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
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
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
— Nicole Plett
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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