Immigrant Dreams: The Enduring Power of David Riker’s “La Ciudad”

The digital release of a classic film, with undocumented immigrants as actors, shows that little has changed since 9/11.

It was the film that should not have been made.

When La Ciudad opened at the Quad Cinema in downtown Manhattan on October 22, 1999, there were 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, most of them from Latin America. These were the people who inspired director David Riker to make his film, who taught him Spanish, who overcame their fears that his acting auditions were an elaborate trap by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and who ultimately starred in his movie.

In Hollywood and at New York University’s film school, where Riker was a student at the time, people had told him that no one would want to see a movie shot in Spanish without a single professional actor. But his film of real immigrants dramatizing their stories in their native language — the sweatshop on the silver screen — sold out show after show, prompting the Quad to extend La Ciudad’s run from one week to three months. So many immigrants arrived with their entire families that the theater waived its policy of refusing admittance to children under 10.

Critics were similarly ecstatic. For a while, it seemed like nobody could write about La Ciudad (The City) without referring to Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, or Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan. It screened at film festivals and art houses, and came home with armfuls of awards. Politically, Riker’s timing could not have been better. In the early 2000s, Americans were finally accepting the idea that undocumented immigrants might deserve basic rights. Presidential candidate George W. Bush promised to give them legal status, and as president in July 2001, he gave a speech at Ellis Island that suggested he was poised for action. The following month, Senators Dick Durbin and Orrin Hatch proposed the DREAM Act, which would have granted citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States before they turned 16. (It didn’t pass, however.)

Next came 9/11. Although the terrorists had no connection to Latin America, the attacks provided the perfect cover for dismantling the progress made by undocumented Latinos and their supporters. In 2003, the INS was swallowed up by the Department of Homeland Security; every foreign-born person now looked like a threat. In the years since, deportations have soared upwards of 300,000 annually; long-term incarceration of mothers and children awaiting immigration trials has become routine; several more versions of the DREAM Act have failed; and Congress has authorized the construction of 700 miles of fresh fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, an endeavor projected to cost some $6 billion (never mind that most undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. by plane).

Meanwhile La Ciudad’s images of immigrants struggling to find security and happiness fell out of circulation. The only way to view the film was to find an out-of-print DVD from a friend or library. “The decision to remaster the film [for digital platforms] came from a frightening epiphany that the film was simply going to disappear,” Riker told me. “Nobody was going to do it if I didn’t do it.” He found support from the Princess Grace Foundation, the Sundance Collection at UCLA and the Cinema Conservancy, but still fell some $14,000 short. So he turned to Kickstarter. His funding drive began on October 22, 2014, the night of a 15th anniversary screening of La Ciudad at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Within 10 days he had the cash.

This week, the remastered film is being released on Netflix. On Monday, I streamed it in my living room and found myself startled. Shouldn’t its scenes of labor abuse, educational discrimination and broken families be evocations of the past? The depressing fact is that La Ciudad is as relevant today as it was 16 years ago because, for undocumented immigrants in the United States, almost nothing has changed. They still live under a kind of informal apartheid, enduring the most miserable conditions without complaint, for fear of deportation.

Trailer for “La Ciudad”

Part of La Ciudad’s potency comes from Riker’s anti-auteur process, which he jokingly called “cinema from below.” Each of the film’s four short sections took more than a year to make because, rather than simply write a script and cast actors, Riker spent months building trust with, say, undocumented restaurant workers and collaborating with them to make a short film about their lives. Some of these actor-collaborators attended the screening at Lincoln Center in October, dressed like it was the Oscars. That’s when Riker learned that one of his principal actors, Cesar Monzon, who arrived in a tux, still finds his jobs on a street corner in Queens. The star of the film’s final section, Silva Goiz, whose exceptional evocation of a sweatshop seamstress moved me to tears, is now cleaning houses. Riker is looking for others through a Facebook page.

Thinking about La Ciudad and its actors makes me wonder, yet again, if the ugly truth about American business is that it prefers a large undocumented labor force. Who else would put up with so much for so little? In an early scene from La Ciudad, Monzon and other day laborers press close to the camera, clamoring for work, yelling “A mí! A mí! A mí!” When 10 are picked to climb into the back of a contractor’s truck, destined for who knows where, we watch their expressions darken from eagerness to anxiety. Finally they have a job — but what indignity awaits them at the end of the ride?

Marcela Valdes writes about Latin American culture and arts. Her work has appeared in The Nation, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Disclosure: David Riker was a co-writer of Dirty Wars, a documentary based on the book by Jeremy Scahill, a founding editor of The Intercept.

Photo: Still from “La Ciudad” (Ariane Burgess)

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