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‘La Ciudad’


A sanguine, irrepressible, likeable young man leaves an apartment to get some groceries at the corner bodega. Mere moments later, with two sacks of groceries, he stands in the middle of a courtyard about as forlorn as a small child who can’t find a parent in a crowded mall. The young man has no idea how to get back to the apartment, and the camera pans up to reveal a high rise building looming over him, which conveys to the viewer a painfully vivid picture of a man lost and small in his world. The picture drifts to black, and the man disappears. This is one of many subtly heart-rending moments from David Riker’s powerful new movie, “La Ciudad,” from Zeitgeist Films.

Shot over a five-year period in the ’90s, “La Ciudad” isn’t quite a documentary or a drama in the traditional sense. Rather it’s a series of four vignettes that explore the experience of Latin American immigrants attempting to make a new life in New York City. The “city” of the film’s title isn’t necessarily a physical place, but a mythic promise of a better life in New York, which the characters believe, with the help of family and friends, will become their destinies. “La Ciudad” documents what happens when the mythic dreams of migrants are deflated by harsh encounters with reality.

The realism of the film is enhanced nicely by the grainy black and white cinematography, which makes New York resemble an industrial city in northern England and the fact that the actors aren’t professionals. The cinematography reinforces the reality that these people are the newly invisible poor. As these characters contend with dreary, urgent circumstances, others who are in positions to ease their plights remain unmoved, and the characters disappear into the landscape.

Their invisibility is best depicted in the first and fourth segments.

The first vignette, “Bricks,” speaks to the contumely endured by a group of Latin day laborers from the viewpoint of one worker, who reads a letter from his wife in an unnamed Central American country. These men fight for the chance to get into a crowded van for the prospect of earning $50. When they arrive at the work site, the contractor informs them that, in fact, they will earn 15 cents for each brick they clean. After a tepid protest, the men realize they have no choice but to accept. They soon turn on each other. Their helplessness is later revealed when an accident happens, and the contractor disappears, leaving them without a way to get the injured party to a hospital or even to call an ambulance.

The elements of the fourth story, “Seamstress,” will be familiar to those who have followed the recent sweatshop controversies. A woman works for weeks without being paid, while her daughter lies sick in her home country. A moment that could easily be manipulative instead resonates: The woman’s personal act of desperation becomes a political act of resistance when her co-workers join her in a work stoppage. This is the film’s unifying moment. As the camera lingers on each face, the viewer knows these people aren’t invisible. They are real and here among us.

Each story is compelling enough on its own, frustrating viewers because they can’t follow a story to its end. This may be the film’s only weakness. That’s a cavil, however. Evocative, sad, haunting, “La Ciudad” deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Chris Byrd works for Pax Christi in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000