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Gregory Nava's film 'El Norte' marks 25th anniversary

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When Gregory Nava's "El Norte" opened in U.S. theaters 25 years ago, immigration was less of a political hot-button issue than it is today.

Back then, the mass exodus of refugees from Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala was driven as much by civil war as by economics. California's Proposition 187 in 1994 and the pro-immigration marches of May 2006 still were years away.

But in recent months, until the global economic swoon took center stage, immigration became one of the most pressing and polarizing issues on the national agenda. That gives a renewed potency to Nava's $750,000 independent movie about a Guatemalan brother and sister's harrowing odyssey to the United States -- including a memorably grueling crawl through a rat-infested tunnel -- and their struggles in adapting to their new life in Los Angeles.

The movie's quality and enduring influence is being acknowledged with this month's release of a 25th anniversary edition of the film on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. While Nava says he's tremendously pleased by the recognition and thankful to Criterion, he sees a bittersweet dimension to his movie's stature.

"We made the film not to make a commercial hit but to make a film about the human tragedy of a very tragic situation that still continues to this day," says the writer-director, speaking from his Santa Fe, N.M., home. "I'm very, very gratified that the film is still considered to be so relevant, and it saddens me because the issues are still there."

Criterion's release includes a number of bonus features: an audio commentary featuring Nava; an intriguing documentary about the making of "El Norte"; and a gallery of location-scouting photographs from Chiapas, Mexico.

It also includes Nava's haunting black-and-white student film, "The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva" (1972), which explores the theme of forced exile that Nava would further develop in "El Norte." The award-winning earlier film also provides evidence of the lyrical visual style that Nava would bring fully to bear on "El Norte."

Nava refers to this style as "dream realism," which he characterizes as less "folkloric and cute" than magic realism and more deeply engaged with "tough social problems." He counts Luis Buñuel's 1950 masterpiece, "Los Olvidados," about Mexico City's slum children, and Luchino Visconti's "La Terra Trema" as major inspirations.

Among the filmmakers' crucial and risky decisions for "El Norte" was to shoot much of it in Spanish and indigenous Guatemalan languages as well as English. "We shot in incredibly isolated and difficult locations because we wanted to get that world on the screen," Nava says. "We had a very small crew of people in two Volkswagen vans."

"We were young, and so we were in a way kind of insane."

"El Norte" came about, in part, through the confluence of two trends in the early 1980s. One was the increasing public attention paid to the effects of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union in places like Latin America and Africa.

As novelist and Times columnist Héctor Tobar points out in an essay in a program booklet accompanying the Criterion release, in the early 1980s Hollywood produced a handful of films examining these conflicts, such as "Missing," "Under Fire" and "Salvador." But their protagonists typically were non-Latinos. "El Norte" broke from this pattern by making the young siblings played by Mexican actors Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando the center of the action.

Another factor in "El Norte's" success was the rise of a new wave of U.S. independent filmmakers. Nava was one of several young independent directors, such as Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and David Lynch, who, Nava says, felt "there was a need at that time to deal with different sorts of subject matter, different things the Hollywood film was not dealing with."

As Thomas says in the Criterion documentary, "El Norte" was able to attract both the non-Latino "I go to art movies" crowd and the Latino "This is a film about me" crowd.

Throughout his subsequent career, Nava, a San Diego native who has many relatives in Tijuana, has continued to explore aspects of the immigrant experience, in 1995's "Mi Familia," 2006's "Bordertown" and other movies. And he's working on another film, "Gates of Eden," that will update those themes to the present.

"You need a film to help you on a human level to deal with the changes that you're seeing. That's true for Hispanics and for non-Hispanics."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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