'Desierto' Director Jonas Cuaron Says Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric is "Dangerous"

Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

The thriller from Jonas Cuaron, who co-wrote Gravity with his father Alfonso Cuaron, stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an illegal immigrant who tries to cross over from Mexican into the U.S., but run afoul of a man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who has taken up border patrol duties in his own racist hands.

"Migrants always become a very easy scapegoat," says the 'Desierto' director of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump.

Jonas Cuaron has finally come back down to earth from the out of this world success of Gravity, and he’s landed in the desert.

Cuaron co-wrote the best picture Oscar nominee with his father, Alfonso Cuaron, before returning to the immigration drama Desierto, which Cuaron says inspired the space odyssey.

Desierto premiered in Toronto and was in competition in Marrakech, where the director spoke with The Hollywood Reporter.

Working on Gravity forced Jonas to take a five-year break from the script, but he continued to scout deserts across the globe for inspiration and understanding of the unforgiving ecosystem depicted in the film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. As soon as he was free from Gravity, Jonas came back to the idea of men struggling in the barren landscape that had been percolating his head for eight years.

Jonas first thought of the idea when he was in Tucson, Ariz., for a festival after his first feature, 2007’s Year of the Nail. There, he first saw the impact of migration on a community and the poverty that impacts immigrants and natives alike. It coincided with politicians upping the anti-immigration ante and the state’s tough law allowing police to seek out and detain suspected illegal immigrants and summarily deport them.

The film became a migration drama influenced by '70s cinema. “I decided it would be an interesting way to talk about the subject through genre because it allows you to not preach to the converted,” said Jonas. Jonas wanted to turn the tables on American films, in which the villains are often foreigners or the "other."  

“That was a big part of why I cast Gael. In Hollywood, we are used to seeing stars running away from evil foreigners, so I was interested in flipping that scheme,” said Jonas. “All this rhetoric of hatred and fear of the other comes from seeing migrants as this faceless swarm and to me, it was interesting to give them the face of a recognizable star like Gael.”

Added Jonas, “For many audiences suddenly seeing the migrant as the hero and the American as the villain, I don’t know if will change opinions, but at the very least confront them.”

For Jonas, who grew up in Mexico and the U.S., a politician like former reality star Donald Trump, who has campaigned on the promise to build a fortress-like wall between the two countries, is simply a symptom of larger trends.

“Because it’s an election year and migrants always become a very easy scapegoat,” he says. “What is very scary is not so much the rhetoric, but what the rhetoric can lead to. You have people in many countries that are in a desperate situation and if they keep being bombarded by this rhetoric they are going to end up taking the wrong actions.”

Jonas continued, “It’s not just him, it’s also so many others. … That rhetoric is not only in the U.S., it’s also in Europe and England and we’ve been here before — it leads to dangerous places. To me, it’s a little bit scary. And it’s not only politicians, you see it in media also.”

For a scene in which Morgan’s character listens to talk radio, Cuaron was told in test audiences that it seemed too far-fetched, but he was using actual quotes from popular hosts.

Bernal, who has made documentaries and extensively researched migration, assisted on final drafts of the script. “Part of the reason I chose Gael was that he had done various documentaries about migration so he was very knowledgeable about that subject matter,” said Cuaron. “The characters and the world of the migrants were very shaped by research that he helped me do.”

Following the big budget production of Gravity, working on Desierto was a return to his roots. “All those years I spent scouting deserts I really grew to love that ecosystem,” he says.  “But my producers hated it. The locations were beautiful — but full of snakes.”