- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

You might have a lot of questions for Cary Fukunaga after watching his film “Sin Nombre.”

How did the very first film from a writer-director, just 31, win awards for both directing and cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival? How did this young man manage to score not one, but two, major studio deals — one with Focus and another with Universal?

And, because his short film “Victoria para Chino” also won a number of awards, how does he plan to keep up his winning streak?

Perhaps the first question to ask, though, is this: How did a young man of Japanese and Swedish ancestry create, with his feature debut, such a gritty and realistic look at the lives of Mexicans and Hondurans?

“It’s like being an accidental tourist,” Mr. Fukunaga says with a laugh. “I’m from the [San Francisco] Bay Area; it’s a pretty multicultural area. Through marriages and divorces, my family’s been married to Mexicans, and my dad married an Argentinian woman. I spent a lot of time when I was a kid traveling down to Mexico and camping out on the beach and being home-schooled down there for months and weeks at a time.”

Still, he adds, “I was pretty familiar with Mexico, but I never thought I’d be making films about Mexico.”

In fact, both his award-winning films take place in the country. “Sin Nombre,” which opens Friday in the District, is a Spanish-language film about a young woman traveling from Honduras to the U.S. border with the father she hardly knows, and a young man running from the vengeful gang to which he once belonged. The two meet as they ride atop a train through Mexico

“Sundance was the dream growing up,” Mr. Fukunaga says, so he’s obviously very excited to have been such a smashing success there.

He made the film almost by accident. A Mexican classmate at New York University’s graduate film program encouraged him to make a short film in the country. It cost him just $5,000 but went on to win a number of international awards. One of those was at Sundance, and the Sundance Institute asked the young filmmaker if he had a feature-film script.

“I told them I did, even though I didn’t. I whipped up something that I was interested in while researching for the short film, that is Central Americans riding freight trains across Mexico and gangs and bandits and everything else around that world,” he says on a recent visit to the District.

“I wrote a very bad version of the script, and they said, ‘Keep working on it.’”

Mr. Fukunaga went down to Chiapas in southern Mexico and “saw with my own eyes what that world is like.” The research paid off: His next version of the script got him accepted to Sundance’s filmmaking labs.

Spanish isn’t even his native language.

“Through girlfriends, experience and eventually four years of research and writing and living down in Mexico, my Spanish is pretty good,” he says. “The learning-a-language aspect, that challenge is the fun part of making movies. Every time you decide to make a film, it’s like getting a new specialized degree in something. You get to learn something and come out with something that hopefully enriches your education, your experience.”

Mr. Fukunaga’s own education was in history; he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz in the subject before heading off to NYU. That, too, seems to have been an accident. He says he’s been fascinated by history since he was a child, reading historical novels and becoming a Civil War buff in junior high and high school.

His decision to major in history, however, was more pragmatic. “I chose history as a degree because it only took eight classes to graduate,” he explains.

Surprising as it might seem, the overachieving Mr. Fukunaga liked to spend his winters snowboarding, so he needed to double up his course work to graduate in four years. He still managed to find time to write a senior thesis, though — on the politics of museum exhibitions on the Smithsonian Institution.

Clearly, Mr. Fukunaga wasn’t simply a ski bum. Even while riding the slopes, he says, “I was doing photography or writing short stories or learning languages.” Filmmaking was always on his mind, too. He would read about a historical event in class and think, “That would make a great movie.”

In fact, Mr. Fukunaga hasn’t decided what his next project will be, although half the possibilities he’s considering are historical. One might think his own family background might hold a clue: His father was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

“A lot of the Asian stories are really fascinating, but it’s hard to get funding,” Mr. Fukunaga says. “Right now, the market for multicultural cinema is really tight, and it seems surprising considering ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ just won a bunch of Academy Awards.”

Still, even that film’s success won’t change things in this economy, he suspects. “I don’t think just because it won a bunch of Academy Awards you’ll see a whole slate of foreign-language films next year. …In terms of what people are willing to finance, it’s not a risk-taking time, unfortunately. Even [‘Sin Nombre’] would not be made right now.”

Some might see “Sin Nombre” as a risk, not just because it’s in Spanish, but because it portrays the lives of would-be illegal immigrants. The filmmaker says he doesn’t even think about what critics of immigration might say because he wasn’t trying to make a “propaganda” film. “I can’t really anticipate what people like Lou Dobbs think,” he says. “I would love to tap into their brains so I could write characters like them.”

Mr. Fukunaga wants to learn German next and seems most passionate these days about World War I. “I think World War I directly relates to World War II and directly relates to the geopolitical world we’re in now,” he says. “History is not dead in the sense that we’re always reliving it. I’m glad I studied it.”

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