Ramsess Letrado Shines in Ramon Hamilton’s “Smuggled” (2012)THE BOTTOM LINE: A must-see film for anyone who wants a glimpse of the truth about the experience of immigrants who come to the U.S. without benefit of documentation.
FRISCO KID’s Rating:
Direction: Ramon Hamilton
Cinematography: Ramon Hamilton
Officer Salmon (Marchbank), an off-duty detective in Southern California, observes a nine year-old boy, Miguel (Letrado), shoplifting food from a convenience store. After apprehending Miguel and taking him to the police station, Salmon realizes that he is an illegal immigrant. With the help of Officer Barerra (Marcial), who speaks Spanish, he hopes to coax Miguel to tell his story so that he can be reunited with his parents (rather than turned over to ICE and deported). Eventually, Miguel reveals (through a series of flashbacks) the story of the frightening and dangerous journey he and his mother Hilaria (Bon) recently made. In an attempt to be reunited with his father, who went ahead of his family to the United States four years earlier, they are smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border in a secret compartment in the baggage area of a bus. They endure severe physical and emotional stresses (including Hilaria’s struggle to manage her diabetes during the trip), but also have an intense mother-son experience. The unforeseen events of this journey change Miguel’s life forever. Ultimately, Salmon must decide whether to aid Miguel or to turn him over to ICE.
According to Cristina Costantini of Fusion.net, this eighty-minute “microbudget” film attempts to answer the question of “why immigrants cross the border.” Writer/director Hamilton told Costantini, “I hope the film will help people understand why immigrants come here. There’s such a misconception that people are coming here so they can mooch off the system, or something like that. . . . But I hope this can show all the awful things people go through to get here and have the opportunities we take for granted everyday.”
NBC Latino reported that the story-line of Smuggled derives from the life experience of Hamilton, whose ethnicity includes Dominican heritage. Earlier in his life, he co-owned a construction company in Boston. “One of the employees came here illegally,” Hamilton told NBC Latino. “He came smuggled in the back of a bus. He was there for well over 24 hours in a standing up position, and he couldn’t move. That’s really intense to go for a day essentially in a coffin. It makes you think what would make him go through that sacrifice?”
In 2012, Smuggled won five awards at film festivals around the world, including Best Dramatic Feature at the Mexico International Film Festival. The film is Hamilton’s second independent feature film. He is a co-founder of Think Ten Media Group, the film production group that produced Smuggled. In 2005, he also founded the Santa Clarita Valley Film Festival with the purpose of setting up a forum in which to showcase quality independent films from his community. In addition to directing, Hamilton teaches the art of filmmaking to young students. According to the official Smuggled website, he has worked with
LA’s BEST, the largest after-school provider for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, a unique high school in East LA. Through these programs, he empowers youth to create their own media projects, helps them understand the power of media including how media influences viewers, and mentors youth as they create their own projects, often focused on social change and issues in their own communities.
Although Smuggled is a “microbudget” film, it shows that a director can do a lot with a little, particularly if the cast and crew are talented. Talent is not something that this movie lacks. Letrado and Bon, who play the scenes that are at the heart of the story, are utterly convincing as a mother and son who clearly have a close relationship and who have the faith necessary to endure what they must experience to reunite their family. The set on which most of their bus scenes take place is an unadorned box, but this is exactly the type of environment in which real immigrants have and continue to come to the U.S. Their meager belongings and lack of sanitary conditions are the rule, not the exception. The complication of Hilaria’s diabetic condition is also realistic, underscoring the fact that real people with real difficulties take the risk of emigrating to the U.S. under such conditions. The family traditions that they share, such as shown in the prayer scene and in the scene in which Hilaria recounts for Miguel how she met his father, emphasize the humanity of immigrants who are often painted with a broad brush when described in media accounts.
I am particularly impressed with Letrado’s performance in this film. According to NBC Latino, Hamilton related that
it was a challenge to find the perfect boy to play lead role, because there was specific criteria he had to meet. The boy had to be, or look, Latino, be able to speak fluent Spanish without an accent, and be able to perform the intense emotional scenes . . . . Ramses Letrado was the 3rd or 4th person he saw. “The look of fear and desperation was just amazing,” says Hamilton about the 10-year-old who got the part playing the 9-year-old lead. “We brought him for a call back and the chemistry worked.”
Although the scenes with Marchbank and Marcial are relatively weak in comparison to those with Bon, Letrado carries them with his portrayal of a scared but brave boy who is trying to follow his mother’s wishes while protecting her and his father at the same time. These scenes also show the ambivalence of law enforcement officers, who are torn between aiding and protecting immigrants and following the dictates of the law. Officer Salmon’s final decision on Miguel’s fate might surprise the viewer, but it is based on Hamilton’s extensive research for this movie.
According to the official Smuggled website, Hamilton is currently in post-production on a feature-length documentary, Underdogs: The Story of a Successful Public School. He is also developing his next project, Seekers, which “tells the story of four children on a cross-country adventure as they seek to reunite one boy with his mother who has been deported. This film highlights the reality facing 5,000-6,000 children who are in U.S. foster care (each year) because a parent has been deported.” The quality of this project attracted Academy Award-winning producer Jonathan Sanger (whose credits include Vanilla Sky, Mission Impossible II, and The Elephant Man), who is Seekers‘ Executive Producer.
Listen to a KTEP interview with Hamilton to hear more about Smuggled.
Film Facts (via IMDB)
- MPAA Rating: unrated
- Languages: English and Spanish (English subtitles available)
- Runtime: 80 minutes
- Color: Color
Disclosure: FRISCO KID received free access to a screener copy of Smuggled in exchange for a fair and honest review.