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On The Seventh Day, They Played Soccer

Fernando Cardona, a real-life construction worker and Mexican immigrant, was cast in the lead role in <em>En el Séptimo Día</em>. His character Jose is a restaurant delivery worker and the star of his amateur soccer team.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild
Fernando Cardona, a real-life construction worker and Mexican immigrant, was cast in the lead role in En el Séptimo Día. His character Jose is a restaurant delivery worker and the star of his amateur soccer team.

Jim McKay used to walk into video stores back in the 1990s, where he'd see versions of himself: white males, in all kinds of movies. Then he tried to imagine being someone else.

"You'd go in these aisles, and you'd see box after box after box of VHSes," McKay says. "And you'd just realize, like, for [a] young woman [of color], there's nothing there. She's not there. You're really not visible."

His first two films, Girls Town and Our Song, are about young women of color coming of age — in fact, most of his films pay close attention to the lives of marginalized New Yorkers. His new film En el Séptimo Día (Spanish for On the Seventh Day), centers around young, undocumented male immigrants from the Mexican state of Puebla.

They work six days a week as cooks, delivery guys, cotton-candy salesmen. On their one day off, Sunday, they play soccer.

A restaurant delivery worker named Jose scores the winning goal and sends his teammates — most of whom are also his roommates in a tiny Brooklyn apartment — through to the league championship final. He's in a great mood the next morning when he shows up for his shift. Then his boss arrives and speaks the first word of English in the film.

The boss has bad news. He needs everyone to work an extra shift next Sunday — the day of the final. Jose spends the rest of the week — and the remainder of the film — debating whether he should keep the bad news from his teammates, or quit his job, or work and let his team down.

Jim McKay says the story is an homage to one his favorite directors — the Briton Ken Loach. So is the casting of nonprofessional actors. In McKay's case, he recruited people from the same Brooklyn neighborhood where the film was shot.

"People who had never — who didn't know what a script was, had never seen a scene written out," McKay says. "You had to kind of go, like, 'OK, you read this and then someone's going to.' You know, I mean, it was really starting from scratch."

The process took seven months. The toughest casting call was the lead, because Jose appears in nearly every scene of the film. McKay found what he was looking for in a Mexican immigrant and construction worker named Fernando Cardona.

"Everything about him had something in common with Jose, if not directly, which was that he's a striver," McKay says. "That ambition that he had really made sense with the character."

McKay's 30-year-old star spends most of his days at the top of a tower just south of Central Park that's already up to 50 stories tall. Cardona showed up to do an interview in the Park carrying a bib for a long-distance run the next weekend. The weekend after that, he planned to go skydiving.

"I want to do everything but sometimes I can't," Cardona says. "But all the things I do it, I do with my — my heart. You know, like I want to work very hard. It's the only way I can get something."

Cardona says he was caught and detained the first time he tried to cross into the United States. He tried again, figuring he'd end up working in restaurants, like the characters in the movie.

Cardona is thrilled that he got the chance to act. But he also saw it as an opportunity to shine a positive light on undocumented Mexican immigrants like himself.

"This is something for my culture," he says. "Those people, they have time to see the movie, they going to see that ... we don't come to this country to destroy this country, to sell drugs, or all those bad things that the people they say about Mexican[s]."

Cardona says he's not worried about immigration authorities coming after him now that his face is all over a feature film. He's been sent back to Mexico before. If that doesn't happen, he'll keep working construction — and paying taxes — as he says he did for his work on the film.

En el Séptimo Día was shot over the summer of 2016, in the runup to the presidential election. Filmmaker Jim McKay says he resisted the temptation to make the film a polemic.

"It's really a story that — that would've been valid 12 years ago, and will, unfortunately, probably be valid into the future," he says.

En el Séptimo Día is currently screening in short runs across the country.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.