When Daniel Sawka began making "Icebox" he had to convince people child migrant detention was real

Salon talks to Daniel Sawka, whose feature debut follows a Honduran boy fleeing violence into a cold justice system

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 6, 2018 5:00PM (EST)

Jermaine Washington, Anthony Gonzalez, Dylan Kenin in "Icebox" (Karen Kuehn/HBO)
Jermaine Washington, Anthony Gonzalez, Dylan Kenin in "Icebox" (Karen Kuehn/HBO)

The first glimpse “Icebox” provides of Óscar (Anthony Gonzalez, star of “Coco”) shows him thrashing as gang members hold him down and tattoo their gang insignia across his chest. But we hear Óscar first; his screams cut above the buzz of the needle as it drills into his pre-pubescent flesh.

Violently the men curse at him to stop struggling and with equal force, he refuses. It’s not enough. The ink, forced into his flesh, forever marks him as a member of the gang that has killed his schoolmates and terrorized his community.

This also means that when the 12-year-old Honduran boy crosses the border dividing Mexico and the U.S., he’ll prove the right-wing accusations about the so-called “migrant invasion” to be true. Technically Óscar is a gang member, but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.  Óscar’s only desire is to attend school. But the gangsters and their disregard for human life make that impossible.

That means even if he had no choice in his gang affiliation, even if being returned to his home country means death, it doesn’t matter. This little boy is a criminal, the realization of American fears.

“Icebox,” premiering Friday at 8 p.m. on HBO, is the debut feature from writer and director Daniel Sawka, and it unfolds as if it were based upon headlines written a month ago. In truth, Sawka’s story is an expansion of a short film released in 2016 that served as his master’s thesis project for the American Film Institute. But Sawka’s interest in this topic originated long before that, and for very personal reasons.

“My father came as an unaccompanied minor,” he told Salon. “He was in his late teens, and he came as political refugee from Sweden. That was in ‘68.”

As Sawka describes it, his father’s situation was much like Óscar’s: he immigrated alone, not knowing the language or anyone, and he was placed into the system. “I would say a much friendlier system compared to what we see today. And his parents before him had to migrate, and their parents before them.”

“So I was kind of the first person in a line of people who didn't have to migrate,” he continued, “and it was something that we talked about a lot about at home, the idea of displacement, or being forced to run or hide or be at the mercy of the system or the people that took you in.”

Sawka originally intended to make his master’s thesis film about his father’s experience. That was before he came across an image from inside one of the detention centers in 2014.

"It was just one of those things that you kind of stop everything you're doing and you just have to find out more,” he said, adding that he had no idea such places even existed. “I thought that there had been some type of earthquake or a civil war somewhere. And then I read that the picture was taken just days before in Arizona, which was basically a ten-hour drive from where I was sitting. I just couldn't believe it.”

He was far from alone in his unawareness about the detention centers for migrant children sitting on our southern border. Indeed, Sawka recalls that even though the subject he was documenting began to come up more frequently in the public sphere, he recalls that when he first began talking about his project, many people though the short was a work of dystopian science fiction, or apocalyptic futurist view of what migration.

“I actually had to tell people that, no, this is all real. This is all happening right now. I had to show them pictures,” Sawka said. “So that's obviously changed because now people are more aware of this issue.”

Óscar is a fictional character but his experience, based on hours of research via journalists, border patrol officers, immigration lawyers and first-hand accounts of migrants themselves, is the closest most Americans will be get seeing what it’s like inside the freezing detention centers that inspire the film’s title. And Gonzalez, it must be said, renders such a natural portrayal that it's easy to forget that what we’re watching isn’t reality.

Then again, it’s very close to it.

When the feature made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Americans already witnessed their government sanctioning infants being ripped away from their mother’s arms. It hits HBO only days after U.S. border agents repelled a group of mostly Honduran migrants — many of them women and small children — from the border near Tijuana, Mexico, using tear gas.

Through the film’s wiry 84 minutes, we watch Óscar pressed into a truck in the middle of the night as his mother weeps for him, following the boy as he barely escapes falling into terrible fates at the hands of men taking advantage of the desperation and vulnerability of the men, women and children he’s escaping with.

The desert he’s crossing is punishingly hot, but the detention center offers a different kind of brutality. The air inside is so cold the children huddle up next to one another, shivering, their breath pluming in front of their faces. They’re isolated from the world and have no adults to walk them through the process of a hearing, or to advise them on what to say to the magistrate considering their cases.

Amidst these scenes are grace notes, fleeting moments in which the children get to behave like children: In one scene the boys line up by a cage where girls are being held. They smile and flirt with one another as if they were on a playground, and the sweetness is heartbreaking.

Sawka’s short went on to screen at Telluride Film Festival, in addition to winning the Grand Jury Award at AFI Fest and landing on the shortlist the 2018 Academy Awards. One of its earliest boosters James L. Brooks, whose production company Grace Films is assisted Sawka in developing it into a feature film.

And all of this occurred long before Donald Trump and Fox News began a propaganda campaign of dehumanizing the caravan of mostly women and children on our Southern border, referring to them as invaders and surmising that they carry diseases.

That makes the ending of “Icebox,” in its odd way, about as close to a happy one as Óscar can get. Mind you, this doesn’t spoil anything, but it is intentional on Sawka’s part that the film ends with a view of American children, also behind what looks like bars. The difference is that these children aren’t imprisoned, but encased in the safety of privilege and plenty.

“We have this idea that people in these extreme situations are very different from us, that they behave in very different ways. I think that there's a great sense of recognizability in how these kids are behaving and how some of these characters are behaving,” Sawka said.

“We’re often told that were so different, and people are being given different labels like 'illegal alien' or 'unaccompanied minor' which also is a complex term for a child. On a deeper level, this asks the question of, how do we view children and childhood? Is that something that we are willing to protect? Because I think that on a personal level, everyone would agree that shouldn't be part of some political equation, we should just. We should protect the children that need protection.”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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