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HBO’s ‘Icebox’ tells immigrant’s story


It’s a hot-button issue in the United States that causes a great amount of division.

It’s also the center of a new film, “Icebox,” which airs at 6 p.m. Friday on HBO.

Daniel Sawka, writer and director of the film, took the production to Albuquerque and Española in July 2017.

The film tells the story of Óscar, played by 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 immigration system.

As Óscar attempts to reach his uncle, Manuel, played by Omar Leyva, in Arizona, he is apprehended by Border Patrol agents and placed in “the icebox” – a detention center where he joins scores of other migrant children being held without their families.

From left, Jermaine Washington, Anthony Gonzalez and Dylan Kenin in a scene from HBO's "Icebox," filmed in New Mexico.

From left, Jermaine Washington, Anthony Gonzalez and Dylan Kenin in a scene from HBO’s “Icebox,” filmed in New Mexico.

Faced with a seemingly impenetrable immigration system, Óscar struggles to navigate a path to freedom, with a journalist and his uncle, himself a recent immigrant, as his only lifelines.

“The narrative and characters in ‘Icebox’ are inspired by so many personal stories that were told to me through years of research and outreach – stories that unfortunately have become all too prevalent in today’s world,” Sawka said. “I can’t think of a better partner than HBO Films with which to present this incredibly timely issue.”

The impetus for “Icebox” began in 2014, when Sawka was at the American Film Institute. The short was his thesis film.

For three years, he worked diligently at making it into a feature film.

He also wanted to keep it authentic, which is why the film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

“It was always written this way,” he says. “When you try and capture an issue like this, authenticity is a guiding star. With this film, I had to take my time and keep it as real as possible.”

With the feature film, Sawka was able to expand on Óscar’s story line – including where he comes from.

“The short film was almost exclusively depicting the inside of the detention center,” he said. “I could focus on a lot more of the story and really get into what the process is like for someone seeking asylum.”

One hurdle the production had to overcome was working shorter days.

Because Gonzalez was 12 at the time of filming, he could work only eight hours instead of the normal 12-hour day.

“We filmed for about 22 days,” Sawka said. “We made it work and really thought out exactly what we were going to shoot. It was a tough schedule, and decisions had to be made. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. Anthony (Gonzalez) is in every scene, so he carried a big part of the film.”

Sawka chose New Mexico because it offered the landscapes he needed.

In addition, one of the producers on the film had shot a production in the state and raved about it.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the production employed 80 New Mexico crew members and about 500 background actors.

“It was the perfect place,” Sawka said. “The cast and crew were amazing at getting everything captured. We wanted to tell the story and were careful about what we captured. The child actors that we hired were all from New Mexico, and they had to pretend they were cold inside the icebox, when in fact, it was very hot and in the middle of summer. It was a great experience for me, and I can’t wait to get people talking about this issue. It’s been happening for years. My grandparents immigrated here from Ireland. They struggled too. It’s a story dear to me.”

The film had a festival run before HBO Films acquired it for broadcast.

“I have seldom seen a movie so of the moment – it’s almost reportage,” said Len Amato, president HBO Films. ” ‘Icebox’ gives viewers not only an opportunity to witness what it’s like inside these migrant detention centers, but also to feel the emotions of the children, revealing a world that many journalists and citizens have not yet been able to sufficiently penetrate.”

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to arts editor Adrian Gomez at 823-3921 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.