Unlike some inspiring immigration-themed dramas including A Better Life and Under the Same Moon, co-writer and director Jonás Cuarón decided he wanted to take on the issue in a much different, more instinctive way. In Desierto, Cuarón, son of Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), tells an intense story about a group of Mexican immigrants facing a life-or-death situation as they try to cross into the U.S. on foot.

During their trek, the men and women pass through the crosshairs of Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a merciless, racist and unhinged vigilante who is hell bent on killing as many Mexicans as he can before they make it to the border. This includes Moises (Gael García Bernal), a father risking everything to get back to his young son in California.

Bernal and Cuarón talked to us about the message behind the film and the current immigration debate during this presidential election.


On whether films should just entertain or provide something to think about

Jonás Cuarón: It is definitely an entertaining, thrilling experience, but the reason I did it is because I’ve lived in the U.S. for the past 15 years and I’ve seen this phenomenon start with these anti-immigration laws and this rhetoric against the migrants, the foreigners, “the others.” In that sense, this film is a cautionary tale about where our society can end up if we keep promoting all this hatred.

Gael García Bernal: The main motivation was also to portray our biggest nightmare, which is the consequences of somebody pulling the trigger by validating all of the narrative that exists of fear and hatred against other people.

On making an action-thriller about immigration

JC: Partly why I wanted to engage this narrative through a genre is because I wanted to connect with an audience in a visceral way and not in an intellectual way. I wanted to do that because I feel this certain subject matter is not debatable. Right now we live in a moment where everything is being debated. There are certain actions like [Sam’s] actions in this movie — his hatred — that are just not debatable.

desierto gael with gun

On how immigration is being debated this election cycle

GGB: The problem is that there’s a narrative being constructed in complete fallacies and lies, which says that migrants are bad people. That is a complete and utter invention of a fascist, racist mentality. From any community, migrants are the most good-willing [people]. They just want to get a better future, not only for them but for their people and for their community.

This is a fact. It is not a point of view of deception. It’s actually what migrants have done everywhere in the world throughout history. We all come from migrants. We know migrants are good. There is a very constructed narrative to hate foreigners and that’s something that definitely needs to change in order to tackle the important issue of migration.

On deporting 12 million undocumented Mexican immigrants back to Mexico

GGB: There’s a movie about that!

JC: Yeah, A Day Without a Mexican.

GGB: That’s not going to happen, of course. I don’t live in the United States, but I’m curious to ask people who live [in the U.S.], especially those from Mexican origin and background, how much change they’ve seen since all this hate speech has been taking place. I think there’s been a lot of damage that has already been done. I would like to inform myself and ask if they see a difference in how it has been for them day to day and how they’re perceived. It’s not only hate speech that is creating this but also the silence. We [have] a short-term, politics mentality that only [has] electoral motivations. What’s very sad is the fear of “the other” is the easiest way to pool votes and to put people into an action that will naturally lead to a disaster.

Desierto opens in US theaters on October 14, 2106.