When David Riker set out to make his film “The Girl,” he didn’t want to shoot another heart-rending saga about poor, desperate Mexicans hellbent on crossing the border. Instead, he says, he aimed to create a character who could “turn the border upside-down.”
So the indie screenwriter-director invented Ashley, a struggling south Texas single mom who decides to boost her meager big-box store clerk’s pay by smuggling migrants across the Rio Grande. But when a tragic twist occurs, and a Mexican girl is left motherless, it is Ashley herself who winds up retracing the steps of the immigrant journey, but in reverse, all the way to a cloud-swept Oaxacan mountain village.
That plotline, Riker knew, upends traditional narratives, both in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill, that immigration is invariably a one-way tale of forlorn exiles trudging north to an imagined promised land. The reality, Riker says, is that immigration is a complex exchange that touches lives on both sides of the metal fences and razor wire, and in which hope and opportunity aren’t the sovereign terrain of any one nation.
“I wanted her to make a journey directly against the migrant stream,” Riker says of the character played by Australian actor Abbie Cornish in “The Girl,” which opened in theaters March 15. “I wanted to change how we talk about what it means to be an American.”
If “The Girl” is only one small step in that direction, it’s part of a big leap in changing representations of immigration in U.S. independent and world cinema in recent years. To a degree, Riker and other filmmakers suggest, these changes in perspective mirror shifting public attitudes toward migrants in the United States. Foremost is the gathering awareness that migration is a global phenomenon, as old as humanity, in which people from countries both rich and poor, north and south, play their parts.
“We are all migrants. We all come from migrant families, and we will be migrant families,” says Gael García Bernal, the Mexican star of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “No,” who serves as a sort of forensic detective in the forthcoming documentary “Who Is Dayani Cristal?”
In that movie, a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the discovery in the Arizona desert of an anonymous migrant’s body sparks a cross-continental sleuthing expedition by foot and by hitching harrowing rides on train tops. While searching out the real-life dead man’s identity, the film pauses to contemplate the forces that motivate people to risk their lives in hopes of improving them, and what happens to those who get left behind.
Producer Lucas Ochoa says the filmmakers wanted to “move away from the rhetoric” surrounding the immigration debate and focus instead on the mostly untold individual dramas. “All of these people that are, sadly, recovered from the desert, all of them had a story, had a reason that they were coming,” he says, “and more broadly, that’s something that’s true the world over.”
In Hollywood’s early days, many movies depicted immigrant stories and struggles, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” (1917) to the original version of “The Jazz Singer” (1927). Today, the major Hollywood studios rarely touch immigrant-related themes, or when they do, they tend to wrap them in romantic gauze (“Maid in Manhattan”) or innocuous comedy (“Beverly Hills Chihuahua”).
But over the last decade, a number of foreign and independent directors working outside the studio system have produced thoughtful, well-crafted dramas about migration across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, including Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka,” Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and Philippe Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar.”
Among U.S.-based filmmakers, for obvious geo-historical reasons, Latin American immigration commands the most attention. As the U.S. Congress takes up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform this spring, it faces a reality of human movement that in some ways is very different from the one presented in “El Norte,” Gregory Nava’s landmark 1983 drama about two indigenous youths fleeing Guatemala’s savage civil war for a fresh start in Los Angeles.
Although there are an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States, the vast majority from Mexico and Central America, unlawful immigration rates have dropped to their lowest point in years due to the slowed U.S. economy and stepped-up border security.
Meanwhile, Latinos have grown into the country’s largest ethnic minority and soon will constitute a majority of Californians. Politicians who once spoke only of securing the border and “no amnesty” now acknowledge the need to integrate undocumented migrants into society. That emerging reality, some filmmakers suggest, requires new stories that examine not only the journey northward but also what happens afterward.
Roots of a film
Director Patricia Riggen says that when she was making her well-regarded 2008 drama “Under the Same Moon” (La Misma Luna), many people assumed it would be a tragedy about the hardships of border-crossing. “People [were] telling me, ‘Why are you going to make a movie about immigrants? They’re always depressing and dark,’” says Riggen, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Instead, the film, in which Kate del Castillo portrays a Mexican mother who temporarily leaves her son to find work in L.A., contains a wide spectrum of characters grappling with situations that are alternately harsh and tender, unsettling and humorous. “You see them from inside, understanding what they are going through and why they are here,” Riggen says.
Riggen believes that “Under the Same Moon” forms the middle part of a kind of trilogy with “El Norte” and Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life” (2011), which stars Demián Bichir in an Oscar-nominated performance as an illegal-immigrant East L.A. gardener trying to single-parent his teenage son.
Collectively, Riggen observes, those three movies followed a trail, from migration, to arrival, to the next generation’s challenges in assimilating to a new country. The next step in the journey, Riggen says, may be films that depict reverse-migration, such as “The Girl.”
“One thing that’s very interesting to me, coming from Mexico, is how little the U.S. knows about Mexico,” Riggen says, “and if it’s ever in the news, it’s just the assassinations, the crimes and the bad stuff. I think little by little, movies and music and other cultural expressions are opening up some interest in the American audience.”
Not only the tone of immigration-themed films is evolving. So are the methods of researching and writing them, and the required degree of verisimilitude.
Bernal, director Marc Silver and the crew of “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” weren’t the first to make perilous trips on railroad boxcars for cinema’s sake. Cary Joji Fukunaga did the same thing while researching and filming “Sin Nombre,” his 2009 feature about a Honduran girl and a Mexican ex-gang-banger fleeing to the United States.
Cornish, perhaps best known for playing the lover of poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” learned Spanish to take on the role of Ashley. Prior to filming “The Girl,” she spent several weeks living in Mexico, including the remote village of San Juan Chicomezuchil, where she bonded with Maritza Santiago Hernández, the young Mexican girl chosen to play the title role from more than 3,000 children who auditioned.
Cornish also spent time at a Mexican orphanage, interacting with its young residents. “I came back a different person,” she says. “It filtered out ... anything that wasn’t of importance. It showed me what is of value in life.”
Riker, like Cornish, called the experience of making “The Girl” life-changing. He’d secured a screenwriting grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for his 1998 drama “La Ciudad” (The City), about migrants living in New York. He then spent two years researching the borderlands, interviewing hundreds of migrants, farm and factory workers and the coyotes who traffic in human contraband. He also lived in Oaxaca with his wife and two young daughters for nearly eight years during the filmmaking process.
U.S.-made movies set in Mexico have traveled a long way from the era when the country served mainly as an “exotic” backdrop for foreign visitors’ erotic romps and psychological smash-ups (e.g. Puerta Vallarta in 1964’s “The Night of the Iguana”). Riker hopes “The Girl” will encourage more films that allow viewers to reverse-migrate, at least in their perceptions and feelings.
“I’m shaped by the understanding that movies can be extremely destructive and damaging,” he says. “They form so much of how people look at the world and look at each other. To pick up a camera carries a huge responsibility.”
Times staffer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.