In 1998, writer/director David Riker explored New York City’s Latin American immigrant population through the anthology film “La Ciudad,” striking for its documentary-like feel. Although he planned to follow up that film with another narrative feature about the US-Mexico border, the wealth of information and research he came across led him to change some of the preconceived notions he had about la frontera.
The result of Riker’s own personal journey, “The Girl” follows a single Texas mother, Ashley (Abbie Cornish), struggling to shape up and regain custody of her son from Child Protective Services. Desperate for cash, she makes a foolhardy attempt to become a coyote on the border. After a tragic border crossing, she finds herself caretaker of young Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), vowing to take the girl back to her Oaxacan home. Rosa awakens Ashley’s motherly instincts, and changes her outlook on the border, its people, and her own life.
David Riker spoke to me by phone from San Miguel de Allende about “The Girl,” which was awarded Best Feature Film at the 2013 CineFestival, and is now playing at the Regal Cinemas Huebner Oaks theater in San Antonio, as well as other Texas cities.
Nathan Cone: Over a decade ago you explored immigration in your New York City-based drama, “La Ciudad.” What led you back to this subject at this point in time?
David Riker: Well, right after “La Ciudad,” I went down to the border and started researching life in the borderlands. And it was really my work in New York City with immigrants that led me to go there, because everyone I worked with in New York City had a story about crossing the border that was both indelible, and in most cases, very painful. And I wanted to see with my own eyes what that meant. I honestly thought that I would have started a follow-up film very quickly, but what I discovered in my work on the border is that my preconceptions were false, or inadequate. And that led me to several years of open-ended research, traveling back and forth across the border lands before finally coming to terms with what I wanted to say. So the main reason for such a long period of time was that I realized that I was repeating a narrative that wasn’t necessarily true, and that narrative is the primary myth of the border itself, which says that hope is on *this* side of the border. That is, “if I can just make it to Texas, then there’s a better future.” And when I say that that is false, I mean it in two ways. The first is that we know that in the U.S., in Texas, in the very epicenter of the American Dream, there are many many people who feel shut out or trapped. And conversely, on the other side of the border, we know that it’s wrong to say that it is a world without hope, and that the villages of the south are a place of pure despair. And yet most of the films that deal with this question of immigration or the border, one way or another, they indirectly or directly contribute to this idea. So the [traditional] narrative of migrants striving to make it across the border indirectly says that if they can make it to the north then there’ll be this better future...I wanted somehow to turn [this idea] on its head.
I know that every migrant who makes the decision to migrate is making a complex calculation, but what is not complicated is that they are coming north to work, and they’re coming to work for “us,” the Americans. And so it suddenly struck me as extraordinary that we Americans are almost invisible in all of these narratives about immigration.
In my [previous] film, “La Ciudad,” I had this experience traveling the country and hearing audiences describe their emotional response to the film and saying “those poor people,” and it struck me that there was this unjustified separation between Americans on the one hand, and the new arrivals on the other, as if we were not connected. And yet we know that it is our children that [immigrants] are here to take care of, our parents that they’re looking after, our homes that they’re building and cleaning.... and I made a critical decision to put an Anglo-American in the dramatic crosshairs of this story. It was a difficult choice as a writer, making a film that one level is really about immigration and the border, to have a protagonist who is an Anglo woman. It comes out of a realization that I not only wanted to turn the myth of the border upside down, but to go further than that and put a character right at the dramatic center who represents this country and who has an attitude at the beginning that she is not responsible for anything.
Your answer is interesting, because it seems that your own personal findings and research informed the story you wanted to tell about Ashley, played by Abbie Cornish, who is a single mom, having hard luck trying to get her own son back. Her discovery in the film is yours--everything about your own discovery of the border stories makes sense to me. It’s there in her character.
It is in her character, and you know Nathan... if you’re telling a story that is built upon existing myths, a huge amount of work is already done for you. For example, World War II films that are dealing with the Nazis... you don’t have to spend much time establishing the parameters of the world, the good and the bad. It’s what was remarkable to me about Clint Eastwood’s film “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which made the Japanese soldiers the protagonists. As soon as you work to confront that myth or change it, it’s very difficult. And in this case, the one myth that I wanted to confront was, why is it that the U.S. has the monopoly on dreaming?
How did that come to be? What do we mean when we, as Americans, take it for granted that we are in the best of all possible places, and that the future is brightest here? The idea that we have of the village, the farming villages of the south, not only in Latin America, but across the global south, of being these lost places of impoverished despair is very dangerous.... all of our knowledge about production of food resides in those parts of the world, and the day may come when we desperately need that knowledge again. The rural village preserves not only cultural diversity, but biodiversity as well.
So I wanted to confront both the idea that we are in the best of all possible worlds here, in a character who actually, though she lives in the epicenter of this [American] Dream, feels completely shut out by it, betrayed by it, and also to question that idea that the village in the south is hopeless in the character of a little girl (Rosa) who never wanted to leave, because for her, that village is a complete universe meeting all of her needs.
Well, the girl knows nothing else. That is her world, and it’s our idea of what is ideal that we’re projecting onto her. We say ‘she could be having so much more,’ but that’s her world.
Yes, exactly. I try as a writer not to be judgmental. I don't judge the woman who leaves her village and leaves her daughter or son behind to come to New York. I try to understand it. I have no idea what decision I would make in similar circumstances. But I also don’t judge the mother who decides to stay home and not make the journey, who decides not to leave their home. What I love about “The Girl” is that these two archetypal characters meet in the border lands, but they’ve taken each other’s dialogues. So the Texas woman is saying where I come from we have nothing. And we’re all living in boxes with no future, and the little girl from the south says where I come from, we have a full life and an abundant world. That’s part of what I’m trying to do in the film is to broaden the conversation. For me, the whole discussion about immigration and border is getting, is actually completely misplaced. The people who are encouraging the dialogue are themselves opposed to borders. By that I mean the large corporations. They’ve spent the last 30 years abolishing borders on capital. The free trade manifesto is that we should be able to move trillions of dollars of capital from any point of the world to any other instantaneously. And yet for the human being, more borders are erected. So I want the film to push this kind of reset button, and if you think the film is going to go in one direction, it goes in another.
There’s a great human story in this film, too--the bonding between Ashley and Rosa, the young girl in the film, and I wanted to ask you about the two actors. First of all about Abbie Cornish, who does a terrific job as Ashley. I think a lot of people if they even knew her at all would recognize her from [the genre film] “Sucker Punch.” I doubt many people would have really pegged her for this part based on that. How did you cast her?
I had seen her very first film, called “Somersault,” an Australian production, and soon after that, a film called ‘Candy,’ where she played opposite Heath Ledger. I was really struck by her ability to disappear into those roles. And so as you tend to do when you’re a filmmaker, you track the actors, and I then saw her in ‘Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s film, and I felt that although this role was a great stretch, that she had the qualities to pull it off. I met with a number of actors, not only with Abbie, but what was interesting [about] my meeting with Abbie was that she was the only actress who said to me “I don’t just want to memorize the Spanish language dialogue, I want to learn the language. I want to be able to step off the set in Mexico and continue speaking with Rosa and her family.” It struck me that she was prepared to make this awesome commitment and that’s the reason that this decision was easy for me. She has been in films like “Sucker Punch,” and she’s going to be in the new “RoboCop,” but she’s deeply interested in pushing herself with these complex dramatic roles. And she had a hugh amount of preparation to do once she had taken the role, not only learning Spanish, and Spanish that is learned not in school or through Rosetta Stone, but learned by growing up in South Texas. So we worked very closely with a lot of audio tape that I recorded of Anglo women in South Texas who spoke Spanish as a second language. Abbie had a huge amount of work to do once she was chosen.
With Rosa, little Maritza Santiago, the work was in finding her. Once I found Maritza, she had very little work to do. She really is the girl that you see in the film. Her personality and mannerisms are what you see in the film, so the work was finding her, and that was complicated. That was a long process for me of meeting with thousands of girls all throughout Oaxaca’s central valleys, and having to earn trust as an American filmmaker in Oaxaca, which as you know is a southern Mexican state. It’s very indigenous, [and] the communities are quite closed and protective. So it was a long process of earning their trust. I was living there [at the time], and so it helped that it was my home when I was searching for Rosa.
How old was Maritza Santiago during filming?
She was eight when we were filming. But she’s very little for her age. She’s a compact firecracker of a girl. The vast majority of the girls that I met, I would build trust, spend time earning the trust of school committees to be able to sit in classrooms, and I would observe girls, and the girls that seemed the most feisty and had the right look I would invite to a casting, but invariably they would become extremely shy when put in front of a camera. But Maritza, the first time I met her, she burst out laughing at her own jokes. I’m very tall, 6’4”, my hair is funny looking, and she asked me if I worked for the circus! She started cracking up at her own joke. I knew immediately that she would not be shy, that if she had the other qualities we needed, she’d be perfect for the role.
I imagine that you’ve shown the picture to a variety of audiences. What are the different reactions you get from say showing at a festival in America versus showing it to an audience in Mexico?
The reactions are very, very different. In the United States...the reaction generally tends to be a sense of hopefulness about the possibility that we can learn and grow the way that Ashley has. Women respond very strongly to the story as a story about mothering, and a woman coming to her own self-awakening. In Mexico, the response has been to see the relationship between Ashley and Rosa as emblematic between the U.S. and Mexico. Over and over I heard this. Someone would thank me for making a film that showed the true relationship between our countries. The U.S. -- bigger, meaner, and ignorant, uncaring about Mexico -- littler, and in far worse circumstances, but with the possibility that [the relationship] can change. It was a shock to me honestly, the first time that the film was distilled to such a crude metaphor, but I heard it over and over again. The very strong embrace for the film in Mexico comes from seeing a film in which Mexico and the Mexican characters are not portrayed as desperate and helpless, but actually having a sense of pride about where they come from. And that the American character, and America in their eyes, as a place that is open to actually learning, listening, and changing.