I had the privilege of having dinner recently with director Bob Young and his two talented sons, Nick and Zack, who restored and expanded their father’s William Kurelek’s The Maze. Young reminisced about ¡Alambrista!, his landmark 1977 indie about undocumented migrant workers (his first foray into fiction), which is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Young talked about how moved he was to meet undocumented workers and learn about their struggles and stories of survival and exploitation; and how ironic it was that he was drawn throughout the years to documenting and dramatizing cultures other than his Jewish heritage, which he is now hoping to rectify in a project he’s developing. From his documentary days, Young has always possessed an unceasing curiosity about average people on life-affirming adventures, and ¡Alambrista! incorporates influences from Flaherty and neo-realists. One of the great benefits was that it introduced Young to Edward Olmos, whom he cast in a minor role. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but when I asked why he didn’t cast Olmos as the protagonist, Young said it never occurred to him to cast anyone other than Domingo Ambriz, who is brilliant.
Indeed, Ambriz plays Roberto Ramirez, forced to leave his family behind in Mexico to seek work across the border in the American Southwest. Each day is a new adventure as Ramirez moves from farm to farm picking fruit and vegetables while dodging the border patrol. Young effectively shoots a verite style with hand-held close-ups that bring us intimately into the precarious world of Ramirez and his new buddies, who show him the ropes like Dickens’ Artful Dodger. In fact, ¡Alambrista! is Dickensian in its humanistic spirit. We are there with Ramirez at every turn, hoping, praying that he’ll make enough to return his family. More than anything, the celebrated film introduced us to the plight of the undocumented worker before it became a significant part of our political and cultural dialogue. It was also an important step in Young’s continued growth as a filmmaker and in raising his political consciousness.