First-time director and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Cary Joji Fukunaga has received the award for best "Directing, U.S. Drama," at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival for his film Sin Nombre.

Fukunaga-who graduated from UCSC in 1999 with a B.A. in history-wrote and directed the movie, which is based on firsthand experiences with Central American immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S.

Hailed as one of the most emotionally devastating films in this year's festival lineup, it is vivdly described on the Sundance web site as "a social-political thriller in the tradition of American film noir. at once a love story and a chase film, a thrill ride and a vision of an apocalyptic hell."

The Spanish-language dramatic thriller also received a Sundance award for best "Cinematography, U.S. Drama," for Fukunaga's cinematographer, Adriano Goldman.

The film's title, Sin Nombre means "without a name," or "nameless," and refers to the many unidentified immigrants who have died on the border.

For research, Fukunaga actually rode the Mexican freight trains taken by thousands of immigrants each year-an often harrowing journey that runs the gauntlet of gangs and bandits.

"I just felt like I needed to see the journey for myself in order to tell it authentically," Fukunaga told the audience at the film's world premiere after two standing ovations. "I went down with a couple of friends...the whole idea was to ride the train after I researched the shelters and the prisons."

"In hindsight, it probably wasn't the smartest decision," Fukunaga added. "Within three hours, in the middle of nowhere, there was a bandit attack and a guy got shot and thrown off the train.

"But I think it was on that train ride that I really decided that I could tell this story. before that, I felt like it wasn't my experience, so how can I tell this?"