"The Girl" Takes on Immigration at the Tribeca Film Festival

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Meet Ashley: a desperate single mother in south Texas, who’s lost custody of her son and looks to human trafficking as a means to get him back. Meet Rosa: a young Mexican girl on a journey to find her mother, and her way back home after a failed attempt at illegally entering the United States. “The Girl” is an emotional tale of what happens when these two lives intersect. Directed by David Riker and a Tribeca Film Festival contender for the World Narrative Competition, “The Girl” adds a personal tone to the political context of immigration and tells a story of loss, accountability, and redemption along the border.

Following the American Express-sponsored screening of the 90-minute feature, we heard from the award-winning Riker on his experience filming “The Girl.”

Why were you compelled to tell this story?

The first time I went to the border at night at the Rio Grande, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I went with a group of migrants that invited me from a migrant shelter, and I expected to see an action scene. We arrived at the border, and nobody spoke. And they all started to take their clothes off. It was very painful, very frightening, and very kind of humiliating. But as they started to go into the river — it’s more or less of what I tried to recreate here — I felt that this border crossing is much deeper than just the way we normally think of it. That is was almost like a baptismal thing; that in fact crossing the border changes you. And so, I began to question could I have a character who crosses the border south, not because she wants to, but could it change her in some way?

Ashley and Rosa obviously come from two very different backgrounds. How did you connect them beyond the issue of immigration?

I realized that the historical achievement of the border is to divide families. It had nothing to [do with] keeping people out of the U.S., quote, unquote. And everyone who has had an experience or relationship with new migrants, whether in school, or because they’re taking care of your children, or cleaning our homes, most of them are mothers and fathers whose children are not with them�� and I felt that that was a weak spot. It was like an acupressure point to talk about immigration, the idea of this separation of families. And that led me to begin thinking about, is there an Anglo character who might feel some of that pain of this forced separation?

The young girl cast as Rosa, is not an actress, but a native of Oaxaca, where you shot most of the film. How did you find her?

For those of you that know Oaxaca, it’s an extraordinary place with tremendous dignity and cultural traditions. Trying to build bridges into the communities, to invite the families to bring their daughters to auditions, was a long process. In all, we saw about 3,000 girls… Maritza [Santiago Hernandez] was one of the girls who immediately had an attitude with me and I just found out right away that she wasn’t at all nervous… We began a process of working with her: a whole series of sort of dramatic improvisations and developing a strong relationship with the family, because when you’re casting a child, you’re really casting the whole family.

You originally wanted to film the movie in the city of Nuevo Laredo, which directly borders Texas to the south. Instead, you ended up filming in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. How did this affect shooting?

We were hoping to make this film several years back there, and we were not able to… We lost the financing, and we had to start from scratch. During the time that we were sort of picking ourselves up again, the violence of the borderlands moved to Nuevo Laredo, and really made it impossible to film there. So the biggest challenge for me, at least creatively, was losing the one thing that I knew I could count on in terms of an authentic place, and having to recreate a border 2,000 kilometers away in southern Mexico, which meant questions of geography, flat landscapes, finding a river that could feel like the Rio Grande, [and finding] faces that would be true to the experience of migrants. Every aspect of the production design became much, much more complicated.

In the movie, we see Rosa talking about how much she wanted to go back to her home in Oaxaca and not leave for the United States. What did you want to convey with that?

The very fact that right now, people are trying to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get into Italy, or are drowning right now in the Rio Grande, means that it must be very bad where they’ve come from, and here, it must be pretty good… The mythology of the border is if you can just get across the border, if you can just get to the Promised Land, you have a possibility of a new future. And I started thinking it’s not enough.

By tackling a universally complex issue with humanity and compassion, Riker accomplished the task of telling an often-ignored tale, coupled with Abbie Cornish’s honest portrayal of Ashley, beautiful cinematography, and a drive to stay as authentic as possible, we give “The Girl” a GlamBuzz thumbs up.