FULL INTERVIEW WITH DAVID RIKER, FILMMAKER
Q: The stories in THE CITY are universal and, at the same time, very personal. How did your life experiences contribute to the film?
I spent a large part of my childhood living outside the U.S., so I have some understanding of what it feels like to be an immigrant. When I moved to New York to attend college, I lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was predominantly Latin American. I was deeply affected by the Latin American experience in New York. After working with Latino community theaters during my first year at NYU, I decided to write a script that reflected some of the most important issues in the community, structuring the story around housing, health and education. I wanted the film to deal with all three of these issues, told through a simple love story between a father and his daughter. This script became "The Puppeteer."
I decided that I would not make the film without the community's support. While developing my ideas for the film, I researched puppetry, an important part of the culture of many Latin American countries. I learned of a workshop where Latin Americans, mostly garment workers, were making puppets under the tutelage of two Brazilians. When I met the people and saw the puppets, I realized I had the basis for my film. I didn't speak much Spanish yet, but I was studying the language intensively. My Spanish teacher helped me translate the script and was an extra in the film, so he was there when I needed him.
When "The Puppeteer" was finished, I screened it in a church in the South Bronx where it was shot. Thousands of people from the neighborhood came to see it, and the response was overwhelming. They offered everything from money to food to free cab rides for the production so that the film could be expanded.
Eventually I decided to make a feature film told in four stories in which the people of the community would represent themselves. Their stories would be the film's stories. Their hopes and struggles would be the characters' hopes and struggles.
Q: How did you - someone who barely spoke Spanish - gain the trust of the people whose stories you wanted to tell?
As I got to know people, I told them about the film I wanted to make. People started opening up to me: inviting me to their homes, meeting me after work, hanging out with me on the street corners. I tape recorded interviews, asking them about their experiences coming to this country, what their hopes were, and what it's been like here. From this, the core emotional thread of the film emerged.
The idea for "Seamstress" came to me during the Christmas shopping season of 1996 at a demonstration protesting sweatshop practices in front of a store on Fifth Avenue. Three women I spoke to suggested I talk to Rodolfo Guzman, a Peruvian organizer working at the time with the garment workers union. Rodolfo invited me to the union hall, where a group of workers who were involved in a strike had gathered for an early morning meeting. I showed a tape of "Bricks" to this group of about 30 women, and they related to it very strongly. This began six months of intense research about the garment worker's world.
Q: Except for a few professionals, the cast is made up entirely of immigrants from the community. How did you select your actors?
I found Jose Rabelo (Luis in "The Puppeteer"), one of the professional actors in the film, after thoroughly searching the Latin American community theaters, but finding the girl to play his daughter was much more difficult. Dissatisfied with the auditions of many young professionals, I decided to try casting in the public schools. After two weeks at PS 30 in the south Bronx, I found Stephanie Viruet, who plays the daughter in the segment.
Among the group was a presidential national guard from Honduras, a former Sandinista guerrilla from Nicaragua, and several fishermen and electrical workers from Peru. They were formidable men with a lot more experience in the world than I had. In a dramatic workshop, I asked the men to draw a picture of what their home looked like. As each men described what his picture meant to him, he ceased being a day laborer, a foreigner. They all simply became who they are. I knew that no one could tell their stories better than they could.
For "Seamstress," my access to the garment workers was limited to the 25 minutes in the morning and evening when they are going to the subways in droves. With the help of dozens of garment workers, I handed out more than 40,000 leaflets during a shift change over the course of a month. On the first day of open auditions, it seemed that nobody was coming. As I was getting ready to leave, thinking my leafleting had been a waste of time, a woman from Ecuador arrived. Looking at me with a mixture of fear and surprise, she said, "I've only been here for six months and I don't know what this means, but I was given this leaflet yesterday, and this is my life. I haven't been paid for the past five weeks and the Korean boss hits me all the time."
Silvia Goiz, the woman I finally chose as the lead in "Seamstress," is a seamstress from Mexico who has been in New York for five years. Her life is mirrored in the film. Her life in New York is very regimented - it consists of her home, the subway, the sweatshop, and on Sundays, the laundromat. Although Silvia is not a mother, she was able to tap into her emotions so easily that I knew she could carry the film.
Q: How did you prepare your cast for the demands of making the film?
My job as a director was to create a safe space for my actors. Many of them were here without papers, and they live with the fear of deportation. Usually, their only contact with white people has been in hostile situations - a cop, an immigration agent or a boss. I had to show them that they could feel safe: safe to come out of the shadows of the city, to stand in front of the light, and to talk about their most intimate stories with strangers. Through dramatic workshops I tried to create a sacred place in which all the emotions of the film could emerge.
In the workshops I used improvisational techniques, constantly inventing new exercises. I asked people to share their most painful memory, but only if they wanted to. In one workshop, after a long silence, this big, 56-year-old Nicaraguan man started talking about when his closest friends were killed in a guerrilla offensive. He and the two other survivors had to bury their friends. The tears in his eyes made it clear that he had never talked about this before.
As the director, I was preoccupied with how I could shape these emotions to the film, and in addition, I felt responsible for how these people were going to feel when the film was over. Ever since, my life has been consumed with maintaining these friendships and following through with the responsibilities I feel. I help them deal with their families, going to the hospital, immigration issues and more. It's been an intense and rewarding experience for me.
Q: Through the four vignettes in THE CITY you represent the experiences of immigrants from a wide variety of Latin American countries. How did you decide upon the perspectives you reflect?
I had been invited to a Mexican Quinceañera party by the real girl who has the party in the film. It made a strong impression on me, seeing this cultural tradition so firmly transported from Mexico to the Bronx. The girl's family agreed to re-enact the party for the film, and two hundred relatives, some from as far away as North Carolina, came together to celebrate the party again, only this time the beer bottles were filled with water.
I wanted the two lead actors to be Mexican, and even more so I wanted them to come from the same village. Cipriano Garcia and Leticia Herrera come from villages near each other in Puebla, Mexico. Cipriano is a baker who had some experience acting as an amateur, and Leticia is a garment worker. Being young and coming from Mexico, they were able to give the story an honesty and depth of feeling.
Q: Both "Bricks" and "Seamstress" bring up the question of solidarity: laborers either working at odds with each other or banding together to form a more powerful group. Tell us more about what you hope people will learn from the film.
I wanted the final story in the film to answer the questions raised in "Bricks" - how these immigrants can come together in their new surroundings. Since the question was first addressed by the fighting among men, I decided the answer should come from a group of women. In the film, the seamstresses represent the strength people have when they stand together for what they believe is right, for justice.
In general, I hope that people come away from THE CITY with a different and deeper understanding of the Latin American community. Unless you are from one of the Indian nations, the vast majority of people in this country or their ancestors have shared this experience - coming from somewhere else, being treated as an exploited worker, not knowing the language, dealing with the profound dislocation of being uprooted.
I hope that the film serves as a denunciation of xenophobia. But the final sequence is meant to go one step further: we see all the faces and portraits of this community in a way that emphasizes them as individual human beings. I deliberately chose a series of faces that was very diverse, with the hopes that people will see themselves or someone they know in one of those faces. And in the end, I hope that the film creates a solidarity capable of opposing the anti-immigrant fervor that is so rampant.