You Should Stream: Using Non-Actors, 1998’s ‘La Ciudad’ Gave Latino Immigrants in NYC a Voice

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Throw a rock into the expansive pool of contemporary American independent cinema, and you’re bound to hit an immigration story. And understandably so, it only makes sense that filmmakers would find a little inspiration in one of the 21st century’s most urgent political, social, and civil rights issues, right?

But years before Sleep Dealer or Sin Nombre or even Bajo la misma luna ushered in a new wave of immigration-themed dramas, there was a small, black and white film shot on the streets of New York that didn’t seem to fit squarely into any of the indie tendencies that characterized 1990s American cinema. In fact, with its grainy cinematography, non-professional actors, and brutal realist narrative, La Ciudad (The City) seemed to have been sent forth in time from post-war Italy, where filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica first pioneered this stylistic approach as founders of neorealism.

Shot with the sensitive eye of a still photographer (indeed, director David Riker first worked for 10 years as a photojournalist before embarking on this project), The City was the product of 5 years of research and acting workshops carried out with New York’s struggling Latin American immigrant community, and its screenplay was drawn directly from their real-life experiences.

Broken into four separate vignettes united by a neighborhood photography studio where the immigrants go to get their portraits taken, The City dramatizes the difficulty of life in a cold, unforgiving city for recent arrivals who still struggle with the language and presumably work without documents. In all, there are stories of timid love alongside tales of labor exploitation and homelessness, but Riker’s characters are not mere archetypes of suffering and victimhood; they are deeply humanized and in some cases exceptionally well acted subjects.

FROM THE ARCHIVESWhile David Riker was filming the garment workers segment of LA CIUDAD, the Spanish-language station…

Posted by La Ciudad at Fifteen / La Ciudad a los Quince Años on Wednesday, October 8, 2014


And, much like his Italian forebears, Riker’s also not shy about his melodramatic flares. A highly emotive string soundtrack accompanies the stories, aiming straight for the tear ducts as the film’s non-professional cast hits emotional registers that could be taken straight out of Cinema Paraiso. But it’s hardly a flaw, and these operatic touches only further set this idiosyncratic film apart from anything made in this country in the years before or since.

Indeed, when The City was first released back in 1998 it was a critical success and picked up important prizes at festivals like Havana, San Sebastián, and SXSW. Now, 17 years later, it’s on your computer. Check out The City (La Ciudad) on Netflix and appreciate this singular work that put a devastatingly human face on modern immigration.

La Ciudad is streaming on Netflix, iTunes, and other digital platforms.