In the new film, Desierto, Gael García Bernal plays a Mexican man crossing the U.S. border through the expansive, hostile terrain of the Southwestern desert. Bernal’s character, Moises, and the rest of his group are forced to make the journey on foot after their transport truck breaks down, which puts them on an intersecting course with a disgruntled border resident named Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Sam is dissatisfied with law enforcement’s efforts to stem the tide of Mexican citizens unlawfully coming to America, so when he spots Moises’s group, the sadistic vigilante starts gunning them down like animals in a herd. A tragic game of cat and mouse ensues.
Desierto is fiction, but Moises and Sam could be considered stand-ins for the two sides in the international conversation around immigration. Nationalist figures like Donald Trump in the U.S. and U.K.I.P. in Britain have furthered their political agendas by promising to lock down their countries’ borders, and Trump has even campaigned on the explicit promise of a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. if he wins the presidential election. Bernal, meanwhile, has spent his Desierto press tour speaking up about immigrants' rights, and has called Trump’s remarks about Mexicans “closed-minded and fucking ignorant.” With the film raising issues so close to his heart, Vulture checked in with the actor to talk about the value of film as a means of protest, the importance of working with Mexican filmmakers (including director Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso), and the “horror of hate speech.”
Did the fact that this movie was being made my Mexican filmmakers affect your decision to participate?
Yeah. When Jonás approached me I had already had the fortune of working on a few projects related to these issues. There’s a group of short-film documentaries called Los Invisibiles, which I did for Amnesty International, and also a feature film called Chi é Dayani Cristal? So this gave me the opportunity to be able to portray the character and propel the story with a lot of ownership as well.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a terrifying villain who is literally hunting your character and the other border-crossers as they make their way from Mexico to the United States. What is the character of Sam to you? Is Sam an evil man? Is he a composite of a bunch of different things or is he just meant to be one character?
He’s a manifestation of the horror of hate speech. I think that’s what he is. He is the monster in the equation of how migration is being talked about. The monster is the hate narrative that exists. The heroes are the migrants.
What is it that you hope people will empathize with most about this film and the role that you play?
What we wanted to do is depict the consequences of the narrative — that exists not only in the United States but throughout the world — that criminalizes migrants. We are talking about this issue in the wrong way, absolutely. We are criminalizing the wrong group of people, you know? Instead of understanding this as a natural phenomenon, something that needs to exist in the world in order for humans to exist — for life to exist on Earth — we are criminalizing it. And so many people are getting a lot of profit out of that criminalization. Not only traffickers, not only corrupt institutions, but also, nowadays, presidential candidates. So it is horrific, the situation, and we wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of allowing this narrative of hate to exist.
As a performer with a platform, do you feel you have a responsibility in this dialogue, or do you just feel individually compelled to participate in it?
It’s a mixture of both, I think. Because in a way I am incredibly privileged to be able to decide where I want to live. It’s a huge privilege that the majority of humanity doesn’t have. So with that privilege and that fortune, I have to be responsible. I have to highlight these issues and if I don’t incorporate the responsibility, then I don’t feel the necessity to do things. Doing a film these days, it takes such effort. It is such an act of faith that, if you don’t do it and you don’t go for it, we might as well just have a coffee.
Just be casual with it!
Exactly, because it is not worth doing anything just for entertainment’s sake. And we have to be responsible with the freedom that we have to talk about the common good, to raise issues, to put out there the problematic and to reflect on it. So I have to incorporate both what I feel, but also the responsibility that I feel, the fortune of having the life that I’ve had.
This year feels like one we will look back on and really be able to say things broke open in the public discourse. But we are at a time when more communities have voices than ever before and are able to be heard, while at the same time there is institutional pushback by forces that feel threatened by a changing of the guard and an opening of the world. So what do you feel the role of film is in being a progressive voice?
That’s an interesting dilemma, because films cannot be the sole emissary. I would claim that films should not say ‘This film is done to change the world.’ That’s too much responsibility. Not only that, films that are just about that are not good, you know? A film also has to explore the ambiguities. A film that actually transcends is a film that highlights the hypocrisy, that shows the problematic in a new light, and that gives things a spin. But there is not a formula for it. But what place do they occupy right now? It is very hard to say. We are living in a fragmented period where there are many aspects of many voices that are there, and only time shows us if a film transcends or not.
This interview has been condensed and edited.