It Should Have Been a Disaster

When David Riker moved to New York City from England in the early 1990s, he found himself renting an apartment in a neighborhood where everyone spoke Spanish. Riker, who had immigrated to the United States to study at NYU film school, seized the situation for inspiration. “I wanted to make a short film about this feeling that there was another city within the city,” he told me during a recent interview for The Intercept. He thought he’d call his film “The Other City.” There was just one problem: he himself didn’t speak any Spanish. All he knew was a little French.

Undeterred, Riker set about finding collaborators who would share their stories and act in his movie. Spanish, he decided with the nonchalance of youth, was just another skill he’d learn while directing. Oddly enough, his plan worked. “The fact that I didn’t speak Spanish probably allowed people to recognize that we needed each other,” he told me. “That it wasn’t just a one way street where I had all the answers.” Sometimes a child would play translator for him and the actors, sometimes another worker would. The final movie was pretty serious, but making it, Riker recalls, “There was a lot of laughter.”

The experience not only made Riker fluent in street Spanish, it shifted his frame of reference. By the time the shooting wrapped, Riker looked around his barrio and felt convinced that “This is the city. The other city is Wall Street or Madison Avenue.” He changed the title of film to La Ciudad. It was a sensation.