Do filmmakers think Americans can only sympathize with the plight of brown people through a white face?
This was my initial thought when I watched the trailer of "The Girl," starring Australian actress Abbie Cornish of "Limitless" and "Sucker Punch." This is the very same question I've had when watching dozens of Hollywood creations set in the third world, including "The Last King of Scotland," "'Babel," "The Constant Gardener," "Brokedown Palace," and the recent film "The Impossible," about a European family's trauma during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, featuring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.
After talking to writer and director David Riker of the film "The Girl", my suspicions were only partially confirmed. Riker, 50, was drawn to exploring the US's immigrant narrative after living in Belgium and England for most of his childhood and returning to the U.S. for film school in his twenties. He told me that after writing and directing "La Ciudad", a 1998 film that documents the lives of four Hispanic immigrants in New York City, he realized that many Americans couldn't see themselves in his characters.
"Audiences that are not new immigrants themselves easily fall into the place of looking at immigrants as the other," Riker said. "We are somehow able to distance ourselves from the experience, so I really wanted to put an Anglo at the center of it."
While I'm not sure that assertion is completely convincing in 2013, especially in a society where 17 percent of the population is Hispanic, what he said next made me think again about Riker's casting decision and my own casting of judgement.
"I wanted to make [Abbie] complicit, though" he said.
It dawned on me after watching the film, and speaking with Riker, that one couldn't make a movie that hopes to reframe the conversation about the border and the U.S.-Mexico relationship without showing the American faces, especially the ones that benefit from undocumented labor.
Ashley Colton, Abbie Cornish's character, doesn't exactly lure immigrants with jobs, but rather becomes an amatuer 'coyote' or migrant smuggler after struggling at a low-paying job where she felt overshadowed by Mexican migrants in a bordertown in Texas. Her character attempts to capitalize off of a broken system, at the expense of Mexican migrants, and also suffers from what Riker describes as "a victimhood of her skin privilege," which he says is prevalent and throughout the U.S.:
"We're always being told that the new immigrant is taking our job, taking our place in line, taking our spots in school, taking our medical care, and so I projected some of that onto the character," Riker said.
Ashley is a bitter, single mother, who loses her son to Social Services, and ends up working a series of minimum wage jobs in Texas until she's pulled into the human smuggling trade by her own father. During her first smuggling expedition, Ashley meets a young girl named Rosa who she is forced to care for.
Rosa was played by the young Maritza Santiago Hernandez, who was selected to star in the film after 3,000 girls from Oaxaca's Central Valleys participated in a 2-year long casting process.
Riker also worked hard to make the film accurate, researching on the border over the course of almost 10 years. His efforts paid off. He succeeds in depicting the grim realities of the border while reversing a number of its myths.
"The central myth of the border says that hope is in the North, if you can just make it across the border, a new future exists," Riker said. "The problem with that is that many people North of the border don't believe that, and it also implies that there's no hope in the South."
Indeed, the movie brings us back to Oaxaca by its end, where Ashley finally finds happiness in beautiful expanses of a lush and mountainous paradise, reversing the South-to-North paradigm of most migration stories.
Still, for all its strengths, the story gets muddled by minor details, like Cornish's handle on Spanish, which is spoken for more than half of the film. During Riker's research he found that many Texans learned a brand of Spanish that one can't learn in school, that's picked up naturally through years of living around Chicano culture. But that's not the Spanish we heard in the film, unfortunately. Cornish's version of the language is one of a newcomer who doesn't yet understand tonal ebbs and flows of its cadences but somehow also knows the subjunctive tenses and colloquial phrases. For Spanish speaking audiences, the accent may be distracting.
Admittedly, Cornish, 30, says taking on Spanish was one of the more intimidating parts of her role. She started studying it 3 months before the film started and continued speaking to her young co-star for the rest of the film.
"I was so terrified about taking on the language," Cornish said. "In a way the only good thing about it was that it overrode all my other fears and challenges during the film."
During her two months of filming in Mexico, Cornish says she became very close with the young Maritza, and the chemistry certainly rings true on camera in the film's final scenes. Cornish says she also gained a strong appreciation for the importance of the film's message.
"I was presented with faces and stories and real people going through this," she said. "A lot of people die, a lot of things go wrong... when a man leaves behind his children and his wife to make a better life for them, it's just heartbreaking."
From the producers of "Maria Full of Grace," and the executive producers of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," David Riker's "The Girl" premieres on March 8th in New York, and March 15th in Tucson and Los Angeles.