- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2016

Jonas Cuaron, director of the new border thriller “Desierto,” insists that his film is not a political statement but rather a proud example of the suspense genre. No matter that the hero of the piece, Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) is guiding fellow Mexicans through the desert after crossing the border from Mexico, and that they are being hunted by a self-appointed border guard, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Never mind, as well, that Mr. Cuaron and his filmmaker father, Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron, are natives of Mexico.

“I wanted to do it in a way that I wasn’t preaching to the converted. I wanted to make a movie that would reach a wider audience,” the younger Mr. Cuaron told The Washington Times. “I’ve always been a big film of ‘70s film and how they manage to discuss many things but under the simple disguise of a genre film. And then when I started writing ‘Desierto,’ I thought it would be interesting to boil it down to a genre movie.”

Mr. Cuaron first started writing the film a decade ago, when he felt that anti-immigration laws in the U.S. were becoming especially draconian and the rhetoric against Mexican migrants rather poisonous in border states. As he and co-writer Mateo Garcia labored on the script, it became more a classic cat-and-mouse story, but still with the overtones of a racist white man shooting border-crossers at will.

Mr. Cuaron cites Steven Spielberg’s first film, “Duel,” as an influence.

“I was always amazed how Spielberg made a very simple film about a truck chasing a car, but the truck becomes a metaphor,” he said of the 1971 TV chase movie that put the future king of Hollywood on the map. “Anyone can project their own monsters onto that truck. If you are in school, it could be a bully. If you’re working, it’s your boss at work.”

“Desierto” is an intense ride that never lets up once Sam spots Moises and his fellow travelers walking across the desert landscape seeking a better life — and takes out his rifle. Little wonder the film is so intense considering that Mr. Cuaron and his father co-wrote “Gravity,” the Sandra Bullock space peril adventure from 2013 that earned the senior Mr. Cuaron his directing Oscar.

“I wrote [‘Desierto’], and I showed it to my dad for his commentary,” Mr. Cuaron recalls. “The only thing he told me was he wanted to do something like that, so that’s when we started writing ‘Gravity.’

“So in a way, ‘Gravity’ and ‘Desierto’ stem from a very similar concept which is this idea of making a roller-coast ride for the audience. But obviously, because of the context, both stories ended up being completely different.”

As the 2016 presidential campaign started picking up steam last year, Mr. Cuaron watched as Republican candidate Donald Trump started speaking from the hip against Mexican immigrants, referring to them as “rapists” and such.

“At first I thought it was a joke, but then the other politicians started this race to say who could say the most racist things,” Mr. Cuaron said. “So that’s when I realized not only had the movie not lost its relevance, but, sadly, became more relevant.”

Mr. Cuaron, a first-time director, scouted desert locations in Baja California, Mexico, that he felt were perfect to stage the 90-minute struggle between hunter and hunted.

“Shooting in the desert was a nightmare, and a lot of that was my fault because I didn’t know about filming,” he said of his greenhorn mistakes. “When I brought in my producers, they wanted to kill me because [the locations] were all in the middle of nowhere.”

Dirt roads, snakes, blazing sun and remoteness from civilization were all part of a day’s work on the “Desierto” set. However, its director believes that it also lent its story — and its actors — a certain authenticity.

“I kept putting makeup on [the actors] to show the effects of the sun. But at the same point, Jeffrey and Gael … both told me, ‘We are in the desert, we’re getting sunburned and covered in dust. We don’t need to pretend,’” he said. “So in that sense, almost everything you see in the film is as we filmed it without any tricks.”

Mr. Cuaron believes that the film has cross-cultural appeal, and will appeal to any cinemagoer not because of their ethnicity, but because of their humanity.

“Any audience ends up connecting with the story,” he said, “both because of its human side but also because it’s played for genre. So no matter where you [come from], you’re going to feel the tension.”

“Desierto” is now playing in theaters.

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