The RW Interview
David Riker and
the People of "La Ciudad"
Revolutionary Worker #1048, March 26, 2000
Inside the deli it is loud--a Spanish-language station blasting. The RW is meeting with David Riker, director of the film La Ciudad--The City--an independent feature film about Latin American immigrants.
David walks over and talks with the workers behind the counter. It turned out they had heard him being interviewed on that very radio last week. "The Mexican community has only one station that really caters to it," David explains. "It's called `la maquina,' or `la maquina musical,' the music machine...but you can't hear it on your normal radio so anyone who wants to listen to it has to buy a radio that's specifically designed to allow you to hear the sub-carrier's signal. I don't know how many thousands or tens of thousands of these radios have been bought in New York City, but you go anywhere where there's Mexican workers, and they're listening to the radio at work, and they've all gotten the new $30 or $40 radio that allows them to hear the station, which is remarkable."
As the deli crew makes our sandwiches, they talk and kid with David--kind of take his measure. One of them turns off the radio, and we talk about La Ciudad.
In Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Mao Tsetung talks about how works of art are drawn from life, but are higher than life. And David Riker has an interesting way of dealing with this in his work. An RW reviewer (#1040, January 30, 2000) described La Ciudad:
"The film is linked by four stories. Each story is about the lives of immigrants in New York City--acted by workers from different parts of Latin America. La Ciudad's opening setting is a corner where dozens of day laborers compete for back-breaking work. In the next story, a young immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, crashes a Quinceañera (sweet fifteen birthday party). Then we witness a few days in the life of a puppeteer and his daughter who live in a station wagon by the river. Finally, there is the struggle of a costurera (garment worker) to gather up $400 to cover the hospital bills of her dying six-year-old daughter in Mexico. La Ciudad is powerful. It is a film that matters."
We begin the interview in the deli, but after a few minutes, it's clear that the noise from the traffic outside will not allow for clear recording. So we say goodbye to the deli workers. They are disappointed to see Riker go. One jokes in Spanish, "What was the name of your film? `Titanic'?"
There's a film studio nearby, so we go to see if we can use one of their rooms. The filmmakers there are surprised and happy to meet David. Everyone knows of the film. Of course, they say, use one of our suites.
RW: You made a movie about a world that a lot of people don't even know exists, and I'm presuming that's not a world that you're from. Why did you spend five years doing that?
David Riker: I wanted to make a film about the uprooted, the experience of being an immigrant in today's globe, and to try and tell a set of stories from the perspective of the immigrant, from the inside out. And the reason that I wanted to do that was that in the last 25 or 30 years the immigrant has become the central subject of our time. That is, the uprooted worker is now at the core, at the center of the global economic system. And whether those uprooted immigrants are from Latin America, working in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or in some of the rural parts of the U.S.; whether they're in Europe; or whether in fact they're just smaller migrations within Latin America, from the country to the city, from one country to another, from Nicaragua looking for work in Mexico or Costa Rica: this is sort of a key to understanding what is happening today on the planet.
To spend five years on anything is a long period of time, but if you're going to make a film you have to be prepared to spend several years. It took a great deal of time, because I didn't know what the story was. I had an orientation, but I didn't know any of the complexities.
RW: Let's talk about that.
DR: Let me just add one other thing, which is that, as a navigating compass, I look at what's happened since 1973 as a process of enclosure very similar to the enclosures at the birth of capitalism 500 years ago in Europe. That is, that it's essential for capitalism to develop to actually produce this uprooted proletariat or working class. And that what we've seen since the mid '70s, on a global level, are new enclosures, which are as important in their consequences as the original ones....
So now in the year 2000 we find ourselves in a world in which a huge percentage of workers are actually an immense distance from their place of origin, from their home....
La Ciudad is an attempt to describe not only what it feels like to be one of those immigrants but also what the consequences are, politically, what the consequences will be.
RW: When did you become an artist?
DR: The problem with even the term artist is that it separates us from the rest of humanity, so it's a difficult term to feel comfortable with. But I started working with a camera when I was a kid. I started taking photographs, I'm not sure why, to begin with. I was living in England, and I was very confused about my own history, my own identity. I had grown up, since I was about 4 or 5 years old, outside of the United States--first in Belgium, where I went to a French-speaking school, and then in London. I found myself as a teenager steeped in, surrounded by, the culture of London, which had me in close contact with the Irish, with the Caribbean, with South Asia, with the Cockney experience, and yet everyone was calling me a Yank. I hadn't lived here [in the U.S.] but for the first four years of my life. I was confused.
I began working with a camera, taking photographs, and they were really just--what would be called today--family snapshots. But I took more of them than anyone else I knew, and I had a hunger to learn how to process the film. I eventually was able to get a developing tank and a safe light and some instruction manual, and I started processing my own film. And I would spend time with old-timers in the labs, trying to find out information.
I was really like what today might be an Internet nerd, a computer nerd. I was a kind of darkroom nerd. I just wanted to find out what a reticulated negative was, how to push and pull film, what solarization was. And I remember these old guys who had the laboratories, and I would go and hang out, and they would give me throwaway paper.
At the time that I started my education at the university--I was 17 or 18--I started to change the focus of the photographic work. And around that time I began to become aware of a tradition of documentary photography. I started understanding what kind of tool the camera is.
RW: You said a moment ago that you're very uncomfortable with the word "artist" because it implied, or created, some kind of separation between that person and the greater humanity--or maybe the people on the bottom especially. I know that you worked really hard to gain the trust of the people that you worked with, but I also sense that the people really wanted you to tell the story.
DR: They did, they did. It wouldn't be enough simply for me to have been focused and dedicated to the project. It wouldn't have been enough to make the film. There had to be, on their side, a need for the film to be made. You could've made a story about Latin American immigrants Hollywood style and cast all actors in it, without their cooperation; but to make it this way, you couldn't do it without them. And what I learned is, at a certain point--once a particular sector of the community that I was working with had trust in me--that they became even stronger than I was in relation to the project.
I'll give an example that to me is really revealing. In each film, there are professional actors, but almost all the roles are non-professionals--most of the lead roles are non-professionals. And what I discovered very early on was that the non-professionals, by the time we were ready to shoot, were more prepared than the professionals. They never failed with a line of dialogue, or with a cue. It was really staggering....
When you're working a scene you have these dramatic beats or structure that holds the scene together. The film is not improvised. By the time we're filming it's really locked. It's very, very tight to the point that most of the subtle details have been workshopped somewhat and the non-professionals never, never fail to remember their lines, to remember their beats.
I found myself having to do more takes for the professionals, who are also committed. But what it told me was--and this was reinforced constantly--for the garment worker who is playing a garment worker, this is far more important than just a film role for her. This is really a chance to express what her life up to this point means. She has made a decision to do it that's far greater than what any actor could have in relationship to a role.
Even a great actor is only going to put a certain part of themselves out there. But for these so-called non-professionals the commitment was incredible. And the risks that they took--from my point of view they were not great--that is I never felt that I was putting them in risk to be in the film. But from their point of view, many of them are only in the United States for a few years by the time I start working with them--some even less. The very act of stepping outside of their day-to-day routine and talking to me and meeting with us in the churches or the theaters where we were and slowly workshopping to the point where they're the center of attention for a camera crew of 40 or 50 people represented a huge potential risk. They were completely vulnerable. And why then did they do it? The only explanation is that the film is very, very important to them.
RW: That's very interesting.
DR: But in order to make the film I had to change. I had to not only learn about something that was outside my experience. But really, you see--I want to put it this way--the vast majority of the work of a filmmaker is not actually setting the camera position and writing the script. The vast majority is dealing with people directly, and everyone knows, the more people you deal with directly, the more commitment you make, the more responsibility there is. And I had to change myself.
I had to learn the language, which was not easy for me. When I started the film, I was 28 years old. In addition to everything else I was worrying about, I had to learn Spanish. I had to educate myself and re-educate myself about the subject. And in doing it, I found myself changing. I felt it--that I was changing--that it wasn't this idea of the artist in control of his or her vision. It wasn't that at all.
It was this process of immense digging and personal sort of commitment, at the end of which was the hope that there would be a film. As opposed to really being in control from the beginning of all the elements, I was tunneling--many times without knowing what direction we were going. And I really want to reject the idea of the director as this iconic figure that sits in a chair and tells everyone what to do, cause it isn't true, and it's damaging to have that image. Most of the work you do is just hard work and draining, and you carry a heavy burden because the consequences of your work is going to be great, and you have to be open to changing and to discovering you're wrong.
RW: Talk a little bit about where your stories came from and how you developed them.
DR: OK, the film began as a short, and the short film was a story that is now the story of the puppeteer. And it developed. The starting point for it was a desire to write a story about an immigrant family in New York City and to deal with some of the most important kind of social issues that the immigrant community was facing. I had worked previously on a documentary about homelessness and the efforts of homeless people to get housing. I knew about the struggle around education, not only in New York City, but in other cities. The third theme or issue was the question of health. Three kinds of urban issues at the core of many, many organizing efforts in the country. And so that was my starting point, the story of an immigrant family struggling around questions of health, housing, and education.
RW: So you had a subject but you didn't have a story.
DR: Exactly. I had a subject and no story. My background before The City was in documentary--where I really began with a very clear agenda and then set about to make a film about it. And I started this story of the puppeteer the same way--I want to tell a story about an immigrant family that somehow is affected by and struggling around these three themes.
But I had made a decision some years before as a direct result of my documentary work that I did not want to make a didactic film anymore, that it was not as effective, that it closed the discussion before the discussion could even begin.
By that I mean I didn't want to start with the agenda. I wanted somehow to bury it. I wanted it to come out organically from the dramatic story.
It's hard to untangle how a story comes exactly, what precedes, what follows. But I soon decided that I wanted to make this family a single father with a young child--I chose a young girl--and that they would be homeless....
I decided this would be a case of a father and daughter who rejected the shelters like many homeless people did. And that led me to researching further and learning that in the Bronx there were huge numbers of people--and are still today--homeless people that are living in motor vehicles, and vans, and cars. So I said this would be the starting point.
We'd have a father and daughter, like many others who are homeless and live in a car. And from that came the dramatic spine of the story, which is that the father, more than anything else, is concerned about the fate of his daughter. Fearful that his daughter's life will be devalued and undermined because of his own inabilities. And I made her 6 or 7 years old, school age. And so his hope is that he can get her into school, and so on and so forth.
This is kind of a detailed explanation...but each of the stories sort of had a back-and-forth between an idea or an argument, a social theme that I wanted to deal with, and then a dramatic characterization and structure that would allow me to deal with that theme or idea, but to push it into the background so that it was not didactic.
So in the end, the story of the puppeteer is a love story of a father for his daughter--who happen to be homeless, who happen to be struggling around tuberculosis and a disastrous public health care system in New York, who happen to come face-to-face with the bureaucracy--rather than it being a film about homelessness, a film about tuberculosis. And I felt that the result was really closer to how I wanted to work, and so in the subsequent stories I sort of developed a similar approach.
RW: Could you talk about the process of writing and then workshopping and...
DR: Let me say, just before that, because this kind of connects to something you asked before: today, for contemporary writers, it's considered extremely dangerous to step outside of your own experience. At schools, in high school, and then at colleges, and really any kind of writer's workshops, we are told to "write what we know." The reason for this--in other words, an insistence on autobiography--is twofold. On the one side it comes out of an attempt by the liberation movements of the last 15-20 years to rectify the distortions that have occurred, and historically have been produced, not only in fiction but also in television and film, where an elite class, primarily of Anglo or European male writers have done tremendous damage in representing the people of the world. And so part of the autobiography school can be seen in a positive light. But the negative side to it is that it's also producing a very proscribed and limited structure that is not necessarily going to produce the best work.
And in starting this project I began with a premise that violated the autobiography school. That is, I'm not Latin American, I'm not a recent immigrant, Spanish is not my first language, I'm not a factory worker. If I drew up two columns, left and right, of what I shared, what I had in common with the new immigrant, and what I had that separates them from me, what I had in common would be a much shorter list. And so good advisors would have told me not to make the film.
But there is a very damaging side to this autobiography school which assumes that the only truth is the personal truth of intimate experience. And there is another tradition that rejected that and that at the same time was not irresponsible or damaging. In other words that it is possible to write about someone other than yourself--as a young man to write about the life of an old man, or as a person from Mexico to write about a person from Poland.
And this other tradition requires that you as a storyteller, as a writer, as an artist, are vigilant in your approach to the work--that you take it extremely seriously and you weigh the responsibility, and you are aware of your limitations and what separates you from the outset and you put those up front. You don't try and evade them. You acknowledge them.
You asked about writing the screenplay. Every time I began the work I had to acknowledge face-to-face the community I was working with, our differences as the starting point. But I wanted to say this, because I think to be a socially committed writer, or filmmaker, artist, musician means that those autobiography limits can be avoided altogether. There's nothing, there's no experience or subject that you can't speak about. What matters is just how you approach the work, not who you are. How you approach the work.
Having said that, in writing these scripts, in each of them there was a period of research that was "field" or what I call living research--talking to people with a microphone, recording hundreds of their stories, anecdotes, and experiences, much like an investigative documentary filmmaker might do. Very similar. And the work was usually somewhat open-ended. That is, I wanted the subjects to take me in the direction they thought was most important.
With the story of the garment workers, I had as an idea or a starting point the desire to make a film that was a denunciation of sweatshop labor, the return of slavery as a model or a critical form of labor today. But most of those sweatshop workers didn't want to talk about their sweatshop work. They wanted to talk about something else. I went with them...
And I made a point in this film not to invent anything and there is really only one exception to it, which is the role of the street puppeteer. Other than his character, everything in the film is based on someone's experience in New York City today. And all of the elements of the stories are based on someone's experience. What they are is composited together, so that in the end the characters are amalgams of many different immigrant lives.
RW: And how did you work with non-professional actors to create these characters?
DR: My casting lasts anywhere from four to six or eight months, at the end of which I choose the group that's going to be the backbone of the film. In the case of the story "Bricks," the backbone of the film was a group of 9 or 10 day laborers. And I had made a deliberate choice to cast that group of men so they represented physically all of the Americas: the African experience in the Americas, the indigenous, the Spanish, the very Anglo Latino, white skin, young and old. I had an ensemble of men that physically were appropriate, and I knew something about their personalities.
At this point I hadn't written the characterizations into the script. I had names, but I hadn't determined yet how their behavior would be, how each person would respond to the same situation. And so then it was a matter of creating a dramatic workshop where I would really begin to understand how each man would respond to that situation--truthfully, not playing another character. And so in the film, the different personalities that you sense among this group of day laborers really are very close to their own individual personalities.
But in order to get from the point of having chosen this group to the point of filming, a tremendous period of exploration and improvisation and trust-building needs to happen, so that people who would normally be very self-conscious and nervous and intimidated by the camera actually end up feeling very natural and being able to express any range of emotions.
The first thing we do in these dramatic workshops is a non-verbal drawing exercise. They arrive to the workshop space, wherever it is, usually a community center or small theater or church. They come right from work. These workers in construction are exhausted physically. They are covered in paint. They would still have plaster dust in their hair or concrete on their hands. They are tired. They've been up since before sun-up.
It's now dinner time and bedtime, and they've come to this dramatic workshop. I feed them, first thing, hot dinner and then I ask them to sit around a table. I give them each a piece of white paper. I put a bunch of colored pencils on the table, and I give them an assignment to draw a picture. And the picture should be something that is familiar to them, simple to draw. So I might ask them to draw a picture of their home, or a picture of their journey to the north, or on some occasions I would just play a piece of music and ask them to draw whatever came to them.
The idea is to use the drawing as a way for people to express a feeling which in words would be very difficult for them to express, but in a drawing it starts to come out.... And these guys are older than I am. They have far more experience in life than I do.
I asked these men to draw a picture of their mother. I needed them to express what they felt like being in New York City, and what they felt like being uprooted away from home, and what they felt like standing on the corners every day for work and having to fight with one another to get work. But none of them would speak feelings if I just talked to them. It's very difficult.
In drawing a picture of their mother all sorts of feelings come up. And then once they've done the drawing, I ask them to describe to the other men in the circle what the drawing is. And in starting to talk about the drawing, many times they begin to cry, or laugh, or some memory comes back. And immediately the men, or the women in the case of the garment workers, feel trusting of each other, they're sharing something of each other. They're releasing a great emotional story. In most cases they are talking about things that they haven't talked about since they've been here, maybe they've never talked about it with anyone. Very, very intense.
And in the dramatic workshop we use the idea of the circle as a sacred place. We set it up physically with a circle of chairs, and any time that we do an improvisational exercise or project that brings out such emotion, we go right over to that circle, and we sit in a circle, and we let the person talk about what they're feeling, and we all kind of comment about what it makes us feel.
You have to picture a group of very strong construction workers. One of them was a Sandinista guerrilla from Nicaragua who--when we were doing an exercise one day of remembering a painful experience--told us how all of his friends were with him in the Sandinista movement, and how one morning they were attacked by the Contras and only two survived. And all of his friends basically were killed. And, as this guy was telling the story, he was really bawling, he was crying like a baby. And the electrical worker from Peru, the former National Guard from Honduras, and the construction worker from the Dominican Republic--all men who didn't know each other well--were sitting in that sacred circle listening to this man from Nicaragua, and their own feelings and their own experiences were coming up.
So it's very important that anyone who attempts to construct a dramatic workshop like this is prepared--because there is a responsibility. When these emotions come out you have to then make sure there is no damage that's done. Which means that, before everyone goes home at the end of the day, the men individually and as a group are strong again. Not strong again but are really at another level of strength. And you forget about your film.
You can't just be thinking about making your film, you see. What you are doing is creating a place in which true emotion and true personal memory is being expressed. And that's also gonna be what you want in the film. But you have to kind of put the film aside, and your dramatic exercises might relate to the film. There might even be scenes that are very close to ones that are going to be in the film but a lot of the work is more indirect.
The dramatic workshop tends to last about three or four months. As it gets closer to being completed, the men or the participants become much more confident--partly because of crossing this boundary of expressing their feelings. They become more confident, and they get to the point where they not only feel capable of doing the role, but they feel like nobody else could do it better. That's when I know that we are ready to film--when I can sense that these men or these women really feel not only prepared but invincible. And it happens, and it is wonderful to see it happen, and in my journal I make a note when each person seems to be getting to that place. At the same time, the stories, the details of the stories are being developed or are emerging from those improvisations.
RW: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
DR: Some of the things we talked about today I don't ever get a chance to talk about. And it's obviously because of the kind of function of this piece in your paper. The writer John Berger, English writer, best known for his art criticism, said in an interview, or in one of his early books, that the duty of the writer is to show that the present reality is not inevitable. And I found it so helpful when I read that because there were two pieces to it.
The first was the idea that the writer has a duty, or that as a filmmaker you have a duty. It's not just about enjoying yourself, entertaining yourself. For one thing, to make a film you are going to need the cooperation of hundreds of people. You're going to demand from the social wealth of the planet a huge amount of resources to make quote "your film." And a film like La Ciudad contains within it contributions from the chemical industry, the mining industry, etc. So the idea that as a filmmaker or as an artist you have a duty beyond just yourself struck me as being really true. It is how I feel.
The other part was that he said that the duty is to show that life as it presents itself to us, as we see it, is not inevitable. Meaning it can be different. It can be changed. Our duty is not necessarily to proscribe the change--to say this is the direction to go. But rather to show that it can be different. And I think he's right. I feel the same way and I'd like to, in my lifetime, to be able to enjoy a period where other writers and filmmakers who feel the same way, are able to actually come together.... That would be for me a great victory. Not simply to be burrowing away on my own projects with that conviction, but to feel connected to other artists and storytellers at that level.
To find out where La Ciudad is playing around the country, go to: www.zeitgeistfilm.com.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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