Interview: Diego Quemada-Diez, writer/director of ‘The Golden Dream’

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Diego Quemada-Diez’s debut feature, The Golden Dream, is a drama about three Guatemalan teenagers trying illegally to cross the Mexican border into the US. Donnchadh Tiernan spoke to the film’s writer/director about his award-winning debut.

Diego Quemada-Diez is humble man. From the two conversations we had, around the time of the Irish release of his stunning, multiple award-winning debut The Golden Dream, no one adjective rushes more prominently to my mind than that.

Heralded on the festival circuit as a Ken Loach protégé (with no small thanks to a glowing quote from the English maestro on a circulating poster), Diego has, over the course of almost three decades of lower-tier film-work (often on extravagantly budgeted projects), forged himself the opportunity to cast the die on his own original vision chronicling the arduous journey from Guatemala to America through Mexico of three teenagers, in a grandiose bid to escape poverty.

The film is based on several hundred actual accounts of similar experiences of hardship in crossing from Latin America into the US and anyone who sees it will agree it may wear its influences proudly but this is the work of no one’s protégé. An extraordinarily hard worker, Diez is a poetically minded humanist and a life-long cinema-enthusiast to boot. Indeed, several times during our chat the dialogue deviated to the works of other directors (some he held in high esteem, some not so much), and his humility shone through, particularly when I announced The Golden Dream to have become my favourite of the Cannes 2013 screeners, itself having recently overtaken Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin in my esteem and he responded “What? No! Thank you but A Touch of Sin was simply incredible; the most amazing film I saw at Cannes.”

Born in Burgos, Northern Spain, in 1969, Diego recalls wanting to become a director from a very young age. “I think I was four when I first saw the film Shane. I remember I cried alot at the end credits. It was very powerful and I wanted to be a part of it.” From his teenage years Diego began making moves to become a part of the film industry, opting for the hands-dirty, sleeves-rolled approached favoured by many up-and-comers for whom film-school is not an immediate option. “My family thought I was crazy and they couldn’t afford it so I decided to take whatever jobs I could to get on film sets and work my way up the ladder.”

In 1995 he worked on the set of Ken Loach’s Spanish civil war epic Land and Freedom. The encounter had a profound effect on Diego, who outlines the experience as paramount in the way he would go on to make film. “I just admired the simplicity of the way he shot and the way he allowed things to happen on camera. There was no tension on set and everything was unfolding naturalistically. I knew from watching him how I wanted to make films and how I could shape my films … I’m very grateful to Ken for his help in promoting this film and am honoured by his reaction to it.”

Not long after completing his work on Land and Freedom he emigrated to America, seeing it as the next logical step on his filmmaking journey: “My mother had just passed. I had known I would eventually go there and afterwards I felt it was time.”

Over the course of the following decade the films he worked on as a cameraman resonate very uneasily with both the structure and shooting style of The Golden Dream. “I worked on a lot of action films. Gone in 60 Seconds was one. I worked on Man on Fire as a cameraman. I got to read the script before working on that one, which was very good. The final film is about as far away from my way of shooting as you can get but that is just the way Tony [Scott] liked to shoot”. A consistent series of these, what Diego refers to as, “odd jobs”, allowed him to finance four years of film school as he continued to develop toward the fully realised helmsman he is today. Hearing his story, one cannot help but recognize the experience as not a league from the journeys of the teenagers in his debut feature, if less fraught with calamity.

“My time at the beginning was very difficult. I even got fake papers for a time but eventually got a lawyer to help me join a union and source real papers.” This experience fostered the development of empathy in Diego for victims of the American myths of instant wealth and prosperity. It was this, alongside a wealth of Latin folk music chronicling the emigration experience, that inspired Diego to write The Golden Dream, its title itself adapted from a 1983 Mexican song (‘La Jaula de Oro’)  lamenting the loss of one’s homeland in favour of the financial opportunity offered by America.

“The idea came to me about eight years ago, hearing the many Latin American folk songs that chronicle the journey [of an illegal immigrant] to America and I wanted to explore these sorts of narratives on film.”

“In order to construct the story I interviewed 600 illegal immigrants from South America to the United States, which was almost always incredible. I once interviewed a kid who could show me the tunnel he’d gotten through into America the day before. He compared it to a concentration camp; to get into the most heavily guarded country on earth. It’s like escaping into a prison, which is another reason I linked the song to the story.”

“I screen-tested over 6,000 actors for the roles in the film, almost all from disadvantaged areas. Ghettos. The guys we ended up with, that we chose, all came from artistic backgrounds. Rodolfo was a street artist, and Brandon a hip-hop dancer. None of them had ever acted before but their art backgrounds helped them engage more the way I’d like them to. Emotionally. Also, because we shot in sequence and didn’t give out scripts until the day of shooting they were encouraged to act and react as naturally as possible.” A prompt viewing of The Golden Dream is essential to fully understand just how outstanding a feat this is, and indeed what a gritty shoot it must have been.

“In particular the shoot got tough by the US border, which of course we were not allowed to cross. There was a lot of things present that should not appear in the shot and so we had to work out every detail before we shot. The way we ended up shooting it was very complicated. The toughest days filming took place there.”

The film itself can be quite stressful to watch, almost like the frustration of a pantomime whose plot won’t unfold the way we want it to with unfathomably higher consequences. Ken Loached surmised his response saying, “The struggle of the innocent is caught with precision. And it is clear their real enemy is beyond their reach or comprehension, but nonetheless very present in the film.” I would go as far as to say he shoots like Hemingway wrote, with the girth of the film’s theme evolving organically in the brain of the viewer.

Such praise is water off the ever-so-humble back of Diego. He has promised Film Ireland that his next film, though not yet written, is another story he has carried with him for several years, and assures us he will commence official pre-production shortly after he finishes promotion on The Golden Dream.

A firm film-fan, Diego Quemada-Diez is the kind of enthused filmmaker the form welcomes, seeing each shot as an experiment or, to put a more romantic spin on it, an adventure. Summarising his experience making his terrific debut he says, “I just wanted to take the stories I heard in these songs and read in different poetry and tell them with images and see what difference I could make in their telling; to put these stories in touch with the medium of film was always my goal.”

The Golden Dream is currently screening in at the IFI

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