Film Depicts 'Train Of Death' Ride Central Americans coming to the U.S. often make the perilous 1,000-mile journey across Mexico. Thousands make that trip riding a freight train so dangerous they call it "the train of death." More people will learn about that train ride with the release of the film "Sin Nombre," which won two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Film Depicts 'Train Of Death' Ride

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Film Depicts 'Train Of Death' Ride

Film Depicts 'Train Of Death' Ride

Film Depicts 'Train Of Death' Ride

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Central Americans coming to the U.S. often make the perilous 1,000-mile journey across Mexico. Thousands make that trip riding a freight train so dangerous they call it "the train of death." More people will learn about that train ride with the release of the film "Sin Nombre," which won two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Central Americans coming to the United States often take a perilous thousand-mile journey across Mexico. And thousands take that trip riding a freight train so dangerous they call it the train of death. Most Americans know nothing about these travels, but that might change with the release this month of the film, "Sin Nombre," which won two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It's writer director Cary Fukunaga's thrilling fictional account of Hondurans riding the train and clashing with a violent gang called MS-13. Murray Carpenter reports.

MURRAY CARPENTER: There are three border rivers to cross in the thousand-mile journey from Honduras to the US. Veterans of the trip say they're tres veces mojado, or three times wet. That's also the title of a popular Mexican song.

(Soundbite of song, "Tres Veces Mojado")

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE (Musical Group): (Singing in Spanish)

CARPENTER: Anna Rosales(ph), a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Honduras, lives in New York. She knows all about these rivers and the land between. Last winter, she traveled for six weeks by bus, boat, boot and freight train from Tegucigalpa to San Antonio. And she says riding the train was rough.

Ms. ANNA ROSALES: (Through Translator) We were on the train for five days, again, without food and water.

CARPENTER: Rosales has much in common with Sayra, the protagonist of Sin Nombre. Sayra is a Honduran team traveling with her father and uncle across Guatemala and Mexico. Along the way, they meet good Samaritans offering food and water, and vicious gang members with tattooed faces wielding machetes and home-made shotguns. Riding the train, Sayra connects with Casper, a Mexican teenager fleeing his turbulent past.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sin Nombre")

Mr. EDGAR FLORES: (as Casper) (Spanish spoken)

Ms. PAULINA GAITAN: (as Sayra) (Spanish spoken)

CARPENTER: What do you want? Casper asks Sayra in this scene. I'm going with you, she says.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

CARPENTER: Researching the film, Cary Fukunaga rode the rails himself for days at a time. Along the way, he says he met migrants who suggested titles.

Mr. GARY FUKUNAGA (Director, "Sin Nombre"): One was like, yeah, you should call the film, like, "Tren de la Muerte." And I was just like, man, that sounds like a horror film. They call it the train of death. And I heard other people call it (Spanish spoken), you know, like (Spanish spoken) would be like another word for the devil. You know? Those are all strong words the train - and it is, literally can be a train of death.

CARPENTER: The train earned its reputation from the risks of leaping onto rolling cars. And there are other hazards. One night, while Fukunaga was among hundreds of migrants riding through Chiapas, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Soon, there was a scuffle.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Three gun shots rang out, and then all hell broke loose. Everyone started screaming. People were running, they're yelling pandilla, pandilla, which means gangster.

CARPENTER: Fukunaga stayed put in the darkness, not wanting to lose a good spot on the crowded train. He says it wasn't until late the next day that he heard what had happened.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: A young Guatemalan kid had some money, and he didn't want to give it up to the bandits. And so they shot him and threw him off the train.

CARPENTER: As the train rolled in the next night, nobody knew if the bandits were still aboard. It's this sort of tension that Fukunaga wrote into the script. And even though it's not a documentary, he says he was determined to pin down the details, right down that the rattling, clunking and rumble of the rail road.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: When it speeds or slows down, if you're on it, it's like a earthquake because it yanks, and then it yanks each car, each preceding car, each following car it yanks, either stopping or speeding it up. And it will just knock you off your feet. And that's actually how people fall off the train.

CARPENTER: Fukunaga says in order to get things right, he filmed in Mexico and gave the leading male role to a Honduran with almost no acting experience.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I think the idea of authenticity kind of covers all of that. It covers the idea of why make the film in Spanish? Why cast out of Central America? Why do the journey? Why do all that research?

CARPENTER: When you talk to migrants, Fukunaga says he kept asking them why they would risk so much to take the journey. And they told him poverty is the primary motivation. Anna Rosales says it something most Americans just don't get.

Ms. ROSALES: (Through Translator) They don't understand why we come to this country to improve our economic situation, because in our country, life is not easy. This is why we make the sacrifices to go to another country. Many people die on the journey.

CARPENTER: In addition to the train footage, Fukunaga's film includes scenes shot at two river crossings. He says he hopes "Sin Nombre" will allow movie goers to catch a glimpse of the struggles many Central Americans face to come to this country, even if it's only fleeting.

(Soundbite of song, "Tres Veces Mojado")

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish)

CARPENTER: For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

(Soundbite of song, "Tres Veces Mojado")

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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