In the literary classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, photographer Walker Evans and journalist James Agee make heroes of three unknown families struggling to survive as tenant farmers in rural Alabama circa 1936. Evans and Agee's praise for the poor but proud helped drum up support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the ambitious social experiment that marked the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the welfare state. Sixty years later the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 helped usher in the end of welfare as we know it, severely curtailing the rights of resident aliens to government support. Documentary photographer turned filmmaker David Riker brings Evans and Agee into the 21st century with his film, The City (La Ciudad). By telling tales of the Latin-American underclass in New York City, Riker dedicates his first feature to what he calls "opposing the anti-immigrant fervor that is so rampant."
Born in Boston but raised in Belgium and Britain, Riker stumbled upon Latinos in the barrios of Brooklyn and the Bronx as a film student at NYU. Fascinated, Riker immersed himself in the fabric of immigrant life. From 1992 through 1997, Riker found himself calling on Puerto Rican "matriarchs," dancing at Mexican quinceañeras, and handing out coffee to South American laborers waiting on the street for a day's wage. From these worlds Riker culled the script for the four vignettes that make up The City. The earnest realist distributed his casting call in leaflets at garment factories, public schools, and corner stoops. Apart from Cuban actor José Rabelo, who plays the title role in the vignette called "The Puppeteer," the actors lead lives very much like the characters they portray. Committed to "authenticity," Riker put his untrained players through workshops designed to evoke their most difficult memories: How did it feel to see friends die in the guerrilla struggle in Nicaragua? What was it like to crawl across the border from Mexico? With these broad strokes, the film manipulates the emotions of actors and audience alike.
The City owes a debt in both aesthetics and sentiment to the Italian neorealists. As in Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic The Bicycle Thief, economic hardship makes a mockery of the tenderest feelings between man and woman, parent and child. Stark black-and-white images heighten the sense of inexorable doom that closes in on the characters in the guise of bloodthirsty bosses, heartless bureaucrats, collapsing walls, and labyrinthine housing projects. The camera moves like a funeral procession, lingering over each beautifully composed shot like a deliberately posed portrait. Riker frames the entire film as a series of visits to a neighborhood portrait studio, cutting in a literal flash from the still faces of the immigrants to their lives in motion.
The portrait studio is a common setting for chroniclers of the U.S. Latino experience. Tomas Rivera's Chicano masterpiece, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, stitches together fragmented photos of migrant workers. In Cuban-American filmmaker Ela Troyano's Once Upon a Time in the Bronx, a barrio shutterbug snaps the same 'hood as Riker, with a sensibility more hip-hop than social realist. Stephanie Viruet, the elementary school actress in "The Puppeteer," bears an uncanny resemblance to the little girl featured in Juan Sanchez's famous Nuyorican collages. Perhaps Riker means to pay homage to these Latino artists. The film's emphasis exclusively on new arrivals, however, eclipses Latino protests of conditions in the United States expressed in music, theater, and independent film, for more than a century. The accolades ringing in reviews from the Los Angeles Times to the Nation to the Village Voice echo The City's solemn promise to give voice to the voiceless, ironically turning a deaf ear to those Latinos who have been speaking for themselves and their communities for a very long time. To take a recent example, the same publications that applauded Riker's retro-realism failed to review the far more innovative Colombian-made docu-fiction The Rose Seller, which also developed from intense community collaboration and played many of the same festivals as The City.
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Ultimately The City does depict Latin-American immigrants living in the United States with dignity, a proposition less surprising to some of us than it apparently is to others. Our opportunities to see that experience on the big screen remain few and far between. Perhaps even more depressing than the fact that Latino voices are still so rarely heard in American cinema, The City serves as a reminder that until the balance of power in the hemisphere shifts, those voices will repeat the same familiar tragedies.