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The emotion in the room was palpable as writer-director David Riker took the stage alongside producer Tania Zarak following the final TFF 2012 screening of their film, THE GIRL. As Riker explained, THE GIRL continues the conversation sparked in his first film, LA CIUDAD (THE CITY), which explored the lives of Hispanic immigrants in New York City.
Yet despite the evocative tone of LA CIUDAD, “Q&As just like this one” illuminated a sobering reality: audiences “were very moved, but spoke of [the migrant workers] as having nothing to do with them[selves]”—as though the characters’ experiences were “so far removed” from their own. Compelled to show the universality of their journeys, Riker went down to the Mexican-American border—admittedly harboring “all sorts of false or incomplete” impressions—intent on demystifying America’s idea that “the villages these people leave are without hope. That the very fact that every night hundreds of thousands of people are trying to cross the border [somehow] implies that there’s no hope. I found just the opposite,” Riker passionately expressed.
Still, after hearing “thousands of stories of migrants crossing the border,” and how that changed their lives, Riker faced the challenge of translating this experience into a tangible and relatable narrative. What evolved was this poignant but restrained story of Ashley: a minimum wage-earning Texan who loses her son to Child Services after an inebriated, tragic mistake, and begins to work as a coyote, helping sneak Mexican immigrants across the border. The film chronicles Ashley’s evolution from an ego-centric place of heartache and losing a child, “thinking she is the only one who knows this pain,” to realizing how common this loss is. Quoting the film’s captivating star, Riker noted that Abbie Cornish spoke of THE GIRL as “a movie of a woman’s awakening,” and her progression from “darkness to light.”
This movement is catalyzed by Ashley’s unexpected relationship with the film’s title character, “The Girl,” played by Maritza Santiago Hernandez. “Working with Maritza was the greatest joy in this whole long journey” of making the film, Riker said. Although “looking for her was not.” The filmmaker elaborated on the particular needs for this character, most importantly that she be “a girl with a lot of strength who could go up against Abbie Cornish. Someone who was full of chispa, or spark.” It was also “vital that the girl be from an indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.”
As the conversation came to a close, Riker was touched by the overwhelming sentiment of the room. The crowd was insistent that Riker and Zarak “show this film as much as possible [in the U.S.] and Mexico.” The final comment of the evening confirmed that Riker had accomplished his goal for the film, characterized by one audience member as “very personal and universal. This film needs to be seen.”