Articles, Blog

David Riker – Screenwriter & Director

September 3, 2019


– Hello and welcome to
the I3 lecture series hosted by the Masters in
Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts. We are thrilled to have screenwriter and director David Riker
as tonight’s guest speaker. David’s debut feature La
Ciudad, The City, won awards at South by Southwest,
San Sebastian, Havana, and the Human Rights Watch
International Film Festival among others. His second feature The Girl, starring Abbie Cornish and
Will Patton won the NHK Award for Best American Screenplay at Sundance. Most recently David
co-wrote with Jeremy Scahill the documentary Dirty Wars about the global war on terror. In 2014 the film was
nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as the Writers
Guild of America Award for Best Documentary Screenplay. The recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Annenberg fellowships, David teaches screenwriting
and directing at CUNY and Columbia University’s
graduate film programs. On a personal note, when I received my first museum commission from the Queens Museum of Art, I turned to David for advice on establishing a relationship with the Mexican immigrant
community in that borough. Although we hadn’t previously met, what I found that David was
both a friend and a mentor and I am sure his generosity
to me was not an exception but rather the rule when
it comes to his character and outlook on life. Please help me welcome David
Riker to our lecture series. (audience applauds) – Thank you, Jaime.
– Yes. – Welcome to all of you and thank you to the SVA for inviting me. Jaime, when you asked me
if I would do a lecture in the Masters of Digital Photography, I really thought that I wasn’t qualified because it’s been a very, very long time since I thought of
myself as a photographer and I was never a master. I’m a filmmaker and as I thought about what
I could talk about tonight or what I could share, I realized it would be
an opportunity for me to understand why I started
work as a photographer and then abruptly put the camera down. I put the still camera down
and stopped taking photographs and made a decision to make films, and I wanted to explore
that tonight with you and to try and look at the
process with fresh eyes because I haven’t looked
at the photographs that I want to share tonight in, some of them in 35 years or 40 years. Almost none of them I’ve
ever shown publicly. And so for me, it became an opportunity to try and answer the question myself. What was the problem for me
with the still photograph? Why is it that I felt I
had to leave it behind? And maybe at the end of the lecture, I’ll confess that I didn’t leave it behind but I came back to it. So I’ve called it a journey in four parts and the first part is work
that I did as a young boy. And these are the equivalent
of today’s selfies. These are photos that I
took starting at the age of 12 and 13 years old. I grew up in England, in London. I don’t know why I started
taking photographs. There was no culture of photography, there was no culture of
storytelling in my family, that I didn’t know any photographers. I had no exposure to photographs. But I started taking photos when I was 11 with an Instamatic and 12
years old with a Brownie. And when I was 13, my father bought me a
35-millimeter camera, Praktica. And for the next several years, I took pictures basically of my family. This was a trip to Stonehenge
with my, there’s my father. Photographs of my mom. I feel a little strange
beginning with these photographs but I think it’ll make
sense as we go along. Looking back at these photographs now, one thing that struck me
was that the angle of view is about the only thing that changed. My mum and dad were in
hundreds of these photographs but I was getting bigger as time went on and getting a little bit taller. (audience laughs) Throughout high school, I carried a camera and I was the only person
I knew with a camera. It was my best friend. I built a darkroom. I pleaded with my folks to
get me everything I needed. They took me to a photo store and I went home with this
big box of equipment, tried to set it up in the
boiler room of the house, and then realized we
had forgotten something, something very important. We didn’t have the enlarger. And I went running to tell them that we had forgotten to get
this most important piece and they said no, we
didn’t get an enlarger because it’s expensive. You start with everything
but the enlarger, which meant I had a safe light
and I had a Paterson tank and I had trays and chemicals. And for the first year or two, I made contact prints. And at first with the 110 Instamatic, they were literally the
size of a postage stamp. And this is why I got a
Brownie, they were bigger. But my experience was with these very, very small photographs. But being in the darkroom, trying to figure out how
to bring these images out of the darkness was
really magical to me. And looking at the pictures now, it’s hard to believe that they had such, they were so important to me at that time. I mean, I have two children now and they take in a given
day more photographs than I took in my entire childhood. You know, we live at a time of
this blizzard of photographs but this was a different era and I was in a different place and these photographs were
somehow a way of trying to make sense of something
I didn’t even understand, which is who am I, where am I from, what the hell am I doing in England? And then just before
graduating from high school, we were taken to the
Victoria and Albert Museum to see a retrospective of
photos by Don McCullen, the war photographer. And I was probably 17 when I saw this photograph which was right at the
entrance to the exhibit and I had never seen anything like it. I just literally stood in
front of it, dumbfounded. I didn’t know why. And I walked through that exhibit which had a lot of the
photographs of northern England, English towns where he worked. And I started to see that
the camera could be used in a different way. I started to look at the
work of the WPA photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, photos that we pretty much
all now are familiar with. The Migrant Mother Series. And again I looked at these photographs, I did not understand where
their power came from or why they made me stop and stare, but they had this incredible power and I decided that I wanted to learn how to photograph
like these people. I didn’t know what that meant. I arrived at university and I started photographing other people and not photographing my family. And at first it was very
arbitrary, undirected. I photographed people on the streets. This is a photograph in Florida. This is a photograph in Italy. And another series that I photographed on a train platform in Milano. My photography teacher
at university looked at these pictures and really encouraged me to focus on a theme,
to focus on a subject. And because I had become
active as a student in the anti-nuclear
movement, the peace movement. See if I can bring this up. I began to photograph student activism and demonstrations and protests. And over the next four
years, three, four years, I photographed the peace
movement in the US. Mostly meetings to organize, marches. I actually went out to Seattle to photograph the families
that were protesting against the Trident Nuclear Base and got myself into a small plane and photographed the nuclear bunkers. On June 12, 1982, New
York City was the site of an immensely important peace march. 1,000,000 people came here and it was called a special
session on disarmament. And I photographed there in a single day a whole series of photographs that I started to feel
I was in this protest but I was experiencing it in
a kind of a ritualistic way, that the whole, it didn’t seem
like just a street protest, it seemed to me like it was a profound, a space where people were revealing something profound about themselves. I met survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had turned 19, I think, that summer and I went to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and I photographed with the hibakusha. I’ve never shown these photographs and many of them I’ve
never actually printed. From Japan, I went back to England, where I went to the
London School of Economics for my third year and I photographed the
peace movement in England. Greenham Common, the women’s peace camp. By 1985, I had what probably most of you who are students here now
call a portfolio of work with a single theme and a growing dream that one
day I might join the ranks of an agency like Magnum and become a real socially
engaged photographer. And it was at that moment that
I stopped taking photographs. It was at that moment that I had this very unexpected epiphany and the epiphany was that I didn’t know any of
the people I’d photographed. It was a portfolio of strangers. Even if some of the images
had some kind of power or compositional integrity, I looked at them with
this overwhelming sense that I had failed because I wanted somehow for
these photographs to speak and I looked at it and felt as though I had
rendered the subjects mute. I was actually in the
practice in Greenham Common of taking the work with me and showing it to people
as I photographed them. They’re looking through some of the photos that you have just looked at now. But I made a decision on the spot at the end of university
to stop taking photographs. And I need to answer the question why, I need to be able to explain why, because it was not a happy moment at all. It was a very, very painful moment. In England, the year before, I had looked for a darkroom to print because there wasn’t
one at the university. And I found a place that I
could rent in the East End that was called Camerawork. Don’t know if the name is
familiar to some of you but it was a community darkroom. And I discovered that they
had a magazine as well, called Camerawork. I now know more about it. It was founded in 1976, it
lasted for almost 10 years, and it really impacted the way British photographers
thought about their work and it impacted me viscerally. The issue on the right,
Lewisham, was 1977, when the National Front, the
Nazis marched in South London and attacked the South Asian community. And Camerawork asked a
series of photographers, what are you taking pictures for? Why are you taking these pictures? What is the point? Who are you? What’s your relationship to these people? Those questions started to force me to try and answer a question
I hadn’t thought about. In the same magazine
was this short article called The Second Photography. I just actually went to find these, I haven’t looked at them
in many, many years. I found them online and I
looked back at this essay but I remembered it all these years. The writer described photography
as having two histories. A first photography that
was in the early days with cameras that required long exposures and therefore the subjects
had to sit very still. And then a second photography
that began with the advent of things like Kodak Instamatic cameras and the language that came with it. Snapshot. And what the article claimed was that something profound had been lost in the move from the first
to the second photography. And that something was an
obligation to the subject. You could not take someone’s picture. You had to make the
photograph with someone. You had to know the person. It was impossible to have someone sit without there being some
kind of understanding between the two of you. And I think it was the questions of why you’re taking a photograph and what is your relation to
the people you’re photographing with this other idea about
that the camera allowed me to snatch moments and not
know who I was photographing that really caused a crisis for me and led me to put the camera down. I should probably say that’s
the end of the lecture but it’s not, we’re just gonna… (audience laughs) We’re at the halfway point. Determined to to find a
way to continue working but not have the subjects of my work be, quote unquote, mute, I had the novel idea that
I needed to make films so they could speak. And I didn’t actually give
a lot of thought at the time that maybe I could continue photographing but in a different way. Instead I thought I needed
to put the camera down. And for what it’s worth, I sold all of my 11 by 14 portfolio prints on the street in Harvard
Square, 20 dollars a pop. And I sold the backup prints and the third and fourth set of prints because I really felt like
the work shouldn’t be seen. And I decided to start
making documentary films with the idea of giving
voice to social movements. It took a few years for
me with some missteps to be able to make the first documentary. And that was in 1988, when I was 25. I went up to a small town
in Maine called Jay, Maine that is a remote, extremely
remote small papermaking town where the lives of everyone
in the town revolve around the paper mill. And it had been a papermaking
town for five generations, French-Canadian. And it’s fair to say that
for five generations, not much changed in the town until 1987. When for the first time, the deeply loyal community of
paper makers went on strike. Now we can look at the
context of what was happening with the neoliberal
transformation that we’re still in but their way of life
was upended overnight and they went on strike. They thought that the
company was their family. The company was called
International Paper, largest paper making company in the world, largest private landowner in the USA. And for International Paper, family was something very different. Family were the shareholders. And the people in Jay,
Maine went on strike and their local union, which is this, the Union Hall, Local 14,
led an uprising in a sense, social uprising for 16 months. And I moved up there
with a Sony Hi8 camera, two friends, Brynn Clarke and Sandy Smith, and an idea that we would make
the documentary in two weeks. And those of you who are
documentary filmmakers know how ridiculous it is. In 1989, this short 30-minute
documentary was completed and for the first time since then, we’re gonna watch a one
or two minute clip from it of the opening. And please note the very
opening of the film is text, which you can see on the screen. In case you don’t follow
the meaning of the film, it’s being spelled out
for you right there. ♪ Solidarity forever ♪ ♪ Solidarity forever ♪ ♪ Solidarity forever ♪ – There’s not one man
up there that’s worked for over 16 months,
that’s all we’ve been out. And a lot of them work less than that because they got a
great turnover up there. Like somebody with 35 years like me and people with 40 years
and dedicated employees come there wanting to work many times when they really didn’t feel good. I worked up there when I was sick. But that shows you how they appreciate and way they treat their help. All you are to ’em is a number. – Many Faces of Paper hasn’t
had a public screening since 1989 when in this photo, you can see it’s screened
at the Union Hall. I don’t know if you can read this. Showtime, Many Faces of
Paper, Local 14, actors. We screened it in the Union Hall. All the families came,
they watched the film, and they were grateful that we made it. They thanked us for coming up. But I watching the film in the back of the Union Hall with them, I felt that the film had failed to capture what was really
important about what had happened during that strike. The strike turned the
community upside down. It changed everything. It changed the relationship between the workers and the company but it changed the relationship
between husbands and wives, between parents and children. All the social roles were being upended and the families that I was, I lived with families
while we were making it, they were talking about
deep, deep experiences of for example, there’s one man who described teaching
his daughter to read because he didn’t have a job, he wasn’t at the mill every day. And that the experience of
teaching her to read was the most important thing that
he had ever done in his life. Women took over much of the, as happens in almost
every strike by the way, in my experience, women took
over much of the organizing and the hard work, food
banks, clothes banks, the picket lines. And their relationships
with their husbands were profoundly changed. But the film didn’t address that. The film really was
focused on making a point. The film was didactic and I left that Union Hall feeling that I had somehow not
managed to get any closer to the truth or any deeper in
the work than the photographs. I made another documentary after this in Roxbury, Massachusetts
about a group of women in the African-American community who were demanding treatment
as recovering addicts and protest march on the new
prison that’s being built. I met Peter Kinoy, extraordinary
filmmaker and editor who’s here tonight from
Skylight at that time. And I don’t have time
to talk about Roxbury but the experience was the same. With both films, I really felt that somehow the intention was not enough. The films did not manage to get inside or go to a deeper place
and there was a disconnect between what I was seeing
and what I was producing. You know, when I made the decision to stop taking photographs, my grandfather died at the same time and I traveled with my
grandmother down to the south. And one night I met one of her old friends who told me a story about working in the Lowell textile mills as a child when she was 12 or 13 years old. She was now an old lady and she recounted that everyone
had to cross the bridge from Dracut into Lowell to work and in the winter it
was bitter, bitter cold. The bridge was covered with ice. And at the end of the day, her mother would offer,
her name was Georgia, would offer Georgia a choice
to buy a loaf of bread at the bakery that was on
the Lowell side of the bridge and walk home or to
take the bus back home. And she said that she always
chose to buy the bread and that they would
wrap themselves together and walk back across the bridge at night. And while she was telling me the story, I was making that photograph in my mind. I was actually getting a perspective, I was crouching down. I was seeing the mill in the background, this mother and daughter
walking towards us in shadow. Much like the photo of
McCullin that we just saw. And in my mind, it was
a picture of oppression. And then Georgia told me, as an old lady, that bringing the bread home, crossing that bridge was, quote unquote, the happiest moments in her life. Because she when she got home was welcomed as the hero every time. So there was this
incredible question for me which is can a photograph,
how can we do that? How can we show the objective
truth, quote unquote, how can we show that it is oppressive to work in that factory, it is oppressive to
work in that paper mill where the chemicals
that produce the slurry burn your skin and at the same time, allow the interior, the internal feeling, to contradict that. How to do it? I hadn’t succeeded with these films and I really was at a loss. I knew the films were not working. I didn’t know how to make them work. I’d seen wonderful documentaries
like Harlan County USA. I wanted to figure out how to get there. And I decided at the age
of 27 to go to film school and I came to New York and I entered the NYU grad film program, which some of you have heard of. You know, I told myself I
was gonna watch the clock so that I’m on time. I have no idea if I’m on time, but is everyone still
with me or is this okay? (students mumbling) I arrived at NYU in 1991 and determined to really learn the craft of documentary filmmaking. And I’m told they’ve canceled
the documentary film class. There’s gonna be no documentary this year. We don’t even know if there’s going to be
a documentary next year. What you need to do is write
a screenplay, cast actors, and make a fiction. And the fourth chapter of my
presentation is fiction film. I was going to put an exclamation point because to me, I had moved so
far from my starting point, my starting point of
seeing the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Don McCullin and wanting to use the
camera to somehow speak about the issues in the world
that had this social weight. And now I’d arrived at NYU of all places and I had to write a screenplay. It felt like a disaster, it really did, and I was forced, fighting,
kicking and screaming, to make a fiction film. Take a pause for a moment. (audience laughs) I had moved to a neighborhood in Brooklyn and was struck by how vibrant the Latin American
immigrant community was. There were no English-language
newspapers in the shops and the corner shops just had
the Spanish-language dailies. And I remember going, I would shop at a place called Key Food that’s still there on Fifth Avenue. It’s no longer a
working-class neighborhood but it really, really was. And I saw this old station
wagon parked outside and a father and daughter, I’m assuming a father and daughter, a man and a girl were inside. The father was in the front seat. He had the car radio on, he was parked, and in the back the girl was
just swaying back and forth. And I looked at them and I sort of took a picture like that, just of the two of them. But I started wondering who are they? What are they waiting for? Why are they here? And I was desperately
thinking I need a story, I need a script, I need something because I have to film in a few months. So I began to write a story
about that father and daughter and I did something
that felt sacrilegious. I decided to invent things. I allowed myself to imagine things, which went against this
view that I was a conduit, that I somehow, my job
was to just allow reality to pass through the lens and quote, give voice to it that way. Here I was manipulating it. But I wrote a short film. It was called The City or La Ciudad and it’s about a puppeteer. And NYU… I’m getting ahead of myself. NYU was not at all happy that I was going to
make a film in Spanish. Because I’m not Latin American and to make a foreign language
film was the kiss of death for your career. It was really very serious. It was so serious that
to get the equipment, I couldn’t get a sign-off
and I had to get the people in the equipment room who were friends to kind of surreptitiously
give me the camera. But something else happened there which is that the production teacher, when he learned that I
was going to be filming in the South Bronx, he
told me in his office after class one day that he’s just going to give me a few pointers. You’re working in the South Bronx, it’s a dangerous neighborhood. Your first stop needs to
be the police precinct. Go in there, we’ll give you a letter, you tell them you’re from NYU and they will shut the place down for you. They will give you a cordon
in which you can work. They will literally bring police out on all the street corners
and protect the crew. And I was shocked that that was the advice that I was being given. I had gone to the South Bronx because I had written a
story about a puppeteer. There was a puppetry festival. I went to the puppetry
festival at the Public Theater and the room was filled
with kids who loved it and I went up to find
out where they were from and they were from South Bronx and I asked if I could
come to their school. And I went to their school and I said I want to make the film here and the, can I go back? The church that you see
right there is St. Mary’s and the priest was a
wonderful Puerto Rican priest named Luis Barrios, whose church was mostly empty on Sundays but the basement which had
a food kitchen was packed and he said I love that my
church is full on Sunday. The public school is
just behind the church and this vacant lot where
we set the puppet part of the action was right beside it. And so I instead of going
to the police precinct, I went up and I started
to talk to the people who lived in the community and we filmed the film without
any, I’m happy to say, police but also with a… Ah, look, Luis Barrios is
here with his children. In October 1992, over
the course of five days, we shot this short film
and that is the young girl who plays the daughter. As a side note, she sent me
a photograph six months ago of her and another little
girl that I took at the time. And the other little girl was her cousin and I didn’t know who she was but she told me that’s
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (audience laughs) So I have a picture of
Alexandria sitting on my lap when she’s about four years
old while we made the film. (audience laughs) We screened that short film in the church. That was the premiere. And unlike the screening
of Many Faces of Paper in the Union Hall, the screening in the church
was transformative for me. We had to bring a 16
millimeter projector up there and we screened the film over
and over and over and over throughout the weekend and hundreds and hundreds of people came. But what was so profound was how they responded to the film. They got up to talk about their own lives. A woman, seeing that the
main character is homeless and lives in his car,
shared with the audience that she was living in
her car with her child. And people started to come up and give me their business cards. The guy who had a bodega,
the car service drivers, they all handed me their cards and said the film is too
short, you have to continue. And I have a clip from that here. (speaking in foreign language) (audience applauds) The short film, to NYU’s surprise, won the Student Academy
Award and I was flown out, my first time in Los
Angeles, to Hollywood, the one place I did not want to go. (audience laughs) And literally they had a driver and everything that I could have imagined in a cliche version of
events was presented to me. And everyone I met with in the studios and agencies told me they loved the film and they wanted to make
it a feature-length film. They wanted to start work with me today. We can set you up in the next room. It’s just a few things you need to change. Of course it needs to be in color, that we don’t even need to talk about. It needs to be in English
so people can understand it. And we got to get some real actors, some professional actors. So I came back to New York and I was in my end of
my second year at NYU and I decided that I did
want to make a feature film. The idea seemed to be a really good one but I was going to make
it in the same spirit of the first one. I was going to make four shorts and somehow link them together. I knew that the theme would be the same. The theme would be what does
it feel like to be uprooted, to be an immigrant in New York City? And I knew that the
method would be the same. That is I would reach out to the community and invite immigrants to participate and to, quote unquote, tell their stories in their own words. But I had to really figure out
a method, a way of working, an approach to working
that made that possible. And the starting point was a collaboration for want of a better word. That the approach I’d
taken in the South Bronx was the right approach
but I had to deepen it. And as I started on the next film, which was about day laborers
and construction workers, I started to have this strange feeling that I was returning to
the first photography, that I was going back to something at the very beginning of my work because I was not working with strangers. I had to get close enough to people so they were not strangers. And I want to use the last 15, 20 minutes just to talk about that approach, both in research and also in writing. This is a day labor pool street corner in Bensonhurst I think. I went out to these street
corners in Roosevelt Avenue, in Queens and Woodside,
a half a dozen places. And I went with an organizer, a Dominican organizer
named Miguel Maldonado who was trying to organize
the the day laborers. And everywhere we went, Miguel would start to talk to
the workers about their rights and I stood there wondering what can I possibly offer these men? I felt like I had no purpose being there, it was very awkward. And I came up with this brilliant idea that I could offer them coffee. So I went to the Bowery and I bought an industrial coffee maker and every morning I
would make the equivalent of about 50 cups of hot coffee and take it in Miguel’s car
out to these street corners. And while he talked to the men, I would shout out in my poor Spanish, (speaking in foreign language)
and the men would come over and they’d pour themselves a cup of coffee and I would say “My name is David Riker “and I want to make a film
about what it’s like to.” And they’d already have taken
their coffee, left me there. I said it over and over and over. And I went back for months. And eventually because
they have nothing to do in between possible jobs, they’d come to get their coffee
and they would ask me why. The same question that
Camerawork was asking me, why do you, who are you, what is the plan, why do you want to make a film about me? And it’s not only a legitimate question, if you don’t ask the question, I think you cannot possibly begin. I was confronted with that question. Who am I and what’s my
relationship to these men? And I had to overcome the fact that I still have to overcome to this day that I look physically
more like an INS agent than the socially committed
person I feel I am. I look like a goddamn police officer in the eyes of every
immigrant on the street. There’s a real, I’m
making a joke about it, but you have to confront that, I had to confront the fact that unless I could answer that question, people would not work with me. And answering the question takes time. As I got to know some
of these day laborers, I began to photograph them
on the street corners. And it was only this week
that I realized printing these that the day labor corners are
almost like football clubs, you know? I started having coffee with the men, I asked the men about their lives and I remember vividly
one of the men telling me that he had a daughter back home. And he pulled out a photograph of this little kind of a newborn, a bit like Jaime, your
photograph, a newborn baby. It was a little passport size photo and put it on the diner table between us. And I said oh, wow, what a beautiful baby. And as I did that, he put
another one next to it and it was a little toddler,
maybe three years old. And he put out another and
I was just struck silent as he put out a whole series
of these thumbnail photographs of his daughter whom he had not seen and who was now a teenager. I realized this man has
seen his daughter grow up from a distance. So I was giving them, using this Polaroid, the old Polaroid camera, the copies of the portraits I was taking and they started to share with
me photographs that they had. The whole experience was
one of building trust and of listening and trying
to get beneath the surface that in my peace movement
photographs I hadn’t thought of. I wished I had. And so I guess in maybe two
years after The Puppeteer, I shot a second film called Bricks. (slow music) (speaking in foreign language) The opening of the film shows the men from the point of view of a
contractor looking for work. And it’s the image that anyone
who’s an outsider first has when they see them. But the next scene, something happens. One of these men who from a
distance might look shiftless and threatening, might
seem part of a crowd, suddenly is with a letter
from home is transformed into a father and a husband
and an uprooted person. And making the film, I
really felt like I had begun to solve the riddle of
Georgia and the loaf of bread, that there was a way that fiction
could allow me to do that, to both show the objective conditions and also an interior life that
might even contradict that. And that requires the first photography. It requires being open
to working with people, listening to people,
building trust with people, and allowing them to
shape the story with you. And it’s the approach
I’ve used ever since. And in the last five minutes, I want to just briefly talk about writing because I discovered along the way, making this film at NYU, that in order to be a filmmaker, I had to become a writer as
well, which I didn’t intend to. And I thought I would illustrate this by talking about the last
story in the film of La Ciudad which was called Seamstress. I had started as I did with
Bricks and with The Puppeteer, I’d started with my own idea. In the case of Seamstress,
I wanted to make a film about the, to put it
in a provocative term, the return of slavery
because garment workers in New York City, all immigrant
women were not being paid systematically for their work. And if you can imagine the
area around 42nd Street, it had 50,000 garment workers
working in those buildings that today are luxury apartments. I went and started to photograph and meet with the garment workers and to go into the sweatshops with them. And eventually proposed the story to them. I said I want to make a film
about the return of slavery and about the most
difficult part of your life in New York City. I did interviews with hundreds of women. I became, as I had with Bricks,
very close to many of them. None of them wanted to
talk about their experience in the sweatshop. They were already
organizing to change that, they were fighting for their
rights as sweatshop workers. They wanted to talk about something else. They said the most difficult
thing in our lives is having left our children behind, being long distance mothers. 10 years earlier, the documentary I would
have made would have focused on the strike and I would
have missed this story. But by spending time with
them and listening to them, they changed the focus of the film. I then tried to write a film that combined the return of slavery, that is unpaid work, with
being long distance mothers by creating a very simple story of a woman who has not been paid for five weeks and gets a phone call that
her daughter is very sick and they need money immediately. And I presented the script, which is what these photos
by Victor Sira show, at a meeting in the garment district and discussed it at length with the group that had become most closely
involved in the film. I presented the story. I think here you can
actually, well, you can’t. There’s a photograph
that shows the breakdown of the dramatic three act structure. When I was done presenting the
story as I am here with you, they thanked me and asked me to leave and told me to go wait outside because they would discuss it. And I went out and it was
winter and it was freezing. I was on 40th Street on the west side and I waited for almost an hour. When they came to bring me back up, I learned that they had broken down into groups of four and five, they had all discussed the story. They had then shared their
notes with each other and they were ready to
present their notes to me. And I sat down and took notes. They said the script is
good, we approve the script. You’ve done a good job,
you’ve listened well, but there’s two things you have to change. When we are faced with absolute despair and we have tried everything
to solve our problem, we will turn to God and pray and you don’t have a
prayer in your script. The second problem was the ending. The ending, the woman
doesn’t get her money and we don’t see her daughter get well and come out of hospital. We want a happy ending. And so we had a collision, a
creative intense collision. I said I’ll put a prayer in the script but I need you to tell me
how because I don’t know. I certainly don’t want to
do what I’ve seen in film since I was a kid. Exterior of a church, Christ on a cross, pan down, a woman on her knees. I don’t, please tell me. They did. They told me that they pray
pretty much all day long. They pray on the way to work,
at work, on their way home. They pray in the train,
they pray in the subways. I heard so many of them tell
me they pray in the subways and on the trains that I decided that was how we should set the prayer. (slow music) So the prayer ended up in the film. The happy ending didn’t. To me, the happy ending was
false and yet they wanted it. So what does that mean? It means that in my experience, in order to get, the truth is complicated
first of all, always. That the limited truth
that I was photographing only at best told one part of a story, that the didactic truth that I tried to do in my early documentaries
missed a big part of the story, and that to get to a deeper truth, the collision between
my role as an outsider, my experience as an outsider
and the experience of insiders, that kind of deep unexpected
complicated collision can produce something that
gets closer to the real truth. And in this case I told them
that I couldn’t understand why they wanted me to put a happy ending with this woman getting
paid at the end of the film when they still had not been
paid in their own struggle. And so I wanted to end
today by showing the ending that we did in which she doesn’t get paid and we’ll end with this. (speaking in foreign language) And that’s the end of the talk. (audience applauds) – [Woman] You speak a lot
about how other family members have influenced a lot of your work. I was just curious since
you’ve become a father, how have your kids and being in a father role influenced you? – Wow, that’s a really, I need time. My output is diminished immensely
since the kids were born. It’s funny, the film
that I made after this is called The Girl and
it’s about a young girl and my own girls were
growing up as we made it. And I think that the main thing that being a father
has done has allowed me to understand more deeply
what it means to be a father. I understood it kind of intellectually when I was making La Ciudad. As far as artistically,
I can’t think of anything except tonight my 16 year old, just as I was coming out
having spent almost a week trying to find these photos
and put them together and she with her friend
in about 15 minutes put a keynote presentation together that I thought was better
than this one of photos. – [Man] You talk very, I
think, eloquently about the way that this idea of collaboration
that you’ve developed in a very hard won, hard-fought way has had this incredible
impact on the product, what’s produced, the work of art. Could you talk a little bit
about what you’ve gotten out of the collaboration as an artist, not just in terms of
the art that’s produced but how that collaboration
has affected you? – Yes. I mean, I would say simply that the collaboration
has given me everything, far more than the films themselves. Deep friendships, new understanding. I left the country and
moved to southern Mexico and we raised our children there, which wouldn’t have happened without the work in New York City. But the, I really feel that
the key experience for me as a media maker, as a filmmaker,
is confronting this fact that I’m the person with a camera and what that means. And that I’m the person who’s
there to learn something. That the person, the
community that I’m entering or that I’m talking to is the teacher. One of my most important mentors
is a person I’ve never met named John Berger. Many of you might know his work. He wrote a book called Pig Earth that opens with a remarkable and a remarkably honest
statement about what does it mean to write a story about someone whose life is different than yours? And he points out that
if you are an outsider, working in a village
in his case in France, every child in that
village is your teacher. Number one, because you know nothing. Number two, that your very
presence provokes the need to talk about things
that go without saying within the community. That is by being there, as someone who doesn’t understand
the place and the history, people try to put into words
what it is you’re looking at in a way they may not
with their own relations. And so really as an, I never, Peter, I’m still reluctant to
use the word artist. I’ve got to get over that. But as a filmmaker, the collaboration is what I love the most. It’s the thing that is most nourishing. The filmic parts of it
are really very difficult and debilitating sometimes but that work at the kitchen table and in people’s homes, the listening and the trying to craft a
story and sharing with people, getting feedback, is
really the great reward, the only reward. – [Woman] Hearing your story, it’s really interesting just
to see how open you were to entering new and unfamiliar territory. And so for me, how is it
that you are able to freely and to openly ask questions
and interview people? Did you ever feel uneasy or nervous or was it a matter of just sitting down? It’s like what you said before, instead of serving coffee to people, you would have coffee with them. And I noticed that that’s
when people started to talk to you, so was it more
so how you related to people or was it rather the
questions you were asking? What would break that barrier down so that people would,
you know, share with you, be open with you? – I think, do I need to
come back here for this? Is that? I really appreciate the question because the barrier is, one of the sad facts is that
the barrier never goes away. Because you, as if in
my case as a filmmaker, I’m working in a new community and it doesn’t matter
that I have spent 25 years confronting the questions about who am I and what does it mean for
me to have the camera? And I have to start from zero every time. But I’ve learned I think how
to get there more quickly and I found that the,
when I say get there, get to a place where it’s possible to have a real collaborative
conversation or relationship. And I found that the key is
just to be completely upfront about where I come from and
what my differences are, to acknowledge that I’m the
person with the camera up front and that I, for example,
will start this way. I was born in Boston
but I grew up in Europe. I still don’t really know why. I was in Belgium for four years and thought I was a Belgian boy. I got to London at the age of 10 and as a young teenager, I started getting beaten up
by Nazis for being an American but I didn’t even know
really what it meant to be from the US of A. I have spent my whole life trying to figure out where I belong and I realized I don’t have a home. I am uprooted. I see the world the way that other people have
made me see the world, through films and television
shows and photographs, since I was a young boy. And I recognize now that
those films and photographs for the most part were destructive and damaging and limiting. They gave me an idea of
what it means to be a boy. Boys don’t cry. What a girl should be. What it means to be, quote unquote, white. What it means to be from the US of A. All of these ideas are myths and I’ve spent my life
trying to shake them. And I now with the camera want to try and confront that with you. I understand the camera is
a destructive instrument. I actually believe it’s
done more harm than good in the 150 years we’ve had it, but we can use it to attack ignorance. We can use it to try and enlighten. Something like that. That just sounded like a lecture, I didn’t mean it to come out, I’m just, I would get that across
within the first day or two and try to open up
about where I come from. How is it that I’m standing
here in this small village in southern Mexico with a camera? Because there’s very good reasons to distrust people with cameras. So but the issue doesn’t go away and I don’t think it should,
it’s just a constant. Did that? It did, okay, yeah. – [Woman] I’m curious
in the scene in the film about the day laborers and the scene in which the
man is reading the letter, why you decided to use music in it? It’s a very poignant scene
and I guess it amps it up but I was just curious. – Yeah, the question why
to use music in that scene is really in a broader note
why to use music at all? And I would answer it’s a
matter of taste, first of all. I’ve had to learn along the way that people have their own taste. And also to, as I’m looking
at other people’s work as a teacher, not to
let that get in the way of my own looking at it. But it’s interesting you asked
about that particular moment because that was the second
short film that I made. And when we were scoring La Ciudad, I was really leaning on music
a lot more than I do today. I found myself leaning on it and the reality is if I
could remix this film, I would strip quite a bit
of the music out today. But I’m leaving it as is because
that’s how I looked at it. But I do, I think that
there’s nothing actually, I would say music is the
most powerful of all the arts in the sense of expressing feeling. It is extraordinary and you
can see when you put music, either it supports the feeling
or it contradicts the feeling and so you have to use it
very, very, very carefully. And I know it’s funny, Bricks is one film that
many people have told me over the years they wished the music was taken out completely, in that particular short film. – [Woman] I wasn’t suggesting
anything of the sort. I’m just curious. – Yeah. You know, the tone of La
Ciudad is one of a deep sense of longing and of loneliness. And that tone was really the
product of that collaboration. It’s the core. It’s not that there aren’t moments where these characters are not very strong but the fact is to be an immigrant today, this is, we started to
film it 25 years ago and it hasn’t changed. To be an immigrant today
fundamentally means to be separated from your family. The talk of Trump is
separating families, no. For want of a better word, capitalism is separating families. The very experience of
being an immigrant means you leave your children behind. You do not bring them with you. That’s not on the menu and you will not find an
immigrant in any part of the world who doesn’t know the unbearable
and very personal pain of and questions of guilt and loss of leaving your child behind. That separation is at the
core of the injustice, that financial institutions
can cross borders any which way but human beings are still believed, stunningly to me in the year 2018, are still prevented from
having free movement. As a political answer
to an artistic question. (audience laughs) (audience applauds)

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