Daniel Sawka has directed one of the most important films airing on HBO right now. It is a must-see for every American, whether you’re someone who barely has enough energy to gloss over news headlines or the kind of person who skips out on social events to attend human rights rallies.
Icebox is Sawka’s first feature length film, telling the story of unaccompanied children who are held in a migrant detention center somewhere in Arizona. Icebox has already received a nomination for Best Movie Made for Television at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Awards this month, an honor that suggests it might make an appearance at the 2019 Oscars.
But that’s not why Icebox should be on your queue for a night of HBO-and-chill. Quite simply, Icebox is hands down the most human story you will see about Latin American immigration and migrant life at the southern border.
The Individual Toll of Migration
Sawka’s film was initially released as a 27-minute short in 2016, and was shortlisted by the Academy for Best Short Film in 2017. Sawka then worked with indie producer Gracie Films to develop Icebox into the feature length movie, which was ultimately picked up by HBO in 2018. It finally made its television debut in early December.
According to stats cited by NPR, nearly 200 unaccompanied minors, mostly teenage boys from Central America, cross the border into the United States each day. About 15,000 children are currently being housed in migrant detention facilities. Many of them will spend upwards of an entire month of their young lives in custody. These numbers make clear that we can’t afford to look away from the pressing issues driving migration from Latin America and how these migrants are treated once they cross the U.S. border.
What might be less clear to us as we read these news stories from the comfort of our homes is the intensely personal toll that this takes on each and every life that passes through this system of confinement.
Here, Icebox does what most news reports can’t by evoking a documentary-like urgency to what it’s like to be a child fleeing the violence of their home country, alone. The protagonist of the film is a 12-year-old Honduran boy named Óscar Fernandez who is trying to escape the deadly reach of a local drug gang. In the opening scenes, gang members have him pinned to the ground in order to tattoo the roman numerals for the number “17” on his prepubescent chest. Knowing that he — and the whole Fernandez family — are in danger if Óscar stays, his parents reluctantly send him away with smugglers to meet his uncle in Arizona.
The lead role of Óscar is played by Anthony Gonzalez, the star of 2017’s Coco. Gonzalez deftly navigates the emotions and challenges that his character experiences on his journey north. As we might expect, he encounters fear, loneliness, and exhaustion along the way. But we also see him discover bravery, wit, and joy, even in the barren confines of the detention facility.
(Side note: In case you haven’t gotten around to seeing Coco, put that film on your list too even if you’re a “grown-up;” Pixar’s Coco features a star-studded, all-Latino cast, is lush with Dia de los Muertos lore and tradition, and is quite possibly one of the sweetest, most honestmovies to have ever been made.)
A Peek Into the Reality of Migrant Detention Centers
The spare, utilitarian conditions of the migrant detention center that houses Óscar — chain link fences, space blankets, hard concrete floors, porta potties, and the cold warehouse temperatures at night that give the film its name — is very real. Sawka’s depiction of the migrant shelters housing unaccompanied minors is perhaps the most accurate glimpse that the international public has into the highly-guarded facilities. His team wanted to get the set as close as possible to the real thing, running the design past NGO workers and immigration lawyers who were familiar with the detention centers.
The characters in the film, while fictional, also aim to accurately depict the realities of the human experience in the detention facilities. That goes for the detainees as well as the guards and other staff. “[Every] character is based on several people and stories and events,” Sawka explained in an interview with Cinema Without Borders.
Violence in Honduras
The reality in Óscar’s Honduras is a bloody one. A 2018 report published by Human Rights Watch noted that though there has been a downturn in violent crimes over the past few years, the country still has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
The situation in Honduras is complex. There’s plenty awry in their punitive system that exacerbates crime in the country. Corruption is rampant among government officials; violent police officers are rarely convicted for their crimes against humanity; and in 2017 the President of Honduras launched an initiative that would allow the courts to try 12-year-olds as adults rather than as juveniles, which unto itself is a human rights violation. To be sure, it is not unusual for a gang member to be as young as twelve years old.
However, as we discover in Icebox, children are forced into gangs at an early age through the threat of violence. Before Óscar’s mother sends him away, she implores to him, as well as to the audience, “Whatever they did to you. Whatever they made you do. It’s not your fault.”
The Central American caravan — the basis of a short-lived scare that the current administration posed to the American public preceding midterm elections — originated in San Pedro Sula, one of the deadliest cities in Honduras. The caravan started out as a modest group of less than 200 people, snowballing to 1,000 within a day, and eventually was comprised of several thousand migrants by the time it reached the Mexican border in late October. Latin Americans who had joined the caravan were reported to be fleeing danger, poverty, and corruption in their home countries.
A Personal and Political Exploration of the Migrant Experience
Sawka is the son and grandson of political refugees, though he isn’t one himself. His father came to the Sweden as an unaccompanied minor from Poland, arriving in a foreign land without any friends, family, or language to ground him. When Sawka came across a stunning photo of children housed in a migrant detention center in 2014, he decided to explore the migrant journey of his forebears through contemporary events and voices. “You have a new life now. Forget everything,” Óscar’s mom tells him in the film, encouraging him to make his own way in his new life. It’s easy to imagine this as a mantra for the lone migrant experience.
When Sawka first began working on Icebox, it was his thesis project at the American Film Institute. At the time, the general public had little awareness of the existence of facilities that held unaccompanied minors; these shelters were organized during the Obama administration and were not surrounded by the high-profile headlines that were generated by the Trump administration’s policy of forced parent-child separation and the endless refrain of “Build the wall.” In 2014 Sawka had to convince people around him that the photos were legitimate. “I actually had to tell people that, no, this is all real. This is all happening right now,” Sawka said in an interview with Salon.com. “I had to show them pictures.”
Gonzalez, too, channeled a personal and political narrative through his portrayal of Oscar; though Gonzalez himself was born in Los Angeles, his parents had made the dangerous journey to the United States from Guatemala. “I was proud to be doing this role because I can teach so many about what people go through and what kids go through, especially since my parents went through that,” he shared in an interview with Remezcla, regarding his parents’ border crossing experience.
Blame the System, Not the Players
Notably, the only “bad guy” in Icebox is the system that victimizes everyone into doing “bad” things. While the reality is that there have been countless reports of abuse and neglect within the confines of the detention centers — Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old from Guatemala, recently lost her life in U.S. custody after not receiving prompt medical attention for dehydration, shock, and liver failure, followed shortly thereafter by the death of another 8-year-old Guatemalan child — Sawka made a point to avoid scapegoating individual characters as a way to emphasize that the system is at fault. The system is inherently flawed and inhumane. As long as violence and poverty exist in Central and South America, migrants will continue to cross into the U.S. to seek refuge. It is our duty to responsibly manage this influx of asylum seekers rather than trying to shut it out.
A federal judge recently blocked a mid-2018 decision by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to deny asylum to people fleeing domestic or gang-related violence. The trial was brought to the judge by the ACLU who sought to uphold the United States’ commitment to offering protection to people whose lives are in danger.
Prior to this ruling, only asylum seekers who were members of a “particular social group” would be considered. Sessions didn’t clearly define who this would include, but he was clear about who wasn’t allowed asylum — for example, women escaping their abusive partners or children, like Oscar, who are forced into gangs — even if the refugees’ fears were credible.
Great changes to the system happen at the top, but a movie like Icebox insists to the audience that individuals have the power to effect change too.