Like the Mayan teenagers whose quiet lives are upended by forces beyond their control at the beginning of Gregory Nava’s 1984 debut, El Norte is an unassuming film of unexpected depth. On its surface, it’s a straightforward realist drama about Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando), siblings who flee political violence in their native Guatemala and make a perilous journey across Mexico to the “promised land” of Los Angeles. But when you look a little closer, El Norte reveals itself to be a thing of delicate, poetic beauty, informed by the Latin American tradition of magical realism and absolutely enamored with color and light.
And like the film itself, El Norte’s legacy is quiet but powerful, prompting a change in American immigration policy that lasted for three decades before being reversed by the Trump administration. As Nava points out with pride, the film was not only nominated for an Academy Award, but also it became a phenomenon, playing in New York and Los Angeles for a year straight. It was name-dropped by both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale at the 1984 presidential debates, and, as Nava explains:
The Mayan people who I worked with in the film went to the government and they sued for protective status—and they got it. So El Norte contributed to the atmosphere that led the United States government to grant protective status to these refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, and resulted in saving thousands of lives. And this is probably the thing I’m most proud of having done [as a filmmaker] because when we made the movie, we didn’t know anything was going to happen to it. We were just five people in a Volkswagen van, you know?
The Trump administration’s war on immigrants is the major reason Nava agreed to bring El Norte back to theaters for a 35th-anniversary encore screening on September 15. As he tells The A.V. Club, he was at a meeting with distributor Lionsgate Films when a member of the marketing team came up to him and told him, “My father saw the movie. He [also] crawled through tunnels to get here,” referring to a harrowing sequence in the film where Rosa and Enrique crawl through miles of claustrophobic sewer tunnels in an attempt to cross the border without attracting the attention of the border patrol. (ICE didn’t exist yet in 1984.) He adds,
That’s the true story of immigration. All these refugees that are coming to the southern border are [her] father who crawled through the tunnel. They’re Rosa and Enrique. And their children become the new heads of Lionsgate, they become the filmmakers and the politicians and the doctors and the lawyers… so the policies that we have in place now are not only destructive to the refugees coming up, but they’re destructive to our nation. Because that is what’s kept our nation strong, is this embrace of the tired and poor.
Nava is Mexican-American, and says he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border “several times a week” to visit his grandmother when he was a child. This gave him a humanistic view of immigration. “A 6-year-old doesn’t know about the politics or the sociology or any of that. You just see the faces and you see the people,” he says. And his desire to put a human face on this heavily politicized issue was reinforced when he enrolled in film school at UCLA and saw people “who I knew were doing all the work of our city of Los Angeles… they were like shadows that people didn’t see. They didn’t see their heart and their soul. That’s when I made the decision to make El Norte.”
But despite his passion for his heritage—he spoke at length in our interview about the so-called “Mexican repatriation” that saw millions of Mexican-Americans, including his grandfather, deported in the early 1930s—Nava chose to make his characters indigenous people from Guatemala rather than Chicanos with a blended Mexican and American culture. He says this decision was influenced by his research into undocumented communities in Los Angeles, where he came into contact with Mayan refugees from Central America, some of whom didn’t speak Spanish. “I saw these faces of people who were like carved stone stele from ancient Mayan sites,” he says, once again referring to the faces the camera lingers on throughout his film.
“Nobody in this world is more attached to their land than [indigenous] people. Their land is their soul. And they’d been ripped up from their land and now they’re here. I thought, this is the story,” he adds. And indeed, the circumstances that lead Rosa and Enrique to leave their village behind—a property dispute that turns deadly when a paramilitary group tries to force a native community to sell its ancestral land—are not only Shakespearean in scope, but they’re also starkly black-and-white. (“I really wanted people to put yourself in their shoes so that everybody who watched the movie would go, ‘I would do this. I would do the same thing,’” Nava says.) At one point in the film, Enrique puts is plainly: If he is caught by border patrol agents, “they’ll send me back, and I’ll be murdered.” It’s a situation many are still faced with today; in January 2018, The New Yorker reported that more than 60 people had been murdered since the Columbia Journalism School began tracking so-called “deaths by deportation” in 2016.
These life-and-death stakes also complicate our lead characters, who seem at first to be saintly in their suffering. Rosa and Enrique are honest, plainspoken, and generous, which makes them easy targets for an unscrupulous coyote who robs them and abandons them on their first attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Their second attempt is more successful, but perhaps even more horrifying, as they crawl through the rat-infested sewer pipes mentioned above. And so, as Nava points out:
Rosa and Enrique have seen people murdered. He’s seen his father decapitated and hanging in a tree. How many people up here have had that experience?… By the time they get to the United States, they have this epic history, this unbelievable thing that they’ve been through—crawling through rats, watching your father be murdered. So they are innocent to our world in one way, but our world is innocent to them in another. And that’s what our world needs to see.
Rosa’s culture shock is underlined in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, where she and a co-worker watch their upper-class white employer demonstrate how to use her washing machine, the woman repeatedly assuring them “you can see how simple it is” as her instructions get increasingly complicated and absurd. Although El Norte is ultimately a tragic film, Nava’s depiction of the white Angeleno’s self-imposed obliviousness has the satirical bite of a Paul Bartel comedy. And it worked on Nava’s white friends, who he says, before the movie came out, “had no idea what people had gone through to be at their home, taking care of their baby or vacuuming their rugs.”
The American dream Rosa and Enrique have been promised is intrinsically tied to consumer goods—a car! a lawn! a house! new clothes!—and Nava films these aspirational objects under sterile white light that contrasts with the harsh neon pink of the motel sign that hangs outside of their shabby L.A. apartment. The light in El Norte changes throughout our characters’ journey, from the deep rainforest greens and wet blue light of morning in their Mayan hometown to the dusty desert hues of their journey through Mexico. And the cinematography is even more remarkable when you consider that the film was made for less than a million dollars, with a crew of five, under conditions that ranged from makeshift to outright dangerous.
Perhaps the most remarkable technical achievement in El Norte is the fact that the first act of the film was lit entirely with kerosene lanterns and candles, which required some ingenuity from Nava’s tiny crew. Describing his vision of going from a “world of candles” to a “world of electricity,” Nava mentions Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, saying, “Kubrick said, ‘The minute you put in an electric light, it changes the feeling of that light.’” When we point out that Kubrick had a whole crew inventing special lenses to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight, he replies that they used a lens that “wasn’t as fast as the lens [Kubrick] used,” but they also had a new type of film stock that made it easier to shoot in low light. But he does rather modestly concede that it “was not easy to do.”
Near-impossible technical achievements weren’t the only problems Nava and his coterie had on location in El Salvador—where a civil war was going on while they were shooting—and in Mexico, where local governments were not pleased that a film crew was staging scenes of paramilitary violence for American audiences. “You have to understand that the image of the army shooting unarmed indigenous people was too threatening an image for Mexico or Central America,” Nava explains. “They didn’t want that on the screen, because that’s what was happening.” The crew was also denied permission to shoot in impoverished areas of Tijuana, Mexico, for similar reasons. But Nava and his crew shot anyway with hidden cameras, ready to jump back into the van and speed away if the cops drove by. He cites a Mexican expression: “Más vale pedir perdón que pedir permiso,” which roughly translates to, “It’s better to ask pardon, than permission.”
Guerilla shooting isn’t all that uncommon, but a film’s negative being stolen and held for ransom—which actually happened to Nava and his crew when they were filming in the central Mexican state of Morelos—is. That particular incident ended with a midnight exchange of cash for celluloid in a parking lot in Mexico City, which Nava calls “the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had as a filmmaker.” He adds, “We throw the money out in the parking lot, they throw the film out, they drive off, and we leave the country. It was the film [in the canisters], there’s honor among thieves.” He then casually mentions that “there were two occasions, actually, where we were almost killed.” Asked to elaborate, he tells this story:
[The other incident] was in a village in the Maya highlands where we had permission to shoot, but the people who had given us this permission—they didn’t show up. But we went into the church [to shoot] thinking everything was going to be okay. [But] the people of the village, they didn’t think it was okay. They had had somebody come to the village recently and steal some [statues of saints] from the church, and here were strangers coming again! So this thing just went like wildfire. [By the time we were done] they were surrounding our vehicles and they had machetes. It was very scary. But I had left my storyboards in the church… The van is parked on the other side of the plaza, and the plaza is filled with thousands of people… I walked through that crowd and I thought, “Okay, I can’t make eye contact with anybody because that could be it for me.” [Finally I got the storyboards and] I got into the van, and everybody was yelling at me cause they had been rocking the van, and shouting threats, and brandishing machetes. They were like, “Greg, you should’ve left the storyboards,” but the whole movie was on the storyboards, you know? Oh my God, what a crazy scene.
Despite all the odds, El Norte was finished. “It wasn’t a story that anybody wanted to be told, but it was a story that needed to be told,” Nava says, adding that it was their shared sense of purpose that got him and his cast and crew through the tumultuous shoot. “It was a family that made this movie. A dedicated, passionate family,” he says. And now its legacy in the history of American independent cinema is secure, as the film was added to the National Film Registry in 1995. It was also recently restored by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and the Getty Foundation, which is the version of the film that will be screened on Sunday, September 15—the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month.
That presentation is sponsored by Fathom Events, and will include a new introduction by Nava and a new behind-the-scenes featurette with stars Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando touching on the film’s mythological and magical-realist imagery. (We imagine it’ll also cover some of the wild stories Nava told us about the film’s production.) Both of those will be presented in English and in Spanish, and attendees will receive a two-week trial of Spanish-language streaming service Pantaya. Nava also adds that “whatever money I make from [the event] will be donated to the victims of the El Paso massacre.”
Asked what he would like audiences to take away from watching El Norte in 2019, Nava says that he hopes that Americans can look past the political acrimony surrounding immigration to empathize with migrants and “look at their situation with compassion.” “Once you have that empathy and you feel their heart, then you can go to the internet and look up the facts and figures. And I hope people do. But for the story itself, I purposely thought that the most powerful political film you can make is [one that] you don’t make political,” he says, adding, “Our policies must reflect what the true values are of the United States. And that’s not happening now. Coming to see this film, we’ll start that dialogue.”
El Norte will screen on Sunday, September 15 at theaters across America sponsored by Fathom Events. You can check for a theater near you at the Fathom Events website.