Encouraging as it may sound to say “sky’s the limit,” the truth is that sometimes there’s no control over the restrictions life may deal. Maybe a black van is just around the corner, for instance, and everything that was taken for granted before has now become an idyllic past. Sometimes the limit might be way below the sky; it can be the end of a house’s front yard.
For years, cinema has attempted to tackle issues such as abduction and human trafficking—from John Lee Thompson’s Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever, to Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade and Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. Film as a medium tries to function as a constant reminder of this universal problem. Boyle’s feature, for example, has definitely achieved that end as it was praised not only for its horrifying depiction of the world, but also for its inspirational love story.
In a similar approach, Jianna Maarten Saada’s Sin Cielo contributes to this effort with great skill. Looking into the lives of Memo (David Gurrola) and Delia (Fenessa Pineda), two teenagers in a town close to a Mexican border, Maarten Saada brings the terrible reality of human trafficking front and center. Every day that every child or woman steps outside, there’s a risk of them being abducted and never heard from again—it’s a threat that’s always lurking, even during the light of day.
Creating a multi-layered narrative, Maarten Saada initially allows only partial access to the town’s organized crime. The voice-over opening the film suggests that most of the story is told through Memo’s point of view, and seeing that he spends the first moments blindfolded, there can be no full disclosure yet. After all, even with such a narrow entry, Memo is putting his life on the line since as he says: “people die because they talk too much… I think the walls could listen to what I’m telling you.” He is kept in the dark, so that even if he decides to speak he can never reveal the actual location of the stolen items. Memo lives in a dangerous place—it’s no wonder the information shared in the beginning is given from a safe distance as an extreme wide shot follows two dark figures, presumably Memo and his friend, hustling in the dead of night. Hardly noticeable at this point, but out there just enough to be seen, crime is present.
Likewise, the danger of human trafficking first enters the screen through the news on Memo’s TV warning that “7 women a day are abducted, often by someone they know,” but it goes unnoticed; it’s a ‘these things never happen to us really, it’s always other people’ type of reaction. It turns out, however, that Memo becomes part of the people affected by this peril when Delia, the girl he has fallen for, is taken away in a black jeep on her way to school. The abduction happens off-screen, but Delia’s shrieks are heard loud and clear. The film doesn’t provide subtitles for this part, but fighting for your life doesn’t need any; every cry and every scream in Pineda’s compelling performance is inherently understood, regardless of one’s linguistic background.
Besides Pineda, Gurrola brings a lot into the character of Memo not only in the awkward moments of a teen falling in love, but also in the painful realization that Delia is gone and he is powerless in overturning this tragedy. While the film is mostly quiet, with the only exceptions being scenes of absolute despair such as Delia’s kidnapping, Maarten Saada closes with a bang when Memo silently takes Delia’s place in the town’s parade. Cutting between Memo and Delia standing in two different lines, the parade’s lines and rows of captured women inside a truck respectively, the director draws a parallel between two situations: where Delia, as a teenager, should have been, and where she, among other girls, has ended up unfairly.
By accompanying this injustice with the parade’s celebratory drum noises, Maarten Saada builds up a tension and in turn this tension creates irony which signals that this problem has been ignored for far too long. Besides dedicating the film “to 1000s of women in Mexico who have disappeared and the families who still look for them,” Maarten Saada takes one step further: she includes the names of women and girls who have gone missing in Mexico over the years. In a way, even if those women were deprived of their lives, they are offered a form of immortality in black and white; they’re gone, but they’re not forgotten.