Here’s the synopsis of the film:
Struggling with the loss of her child to Social Services, a single mother is trapped in the quicksand of her south Texas life, unwilling to accept the consequences of her actions. When her path collides with a young child from Mexico, she begins a journey that will change her life -- teaching her that she is the architect of her own fate and learning what it is that truly defines home.
Latino-Review had an exclusive telephone interview with Riker as he promotes his emotional film “The Girl.” We discussed certain topics about immigration, the characters, motherhood and political/social themes from the film. And there were also certain challenges of adapting a script that was in the works for over a decade, an actress learning a new language, border violence and working with a non-professional child actor.
The film stars Abbie Cornish, Will Patton and Maritza Santiago. It will be in limited release for theaters on Friday, March 8.
Check out the full transcript of the interview below:
Latino-Review: It’s been 14 years since “La Cuidad,” why did you make this project with “The Girl?”
David Riker: That’s a great question. There have been a number of movies I’ve tried to make in between. That’s one answer. Each time I do finish a film, it’s a small miracle since as an independent filmmaker—it’s so difficult.
The other answer is more relevant, since it took me a very long time to talk about the subject of the border. I set out in 2000 to do research on the border. I thought I was able to write the script in a few months or within six months. Then I realized that my preconception about the border were false or inadequate. So I abandoned my original storyline and began an open-ended research that lasted several years.
The starting point for me was that it was more important for me to understand on what I was writing about rather than just making another film. I arrived at the border with a common preconception, which is that north of the border—there is hope and possibility. For that reason, migrants are crossing the border north and not south. At south of the border, there really was such a difficult set of circumstances to say that there was no future.
And then I realized it wasn’t correct. It’s not that there’s more hope in the north or the south is full of despair. The hope is in the person that is making the journey. The hope is inside. It’s carried across the border. That realization let me to graze a whole series of questions on whether I could turn the whole myth of the border upside down.
So I began to research the angles on the communities on the northern side of the border and to envision a story on which an Anglo-American woman crosses the border.
To answer your question—I’ve tried to make a number of other films. It just took me a long time to figure out on how to tell this story.
Latino-Review: Why did you choose an Anglo woman to be the main character for this type of story?
David Riker: My starting point for this film was with a film I made long ago with “La Cuidad” in New York City. It was made overall in a long period over seven years. It was cast entirely with nonprofessional actors who were playing characters very closely to their own lives as Latin-American immigrants in New York.
I travelled all over the country with that film and listened to countless answer and question series. [There was] a repeated question that almost like a mantra. It wasn’t quite a question, but a reaction. The reaction was from Anglo audiences that the film is very powerful and moving, but people felt sorry that these immigrants suffered so much. They said, “Oh, those poor people.”
I realized that I wanted to find a way to talk about immigration in a new form and a new language. It allows thinking about this question or reaction in a new way.
It’s cliché to say that we’re all immigrants, with Native Americans aside. We’re all immigrants. What does that really mean? How does that change over time?
The fact is for today, or at least for the last twenty years, is to be an immigrant in the world—it means to leave your children behind. It means the separation of families.
When you begin talking to people that the about the mother leaving their children behind in the Philippines or Columbia—it changes the discussion. It doesn’t become a question about Proposition 187 or the politics of border security. It’s very human. It’s the border that separates families.
There are two reasons [for the Anglo character]. I wanted to find an Anglo character that could somehow be the center of the story so that Anglo-Americans don’t think it has anything to do with just [migrants]. Secondly, I wanted this character to share in some way with the experience of immigrants of forced separation of families.
And that’s why I began to research the fostering and teenage mothers who have their children taken from them. I found a character that had the son has taken away and feels like a victim. She would claim that “nobody knows my suffering.” That would be a starting point.
In fact, we come to see that’s the experience with every immigrant. That’s actually the common ground for her. As a writer, you can’t always control the work you’re doing, but slowly the character of Ashley Colton came into focus at the center of this film.
These are very long answers to your short questions. I’m sorry.
Latino-Review: That’s okay. You presented two different sides on mother-child relationships in the film. On the United States, you presented a mother who lost her child due to child protection services. On the other side, you presented a young girl who lost her mother due to the immigration crossing. How did you research on the subject of how both sides of the border handled this type of issue? Did you discuss these issues with government agencies and churches about the subject?
David Riker: Yes, I did. Once I situated the story in South Texas, I spent a lot of times first with young mothers in high schools and in pregnancy programs. I met with pregnant and young mothers to understand with the most difficult questions they faced in their lives.
I also met with foster mothers and people who worked with Child Protective Services to understand on what their experiences are. I spent a lot of time with what we call nickel-and-dime workers who live from paycheck-to-paycheck with no sense of job security or job loyalty.
And in Mexico, I spent a lot of time with migrants in their villages and migrants at the border crossing. I also spent time with coyotes and arrested coyotes in prison. And to understand further, I also spent time in the orphanages over the experiences of children who lost their parents. Every facet of the film is rooted in very specific elements of research.
The deeper question you may be asking is how this all became a film about motherhood and a woman awakening.
David Riker: I don’t know the answer to that. It was not an obvious starting point for me. Once I realized that I wanted to explore the angle of a character who understands the forced separation of her own family. It raises the question of what it means to be a mother and what it means to be unfit to be a mother. And I began to see that this character really thinks that the only thing she lacks is money.
She’ll discover on her journey that it’s not just money that she lacked. It’s really over the sense of being responsible. And she should look in the mirror and realize she’s responsible for her own decisions. Slowly, it became a story about a woman’s awakening in forefront.
Latino-Review: In your last movie, you used non-professional actors. However, in this movie, you used professional actors Abbie Cornish and Will Patton, but you chose a non-professional actress with Maritza Santiago Hernandez. Could you discuss the choices of casting here?
David Riker: The first thing is that the role that Abbie played as Ashley Colton—is just so complex. She’s at the very center of the whole film. From the outset, I needed not just to find an actress, but an actress with an extraordinary sensitivity, intelligence and control. The film is very subtle and gradual awakening of this woman from inside and out.
I looked for actresses who I have a great deal of respect for who are young and might be able to do something special. So when I first met Abbie, the biggest challenge for her or any actress is to learn another language for the role, which was two-thirds of her dialogue. Abbie made it clear in our first meeting that she wasn’t only learn her dialogue, but she was ready to study and master the language of Spanish. She wanted to fully inhabit the character.
Latino-Review: Yeah, what she did for the role was very amazing.
David Riker: I can’t say enough about how she took this on the deepest possible sense as a human being. She had a huge amount of preparation to do.
On the other side for the little girl, you can’t really talk about child actors. In Hollywood, there are some professional child actors. The truth is children are not actors yet. Children are who they are. So I looked at all children as non-professional actors.
Unlike an actor, you would cast someone with great skills and abilities to play someone else. With non-actors, you are actually looking for somebody who has the qualities of your character. So I wasn’t just looking for a girl to play Rosa, but I was looking for Rosa.
So the challenge was with Rose and I had to see over 3,000 girls. I spent more than a year to travel over hundreds of communities all over Oaxaca searching for this girl. When I found her—there’s was very little work needed to be done. She was essentially ready to go.
Latino-Review: I also noticed another theme from this film is Oaxaca itself. I know a lot of stories are about Mexicans crossing over this border tends to come from poorer rural areas of Mexico. Could you talk a little about that and why the focus is on Oaxaca?
David Riker: Absolutely, the immigrants are not only from Oaxaca, but all over Latin America. They are people mostly coming from villages. If they are coming from big cities—it’s just because they recently left their villages to move from one big city to another big city. It’s a movement of people from small villages to big cities whether it’s Mexico City or New York.
Oaxaca is one of those southern Mexican states, along with Guerrero, Pueblo and Chiapas, who’s main export is labor. They have a huge story of immigration. Are you in Los Angeles?
Latino-Review: I’m actually in Fresno, the Central Valley. So I’m very familiar with all this illegal immigration topic.
David Riker: Forgive me. It’s just that one out of three Oaxacans are in California. The reason on why I chose Oaxaca was that I moved to Oaxaca. Once I moved to Oaxaca with my own family in 2004—I was able to figure out on how to tell the story and write the script. As I was living there, I’ve decided to have my migrant to be from Oaxaca.
I had every intention to shoot the film on the border. By the time we were financed and ready to go, the border setting was completely out of bounds due to the violence. So we recreated the border in Oaxaca in various parts in the isthmus and in the central valleys. That became the greatest challenge of the film was to recreate everything with as much authenticity of the border.
Latino-Review: With the political landscape changing fairly quickly, can I get your opinion about the politics, immigration changes and on whether this satisfies the themes going on with this movie?
David Riker: I think that Washington continues to look at immigrants as criminals. This movie embraces immigrants’ humanities. The movement right now for immigrant rights is being led by the young generation of undocumented immigrants who no longer have any fear. They grew up in the United States. They know this is their home. It’s far more real to them than whether where their fathers and mothers are from.
And that movement of youngsters, the Dreamers, this young generation is going to redefine what the immigrant rights movement is going to look like. It’s going to erase the border in a way. Many of them, over time, will be able to cross back and forth freely. So the experience of their parents of having to live in the shadows is going to change.
In terms of this film, my hope in making this film is to find a way to talk about on what it means to be an American in a new way and a new language. And we should not fall into the political conversations of their stories in black and white or in dark terms. I really think that part of the problem right now is that we’re not thinking about it ourselves. We’re just being given these key words that do our thinking for us. And anyone in this country who is truly honest with themselves of who they are—they have to acknowledge that all of us recently arrived here. And the greater claim on what it means to be here is just very narrow-minded.
That’s my own personal feeling. And I’m hoping the film can generate a discussion on these topics. Who is American? And what does that mean? And what do we have in common?
It was a beautiful discover for me as a writer. I realized that this South Texas Anglo woman and working class girl with this little girl from Southern Mexico could actually discover that they had profound things in common. Their experiences as girls with their fathers abandoned them for whatever reason—and to me it was a wonderful moment in the film. And frankly the little does not want to come to the United States. She wanted to stay in her village and never wanted to leave home.
To her, the village is her whole universe. It provides all of her needs. She feels like on where she’s from is the land of plenty. And the American woman said that where she’s from—she feels like she’s living in a box. She feels like it’s a place lacking in any possibility. That’s a total turning upside down of the normal conversation.
Latino-Review: I did get that impression. Thank you and good luck with your film.
David Riker: You know what—thank you for your interest in the film. Bye.
"The Girl" will be in theaters this Friday, March 8th.