You can spot Mexican and Central American immigrants everywhere in New York City. Teenagers guard the outdoor flower displays in front of Korean grocery stores, whose goods mostly come from Colombia, where they leave behind a trail of ecological destruction. If you walk around the West Twenties and Thirties you see Mexican women on their way to sweatshop jobs and on the subways the men are headed to or returning from low-wage construction jobs. They are the fastest-growing group of immigrants in the city right now and have almost no political influence, unlike the comparatively well-organized Dominicans. They are also the poorest.
Young film-maker David Riker made the audacious decision to construct "La Ciudad" (The City) around this population, using a largely unprofessional cast. It is a New York that is invisible in Woody Allen's movies or television shows like "Seinfeld." Riker ignores the trendy Manhattan neighborhoods with their coffee bars, designer clothing boutiques and hot new restaurants. His New York is the Bronx, where the stores advertise in Spanish and sell beepers or advice on how to get a green card. Filmed in a gritty black-and-white, the movie consists of street scenes filmed on location of neighborhoods where the average New Yorker, including me, never visits. Riker spent five years from 1992 to 1997 working with this community and gaining their trust. The result is an audacious and powerful film that is clearly in the neo-realist tradition of "The Bicycle Thief."
"La Ciudad" is constructed around four separate stories that are connected together by intermezzi of immigrants being photographed in a studio, posing for a picture that we might assume is being sent home to a loved one. Their faces, like the faces of Riker's cast, express a mixture of uncertainty and hope.
In the first story we follow a group of ten day laborers who are lured into a job that supposedly pays $50 for a day's work, but when they arrive at the site, they discover that instead they will clean individual bricks from a pile of rubble for fifteen cents each. At first they resist, but eventually go about their task. Their anger toward the man who hired them is displaced toward each other.
In the next we meet a young man who has just arrived from Puebla, the most economically devastated state in Mexico. He is trying to find an uncle, but with no success. He wanders the streets of the Bronx until he hears the sounds of Latin music coming from a private party in a dance hall. He crashes the party and strikes up a conversation with a young woman, who is not only from Puebla herself, but the very same town. The possibility for love and economic deliverance in the strange new city turn out to be difficult to achieve.
Then we meet a father and his young daughter who live in their car near the East River. He runs a one-man puppet show on the vacant lots in the neighborhood. At night he reads to her from an illustrated fairy tale and his only hope is to enroll her in a local school. He is ably played by José Rabelo, a Cuban-American, and one of the few professional actors in the cast. As I left the theatre, Rabelo was on the sidewalk passing out flyers to help publicize the film. I congratulated him on his performance and took a handful that I will leave around Columbia University. He introduced me to David Riker, who was also on the sidewalk nearby. He mentioned that he is very involved with solidarity efforts in Chiapas and will likely be visiting there in the next few months.
The final vignette is the most effective. It depicts the plight of a young mother who works on a sewing machine in a sweatshop run by a Chinese husband and wife, which actually describes the class demographics at work in New York City today. The workers have not been paid in weeks, but are assured by the bosses that they will get money as soon as they make final delivery on the clothing to a potential customer. In effect, the Latinos have no choice except to take a chance whether they will be paid or not. Like the men cleaning bricks in the first story, the only guarantee is that if they don't work they will starve. The young mother needs to be paid because her daughter needs emergency medical care that costs $400. In the final scene she confronts the bosses and discovers that the class ties that bind her to the rest of the workers in the sweatshop prove decisive.
"La Cidudad" has received positive reviews in the NY Times and Village Voice, which is encouraging. Both of these newspapers thrive on presenting a view of New York that is totally at odds with the one depicted in Riker's film, one that is geared to successful whites looking for an evening's entertainment. Riker's film has an entirely different agenda. The pleasure you receive is in knowing about the full gamut of human experience in one of the worlds' most powerful and wealthy metropolises. By making the invisible visible, Riker has fulfilled one of the greatest demands that can be put on any artist: to tell the truth. "La Ciudad" is playing now at the Quad Cinema on 13th street between 5th and 6th and at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I strongly urge people to see this film and to spread the word.