Juan (Brandon López) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in The Golden Dream.
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The Golden Dream by Diego Quemada-Díez: Freedom pass

Four young teenagers face violence and desperation on the road to California in this modern road movie with clear echoes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World.

The Golden Dream (12A)
dir: Diego Quemada-Díez

There is nothing new in The Golden Dream but there is also nothing stale. Cinema has not wanted for searching films about the migrant and immigrant experience. This one, which follows a clutch of teenagers inching by bus, boat, foot and boxcar towards the US from Guatemala, has strong echoes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World. The freshness that the first-time director Diego Quemada-Díez and his soulful, non-professional cast bring to the material renders any sense of déjà vu irrelevant. Familiarity is part of the point. Our inbuilt awareness that millions of people endure hardscrabble lives to pursue a better future expands the breadth of what is on-screen: we know this story is but a grain of sand in the Sonoran Desert.

As the film begins, Sara (Karen Martínez) has already made the decision to head for California with her pals Juan (Brandon López) and Samuel (Carlos Chajon). She cuts her hair, binds her breasts, pulls on a baseball cap and christens herself Osvaldo. Why the charade? We’ll find out eventually.

A fourth youngster, Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), attaches himself to the group when they all hitch a ride on the same freight train. Any idealistic expectation of solidarity among the poor and oppressed is scotched by Juan’s hostility to the newcomer. His objections are macho in origin: he sees that Sara is charmed by the faltering mimes Chauk uses in the absence of communicable Spanish. There is also the uncomfortable truth that even those on their uppers will find someone weaker to lash out at. This proves true wherever the friends find themselves. There’s a recurring image of an apprehended figure forced to place his or her hands against a wall at gunpoint. Whether it is a police officer, a bandit or a kidnapper whose finger is on the trigger, the dehumanising process is the same.

If the obstacles faced by the group (the violence of border security guards and gangsters alike, the privations of life on the road) are hardly unexpected, that doesn’t make them any less frightening. Quemada-Díez served on the crew of several Ken Loach films (a detail involving stolen cowboy boots may be a reference to one of those pictures, Bread and Roses). He has inherited from that director many admirable traits, including an ability to elicit relaxed, naturalistic performances from untrained actors and a preference for camerawork that is almost invisible.

Not that the visual aspect is immaterial to him. He pulls off a lyrical and very un-Loach-like shot of a model train wending its way through a snowy artificial landscape. And he brings some complexity to the grandeur of Latin America, all vine-tangled train tracks and sculpted deserts, which is undercut by the injustices that take place on its soil – just as the beauty of the toasted-orange skies is rendered fragile, even treacherous, by the crimes committed beneath them. A piano motif provides a bare-bones lament for this process of degradation, with a sorrowful cello and plaintive folk music taking over in moments of extreme crisis.

The political content of The Golden Dream is implicit in the film’s human element without ever coming to dominate it. Quemada-Díez loves his characters and is enthusiastic in coaxing joy from their prematurely aged and scowling faces but he doesn’t soft-pedal their fates. The irony of the title I was prepared for. The bluntness of the vision was more of a shock.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle