"La Ciudad"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Oct 23 07:29:12 MDT 1999

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

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.

Louis Proyect
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