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HBO Films: ICEBOX Is A Must

by Jef Dinsmore
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Just like in “the naked city” of film noir there are just as many stories to be told about the migrants who aspire to make it into the U. S as well. The reasons for fleeing home, the journey and the success or failure of that run over the border are varied, but each one is intense. The story depicted in HBO Films: ICEBOX is just one such story. This timely and topical immigration story is one not to be missed. It is a strong representation of what the personal aspect of the problem entails. It does so without getting all bogged down in the politics of the issue. In this case, it is all about the plight of Oscar.        

HBO tells us that ICEBOX is about Oscar (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old Honduran boy, who is forced to flee his home and seek asylum in the United States, only to find himself trapped in the U.S. immigration system. As Oscar attempts to reach his uncle, Manuel (Omar Leyva), in Arizona, he is apprehended by Border Patrol and placed in “the icebox,” a processing center for Hispanic migrant children. Faced against a seemingly impenetrable immigration system, Oscar struggles to navigate a path to freedom, with a journalist (Genesis Rodriguez) and his uncle, himself a recent immigrant, as his only lifeline.  

The movie opens with the youngster getting threatened by the local gang in his hometown. They hold him down and tattoo his chest with their mark and brand him a gang member despite his resistance. All Oscar wants is to go to school and learn, but the gang even hunts him down there. Once safely home his family makes the quick decision to save their son and send him away to the land of opportunity. A long ride up from Honduras plays out and then the scramble over the border fence. It is just a quick dash up and over a chain-link section of the border via two ladders. From there it is a sojourn on a rusted rickety bicycle over the scrubland.  IceboxPic2

To tell the story, accurately, of course, Oscar doesn’t make it to freedom as he gets snagged by border patrol. This whole sequence is an intense one as Oscar races towards what he hopes is a better life. The sequence could have built up more intensity and played out a bit longer but the border crossing is just one part of the stressful journey for this youngster. Just as difficult for him is his stint in the processing center. The housed children try to wrap their minds around where they are and what is happening to them. Oscar and the others are allowed to make phone calls to family. They call home to let family know they are in the U. S. and they call their contact in the States to get out of the detention. Oscar is obviously one of the lucky ones as he connects with Uncle Manuel. It is due to that connection, obtained by the caring journalist that Oscar is able to plead his case to stay in the States.  

This story is made stronger by the fact that it is about the youngsters that make the run. They are innocents, not criminals. Some of them sit in the centers tied up in red tape, some are sent back to the border and some are granted asylum. Regardless of their outcome, their life is far from perfect and one can argue not even better just drastically different. That includes Oscar’s life. Actor Anthony Gonzalez draws the viewer into Oscar’s plight and puts a face on the issue. There are millions of stories to be told but director Daniel Sawka focuses in on the key points of one person’s life to make the immigrant’s story more personable. ICEBOX is a must-see on HBO.  

To add more insight here are snippets of a Sawka interview.


HBO: Immigration stories are all complex and can be very different. Why choose to focus on a child’s story?

Daniel Sawka: Probably because that was the first image that drew me in. But it also, based on the people we talked to, felt like the right way in. Going through it from the perspective of a child says a lot about the system. We tried to stick to the perspective that it was all going to be from his emotional point of view; we were going to go through this journey only knowing what he knows.

HBO: Immigration policy has changed substantially in the last few months. Did you update the script to accommodate policy changes?

Daniel Sawka: We were constantly reaching out to new people and the process of the research kept going — we never stopped. Immigration is a moving target because it’s different from state to state. In six months you can have a decision that comes through that changes things. We were trying to stay up to date and were constantly in touch with immigration lawyers and migrants; it was a very conscious effort to try to portray it as authentically as we could.

HBO: Was there anything you learned while making this film that surprised you?

Daniel Sawka: Everything surprised me. On a personal level, I was so moved by how people shared what they had been through. I hadn’t really counted on how much this would become a unifying process for the people making the film as well. On a narrative level, I remember being very shocked that children were not provided with attorneys to defend themselves. I thought that was a very strange thing and I was shocked reading transcripts of an eight-year-old trying to plead his own asylum case in front of a judge. We tried to incorporate all those personal, emotional perspectives into the movie.

HBO: What do you hope people take away from watching this film?

Daniel Sawka: At its heart, we’re asking questions about the right to childhood. How do we as a society relate to these children in need? And what does that say about us? What is childhood? Is it a right that we’re willing to protect? Or is it a luxury that some people can afford?


You can find HBO Films: ICEBOX across the channels, On Demand and always on the streaming sites HBONow/Go.

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