Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 10,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Film: La Ciudad

You could say that socially proactive documentary film

began with still photography. At the beginning of the 20th century

Lewis Wickes Hine took his camera into America’s mines, foundries,

and sweatshops and came away with seering images of grimy, desperate

children already condemned to 12-hour days of relentless labor.

By mid-century, documentary film had moved in to continue Hine’s


work. Now, at Princeton’s Global Cinema Cafe, film lovers and socially

committed individuals meet monthly, on Sunday afternoons, to view

documentaries on a wide range of subjects and, led by an informed

speaker, follow the screening with a discussion of the matter at hand.

On a typical Sunday afternoon more than 50 people join the screenings

and discussion. Curated by a committee of 14, Global Cinema’s recent

topics have included women in prison, Cambodian classical dance and

genocide, homophobia, reproductive rights, violence in American


the World Trade Organization and the globalization of trade. Among

the 20 community organizations co-sponsoring the series are the


International League for Peace and Freedom, Princeton University,

the Coalition for Peace Action, Princeton YWCA, Homefront, and the

Mercer Disability Network.

The Global Cafe opens its Winter 2001 season this week with a free

screening of David Riker’s 1999 debut feature film "La Ciudad

(The City)," a tapestry of four interrelated stories about the

lives of Latin American immigrants in New York City today. Guest


Cipriano Garcia, one of the film’s actors, will lead the discussion

following the screening on Sunday, January 14, at 4 p.m.

Filmed over a period of five years, from 1992 to 1997, with a cast

of immigrant workers from every part of the Americas, "La


is somewhat unique in film art — it took its young director, an

NYU film student when he began the venture, from the ranks of would-be

filmmaker to committed community activist. Holding a mirror to our

times, this American film is presented in Spanish, the language of

its subjects, with English subtitles. Featured at the New Jersey Film

Festival at Rutgers last year, "La Ciudad" has received the

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival Nestor Almendros Prize

and was named Best North American Feature at the Santa Barbara


Film Festival.

Born in Boston, but raised in Brussels and London, David

Riker began making photographs at age 13. As an undergraduate at Tufts

University, inspired by such socially committed Depression Era


as Dorothea Lang and Walker Evans, Riker began his first documentary

photography project. At 21 he had a difficult revelation that caused

him to shift course: "I realized that I didn’t know any of the

people in my pictures, certainly not well," he says. "It was

a strange feeling. I had always wanted my pictures to be truthful,

but I now realized that I needed my subjects to speak, to have a


to contradict what the viewer might think is going on. This was a

very painful moment for me. I put down my still camera and decided

to learn filmmaking."

Deeply affected by the Latin American experience in New York, Riker

became more and more involved. He worked in community theater, learned

Spanish, and also came to know community residents of all backgrounds.

Feeling that professional actors were already insulated from the shock

of the immigrant experience, he cast his films instead with


using the dramatic workshop as a way to draw out the participants’

most heartfelt experiences. Riker built the credentials that make

him uniquely suited to craft this fictional but very real document

about the Hispanic immigrant experience.

"La Ciudad" opens and closes with a bleak view of the New

York City skyline, with an elevated train moving slowly and


across the perilous urban landscape. Filmed in black and white,


gritty vision says much about the diminished experiences of its


Latino immigrants whose native lands we know as a sunny lush landscape

of colorful fruits and flowers. In four separate stories, Riker and

his actors tell of the hardships of men and women who identify


primarily as economic refugees. A gentle but insistent music score

for brooding strings, composed by Tony Adzinikolov, gives added


to the film that is almost balletic in its grace and form.

A photographer’s studio provides the visual crucible for Riker’s


portrait studies. It is also the meeting point for the various


laboring characters who provide the grist for four sad tales of


and displacement.

The opening story, "Bricks," begins on a street corner at

dawn where dozens of men elbow each other for a chance to hop on a

truck to be carried away for a day’s labor. Here we meet a community

organizer as well as a contractor claiming to offer $50 each to 10

men for a day’s work. Transported to a bleak demolition site in the

contractor’s windowless panel truck, the workers are asked to scavenge

bricks at a rate significantly below what was promised. But how can

they challenge the new terms — in a borough they do not know,

without means of transportation or communication?

Sounds of a salsa band and the camaraderie of a young Mexican woman’s

Sweet 15 Party provides the setting for the second vignette, wryly

titled "Home." Francisco is the party’s interloper, a


young immigrant who has lost his way in the labyrinthine housing


and crashes the semi-formal affair. On the dance floor, he is


attracted to Maria, a melancholy young woman who labors to support

her family in Mexico.

In cautious conversation, both these hard-pressed young adults confess

to the same inchoate pain: "I don’t know why I’m here." Yet

when the pair discovers a shared family home, in Tulcingo, in the

Mexican state of Puebla, an emotional bond is formed that may prove

significant for both.

The third story of the quartet is the first Riker created during his

student days. "The Puppeteer" is a wistful study of a homeless

puppeteer and his beloved daughter, Dulce. A striped puppet theater

on a litter-strewn empty lot in the South Bronx amidst forbidding

high-rise apartment blocks is the entertainment’s sad setting. Despite

his desperate circumstances, the father, a dedicated reader, decides

it is time to enroll his daughter in school. The intensity of the

young girl in plaid overcoat and watchcap who plays Dulce is a


presence in the story. The father’s ambition is thwarted when the

public school clerk demands a rent receipt as proof of residency.

"La Ciudad’s" final story, "Seamstress," set in one

of Manhattan’s notorious garment workers’ sweatshops, is its bleakest.

Yet its brief climactic moment of a group labor action also gives

it the quartet’s greatest element of hope. Ranked behind their sewing

machines, the frantically busy garment workers are supported by the

relentless piece work, but frustrated by the erratic pay schedule.

When one of the women gets a phone call from her parents asking her

to send $400 immediately for medical expenses for the daughter she

has left in their care, the delicate edifice of her world seems to


Appealing to her employers for wages already earned — or even

for compassion — proves fruitless, and we watch the formerly


young woman descend into despair. A ray of hope is introduced when,

unable to control her grief, the seamstress stops sewing and her


stop in sympathy. This is the kind of united effort that is presumably

rarely seen among such disenfranchised workers. As everyone stops

work, the room takes on an eerie stillness. The viewer’s spirits are

lifted by the possibility that consciences are being touched —

in the sweatshops and through community film forums such as the Global

Cinema Cafe.

— Nicole Plett

La Ciudad , Global Cinema Cafe, Third World Center,

Olden Lane & Prospect Avenue, 609-497-3998. Actor Cipriano Garcia

is guest at a screening of David Riker’s tapestry of interrelated

stories about Latin American immigrants in New York City. Free.


January 14, 4 p.m

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