Acclaimed immigration film ‘El Norte’ returns, more relevant than ever

Filmmaker Gregory Nava was still early in his career when he made his mark with “El Norte,” the movie that made its debut in 1984 to rave reviews, sparked a national conversation about the situation in Central America and the realities of migrating to the U.S. and more importantly, influenced legislation at the time.

Thirty-five years later, the story and the issues seem just as relevant.

The movie, which earned Nava and his co-screenwriter Anna Thomas an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, follows the tortured paths of two siblings (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando) escaping to the United States from their village in Guatemala as the country is torn by civil war.

To commemorate the film’s anniversary and the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences restored the film ahead of a special showing taking place at some 200 movie theaters nationwide on Sept. 15. The anniversary showing will also be followed with the release of the restored version of the movie on digital formats by Lionsgate.

The movie depicts the hellish circumstances before, during and after the crossing to the U.S. On their journey north, the brother and sister face murderous soldiers, swindlers, and in one harrowing sequence, a horrifying crawl through sewer tunnels filled with live rats — a scene the actors endured without stunt doubles.

Moreover, the pair realize that being in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee wealth or safety. The two have to navigate a foreign culture and an unknown language, and they’re constantly trying to evade immigration officials and find work in precarious places like sweatshops or the back of a restaurant.

Despite a shoestring budget and small crew, Nava’s filmmaking stood out; he went to treacherous locations and once had to smuggle film reels out of Mexico to ensure his story was rooted in the true experiences of those fleeing for their lives.

Ahead of the Fathom Events nationwide screening of the restored “El Norte,” Nava spoke with NBC News about his experience filming the ambitious project and why he hopes new generations will seek out his movie.

Here’s a condensed version of NBC News’ conversation with Nava.

What was it like to see a movie like “El Norte” onscreen in the 80s?

It was overwhelming, which surprised us because it was just a very small independent movie.

It got huge, tremendous reviews, it was nominated for the Academy Award, it played for a year in Los Angeles and New York. Both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan mentioned the movie in their presidential debates! Wow.

It helped create an environment in which temporary protective status was granted to refugees from Central America, which saved thousands of lives.

It’s my proudest accomplishment as a filmmaker, to have made a movie that had that kind of impact. It was part of the positive environment around immigration that helped pass the Simpson Mazzoli Immigration Act in 1986.

What inspired you to make a story about Central American refugees?

Everything that’s in “El Norte” is a true story based on something that really happened to somebody. I did hundreds of interviews with undocumented [people] and with Border Patrol guys.

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Monica Castillo