Growing up between the cities of San Diego, Calif. and Tijuana, México, filmmaker Gregory Nava saw firsthand the immigration issue that existed between the two neighboring countries. He says the passion he had making his 1983 film, “El Norte,” stemmed from his childhood. Crossing the border three times a week became part of his lifestyle.
Considered by many as one of the greatest films about immigration, “El Norte” tells the story of a brother and sister fleeing persecution in their home country of Guatemala and traveling across México to start a new life in Los Angeles.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, “El Norte” was released on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray late last month. I spoke to Nava about “El Norte,” a movie he considers “more relevant today than when it was made 25 years ago.”
Did you realize when you were making “El Norte” that 25 years later immigration would be such a controversial issue?
I saw [immigration] as part of a pattern. I didn’t think it would ever stop somehow. Now, it has become the greatest migration event of the U.S., even greater than the migration of Europe at the turn of the century. It is something that is changing the lives of everybody in this country and this entire nation.
Do you have faith President Obama can find an answer to immigration reform that will please both sides?
The laws that exist today are inadequate to deal with what we are facing. I believe we cannot begin to come to a solution unless we embrace the humanity of the people that have come here to work. They are like shadows that pervade our society. I made “El Norte” to bring a heart and a soul to those shadows. Until that happens, there will never be any kind of reform that will be meaningful or long-term.
In 1982, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled their country because of the destruction taking place…
And people of the U.S. were unaware of the impact these wars were having on immigration. [Refugees] who came here said they were from México because they didn’t want to be shipped back to their home countries. The statistics said 98 percent of the people in the U.S. illegally were from México, but that was hardly true. I wanted to shed light on that with “El Norte.”
“El Norte” was the youngest film to be listed in the U.S. National Film Registry in 1995. Why do you think it was so important for the Film Registry to recognize the film so quickly? Some films on that list had to wait over 100 years. “El Norte” waited 12.
I think people felt that it was a groundbreaking film. It was dealing with very important subject matter in a way that had never been done before. It had an epic quality and brought the Latin American dream realist storytelling style that was so familiar in novels. It was giving a voice to the voiceless.