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Film Review: Real Tales from the City

By Tom Zaniello

"The City" is an unusual experiment in contemporary filmmaking, not only in subject matter but in its overall conception and method of building stories. Director David Riker has created four stories of Latino immigrant life that typify some of their struggles--homelessness, dangerous day work, difficulties in coping with urban life, and working without immediate pay. His achievement will remind viewers of the approach pioneered by the Italian neo-realist filmmakers after World War II--the use of non-professionals in acting roles, nitty-gritty street life, and respect for the working poor.

Riker began the journey, which became "The City" with a short film, "The Puppeteer" (now the third episode), about a a homeless man who wants to enroll his child in school. He decided to expand that first film into a feature-length "anthology" focusing on Latino immigrants facing typical and--in many cases--actual occurrences. His method of filming, once he decided that he would use nonprofessionals for the key roles, was to recruit workers literally from the streets, work with them in creative and story-building sessions, and write a script out of their experiences. Thus for "Bricks" he combined his research into street corner labor pools and a specific story he had read in a newspaper about a homeless man killed while scavenging for bricks in the Bronx: "The idea of brick scavenging," he stated, "struck me as a metaphor not only for the whole transformation of the city that is occurring, but also for the idea of uprooted ness, which is the central drama every immigrant experiences." He leafleted labor pools with a Dominican organizer who worked for the Center for Immigrant Rights.

Similarly, for "Seamstress," he handed out 40,000 leaflets during shift changes in the Eight Avenue apparel workshops. Workers curious to see what he was up to watched "Bricks" to understand what they were getting involved with. The story that evolved was a portrait of a worker who badly needs her overdue pay to help a sick relative: her employers treat this "demand" as some kind of rebellion. The drill for "Home" was a little different, in that it came out of an invitation to a young girl's Mexican Sweet 15 party: "Seeing this cultural tradition so firmly transported from Mexico to the Bronx," he asked the girl's father to re-create the party for his camera. The man agreed and invited 200 of his relatives to "stage" the party again.

The framing story of these four urban tales of Latino immigrants in contemporary New York City is a neighborhood photographers' studio. Here the very poor and the working poor spend their money on photos, perhaps to send back home, perhaps just to memorialize certain moments in their lives. For a brief moment they smile or even laugh, as each one of the principal characters in the four tales takes his or her place before the camera. Their friends and neighbors and even other strangers are included in these brief connecting moments to give us a sense of a community captured in an instant. But usually only the faces are shown in this fascinating and authentic way of linking the seemingly unrelated characters from the four stories.

Zeitgeist, the film's distributor, has an excellent website (http://www.zei, with synopses of the four segments, production details, and helpful information about the process of making this film, as well as information regarding future film showings in various cities, as the film is currently only in limited release.

Tom Zaniello is the author of Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Organized Guide to Films about Labor

Tom can be reached by email at: tzaniello@NKU.EDU

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