital and the cemetery.”
With Sin Nombre scoring sellout crowds and standing ovations at the Edinburgh Film Festival recently, Fukunaka is making a rep for himself fast. His next film? “I think it’s going to be… a musical! Maybe tattoos can be in that one, too…”