Jonás Cuarón on DESIERTO

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he laid down the groundwork with his particular brand of bigotry by claiming, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems. … They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards, and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

Yet, these heartless words represent a terrifying portion of Americans, particularly those who think they are above the law and can take it into their own hands. A horrifying reality brilliantly dramatized in Jonás Cuarón’s first film as director, Desierto.

“Ten years ago, I was traveling in Arizona, and I started seeing all these anti-immigration laws happening and this rhetoric of hatred towards foreigners,” Cuarón said in 2016. “I became very interested in that subject matter [and] I figured it would be interesting to talk about that … but through a genre film.”

Desierto revolves around a group of Mexican migrants (with Gael García Bernal as a leader of sorts) crossing the U.S. border, while a vicious vigilante (played with evil relish by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hunts them down one-by-one in the desert.

Much like Sam Fuller, Ida Lupino, and Steven Spielberg, Cuarón realized that genre films not only make political and social commentary more palatable to a wider audience it also makes them accessible. A chance re-watch of Spielberg’s Duel—a bare-bones movie about a tanker truck terrorizing a helpless commuter for no apparent reason—unlocked something in Cuarón’s mind.

“It’s such a simple narrative, just a truck chasing a car,” Cuarón said. “By being so simple, it becomes so universal. When I watched [Duel] in high school, and I was being bullied, the truck represented my bullies. Later in life, [Duel] represented something else. You can project your own fears.”

While Desierto benefits from topicality, it is sparse enough to apply to struggles beyond U.S.-Mexico border relations. Cuarón points out that the movie has played well in Europe because of similar issues with migration, hatred, and xenophobia. Topics that presumed political leaders in this country, and elected ones elsewhere, have used to incite violence toward “the other.” Asking a movie to reverse this is a tall order, but it’s a step that filmmakers need to take.

“I don’t think 10 years ago I knew who Trump was,” Cuarón said. “I took so long with the film, Gael constantly joked at me, ‘Look, by the time you are done with the movie, it’s not going to be relevant anymore.’

“The sad thing is, a couple of months before the movie opened in Toronto [in 2015], my wife—who’s from California—shows me this video where I was introduced to Trump, and now I’m seeing his race for the Republican seat, and he did it by saying the worst things you can think about Mexicans. Sadly, I realized not only was [Desierto] relevant, but it was more relevant than ever.”

Filmmaker Jonás Cuarón and programmer Ernie Quiroz speaking at the closing night of Denver Film Society’s Cinelatino in 2016. Photos by Jason Dewitt.

Desierto is available to stream at Hulu. A version of this interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 10, “A cautionary tale abut hate.”