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The Girl: Abbie Cornish Stars in Film About Tragic Smuggling of Immigrants Across US-Mexico Border

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The new film “The Girl” examines the issue of undocumented immigrants and human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Starring award-winning actress Abbie Cornish, “The Girl” tells the story of a young, down-and-out Texas mother who loses her son to foster care and subsequently gets involved with trying to smuggle Mexicans into the United States. Her plan goes awry, and she finds herself stranded with a young Mexican girl whose mother has gone missing in the attempted border crossing. The film traces her journey with the girl in search of her mother. We’re joined by the film’s director, David Riker, and its star, Abbie Cornish. “We’re putting faces and we’re putting stories to something which we often look at as facts and figures,” Cornish says. “These are all people that have left their children, their wives … They’ve left everything behind to try and build a life, a better life, for their families. And they’re human beings just the same as yourself or myself; it’s just they’ve been dealt different cards in life.” “The Girl” opens in New York City on Friday, International Women’s Day. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour discussing a remarkable new feature film that examines the issue of undocumented immigrants and human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Girl stars award-winning actress Abbie Cornish, who will be joining us on the program, and tells the story of a young, down-and-out Texas mother who loses her son to foster care and subsequently gets involved with trying to smuggle Mexicans into the United States. Her plan goes awry, and she finds herself stranded with a young Mexican girl whose mother has gone missing in the attempted border crossing. The film traces her journey with the girl in search of her mother.

The Girl was nominated for best film at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, and it opens in New York on International Women’s Day, this Friday, March 8th. Let’s go to a clip from the trailer of the film.

GEORGIE: [played by Austin West] Mommy!

ASHLEY: [played by Abbie Cornish] Hi. I just had to see him, a quick visit.

GLORIA: [played by Annalee Jefferies] Nobody wants to see you reunited with your son more than I do. He needs his mother.

ASHLEY: You know the only reason you got my Georgie, and not me, is because of money!

What are you doing here?

TOMMY: [played by Will Patton] Your daddy’s run into a streak of luck. Hey, let’s celebrate. You come back with me, stay overnight.

ASHLEY: To Mexico?

TOMMY: It ain’t far. It’s only a couple hours. Come on! How’s my princess?

ASHLEY: I think there’s someone in the truck.

TOMMY: Yeah, there’s people back there, but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t ask.

ISIDRO: [played by Harold Torres] Hey, American girl. [translated] We need to get some friends to Austin. You’ll get $500 for each of them. [in English] Are you interested?

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the trailer for The Girl. Now I want to play a clip of filmmaker David Riker talking about the events and circumstances that helped shape his film, The Girl.

DAVID RIKER: And it really began in my research along the U.S.-Mexico border. I decided to set the film in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the river from Laredo, Texas, and was struck by how close those two worlds are, but also how far apart.

I was drawn to the river because of its dramatic possibilities and also its poetic quality. One day I was invited to travel down the river by a fireman from Nuevo Laredo named Armando. I had been told that the firemen actually troll the river in search of bodies, but I was shocked to learn that Armando had pulled more than 600 bodies out of the river with his own hands. As we made our way down the river, Armando seemed to recall every body he had pulled into his boat, sometimes two or three bodies in a single day, the body of a woman floating over here, a young man caught in the branches at the river’s edge, at every twist and turn another nameless person pulled into the boat. It was a gruesome catalog of memories.

We turned a bend, and I started to see migrants at the river’s edge all along the Mexican side. They were crouched under trees, taking off their clothes, wading into the water barebacked, crossing the river in inner tubes. Then I saw a bridge up ahead and this long line of trucks waiting to cross into Texas. As we got closer, it looked like a giant conveyor belt, an endless stream of commerce moving freely into Texas. But down below, at the river, another story was unfolding.

Then, out of the blue, we came upon a large plastic bag floating downstream. I looked around wondering where it came from. Someone had obviously slipped while crossing the river. He may have drowned, or he may have made it back to the river’s edge and was standing behind a tree somewhere, stripped to his underwear, watching us. We pulled the bag into the boat. And I remember this eerie silence as Armando reached inside. And then he pulled out a pair of sneakers and a man’s clothes rolled into a ball. In one of the pockets he found an ID card and then a small book of prayers. And inside, there was a handwritten note from a mother to her son. I looked around again and felt this strange sense of violation. All of these things belong to someone, but who?

The mystery was like a spark, igniting other questions, and I wanted to know more. What does it mean to make such a journey? And what does it mean to be left behind? The migrants crossing, the trucks lined up across the bridge, the mother’s note—all of these became seeds of the story, a kind of starting point for the film.

AMY GOODMAN: David Riker, director of The Girl, which is opening this weekend in New York, next weekend in L.A.

To talk more about the film and the issues it raises, we are joined by David Riker in our New York studio, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker. His previous films include La Ciudad and Sleep Dealer. Along with Jeremy Scahill, he’s co-writer of the new documentary, Dirty Wars. And we’re joined by the star, Abbie Cornish. She’s an award-winning actress who’s received critical acclaim for her roles in Somersault, Candy, Bright Star. She’s also renowned for her performances in the films Sucker Punch and Limitless.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dave, very profound stories on the border, and yet you chose to make a feature film.

DAVID RIKER: Yes. I mean, my interest in going to the border came out of work in New York City when I made the film The City, or La Ciudad. And I really am trying to find a language that allows us to talk about immigration, what it means to be an American, the politics of the border, at the most human level, because the usual discussion is really—just formed a kind of a void of silence. People are not talking about it. Americans know that the people who built their house, the people who are taking care of their children, who are cooking their food, are all new immigrants. But the conversation isn’t happening. The fact, for example, that being a migrant today means leaving your children behind, it means a forced separation a family, is not a political issue; that’s just a human issue. And so, I’m trying to write stories and make films that will open up that kind of discussion around a theme.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your choice of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo—there are lots of twin cities along the border, but that particular area has a huge—a long history, because, obviously, during the Mexican Revolution, there was lots of migration back and forth across the border, people fleeing from one side, fighting spilling over into the other side. And unless you’re from Texas, you don’t really realize the central role that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo have played in the history of that region.

DAVID RIKER: Yeah, I traveled the whole length of the border, starting in San Diego-Tijuana, all the way to Brownsville-Matamoros, over a course of about two years. And I realized that I was attracted to the river as a border, for its metaphoric qualities. And the two Laredos are incredible, partly because they’re so close to each other. I mean, the experience of crossing that bridge is transformative. In three minutes, you’re in a whole 'nother world. And the cities are fascinating. I mean, Nuevo Laredo exists because the people of Laredo, after the country was basically taken by the U.S., that territory, they packed up and crossed the river to stay in Mexico. So it's a very interesting area.

AMY GOODMAN: In this scene in The Girl, set beside an abandoned train station outside Nuevo Laredo, Maritza Santiago, the young girl, challenges Abbie’s character, Ashley, to explain why she needs so much money.

ROSA: [played by Maritza Santiago Hernandez] [translated] When we find my mom, I’m going to ask her to give you the money.

ASHLEY: [translated] What?

ROSA: [translated] The $500. Isn’t that why you’re angry? Look, there were eight of us, which is—

ASHLEY: [translated] Well, I didn’t get a penny, did I?

ROSA: [translated] Why do you need so much money?

ASHLEY: [translated] You know what a house costs in San Antonio? Seventy thousand dollars.

ROSA: [translated] My mom says everyone in Texas is rich and has swimming pools, gardeners and maids.

ASHLEY: [translated] Oh, yeah? Well, I live in a trailer.

ROSA: [translated] What’s that?

ASHLEY: [translated] It’s a box.

AMY GOODMAN: That is a clip of The Girl. Abbie Cornish, when we play this clip, we had to translate over it. You were speaking Spanish. You’re from Australia, and you didn’t speak Spanish before this film.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also had to learn the Texas twang at the same time.


AMY GOODMAN: Which was harder?

ABBIE CORNISH: Yeah, well, the—obviously the Spanish. I had done a Texan accent before. But for me, that was the biggest hurdle and the biggest challenge in taking this role, and just to sort of amalgamate the two, you know, the Texan girl who can speak Spanish, but you want it to be one voice, you know? You want it to be one character, coming from one place. And so, it took a little bit of work just to sort of—to sort of pull it all in, make it all one, to make Ashley, you know, one person. So I worked a lot with a dialect coach for the Texan accent and also a Spanish teacher and a Spanish dialect coach. And then, of course, when you’re in Mexico, that takes over, as well, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: What was the experience for you? Had you been in Mexico before?

ABBIE CORNISH: I had not been in Mexico before. The first time that I went to Mexico was to meet David for a few days. And we did, I guess you would call it, some form of rehearsal, but it was very—it was much more of a journey, I would say. It was about us, David and I, getting to know each other. It was about us getting to know Maritza. It was about us building relationships and starting to understand the roots of this story, what this story really is about, because, as David just mentioned, it’s quite intimate, and it’s quite personal.

And I think that’s what’s important about this film, is we’re putting faces and we’re putting stories to something which we often look at as facts and figures and we read in newspapers and we see on news shows, and there’s a certain detachment from the reality of it. You know, I mean, it’s so striking, like the time that we spent—you remember when we went and we hung out with all those immigrants that were traveling from South America, you know?

DAVID RIKER: Yeah, yeah.

ABBIE CORNISH: And it’s just, they’re—you know, these are all people, like David just mentioned, that have left their children, their wives, and it’s heartbreaking. And they have nothing. They’ve left everything behind to try and build a life, a better life, for their families. And they’re just—they’re human beings just the same as yourself or myself; it’s just they’ve been dealt different cards in life, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to do this? I mean, you’re a world-renowned star. You just wrapped what? RoboCop?

ABBIE CORNISH: Just finished RoboCop, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to do this independent film about this critical issue?

ABBIE CORNISH: Yeah. I mean, for me, I think the script was beautifully written, and the story was so strong. I loved that it is a political film, but it’s told on a very intimate scale. I was very much drawn to this character, this character’s evolution, from the dark, from a place of regret and sort of anger and sort of—you know, someone who feels—who feels like life has kind of not treated them so well, that they don’t—that, you know, they’re very angry at life—into the light, into motherhood, into herself and connecting with herself, because I think that’s an amazing journey to go on. And I think we all go on that journey in some way, and I love the journey into the light, as well. I sort of—I wanted to portray that story, give people a little bit of hope. And then, also, you know, I met David, and as soon as we met, I just knew it would be an incredible experience to make the film with him.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to take a break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are the award-winning actress, Abbie Cornish, and Dave Riker, the filmmaker. Abbie is starring in Dave’s new film, The Girl. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Abbie Cornish, the actress, and Dave Riker, the filmmaker, who just did The Girl, which is opening in New York at Lincoln Center and other theaters this weekend, in Los Angeles next weekend, and the country. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in this clip, Abbie Cornish’s character, desperate for help, turns to her father, played by William Patton, for his advice about what to do with the young girl.

TOMMY: Oh, boy. She not gonna let go. Before you know it, you’re going to be her damn mother.

ASHLEY: What am I supposed to do?

TOMMY: Listen to me. Listen to me. Once they get hold of you, you understand? You gonna spend the rest of your life taking care of that little girl. You walk away. You don’t look back. You walk away. You drop her at the corner, you understand? You say whatever you want. You just say you’re going to get the paper, you’re buying a damn ice cream, but you drop her at the corner, and you never look back.

ASHLEY: Is that how you do it?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Another clip from the film opening this weekend. Dave, I wanted to ask you about the—making the film on the border. Clearly, we’re in a situation right now where, on the U.S. side, it’s highly militarized, and surveillance and border patrol all over the place; on the other side, the expanding drug war and the violence in Mexico. How difficult was it to make the film there?

DAVID RIKER: It was so difficult, we couldn’t make it there. We had to actually move the whole production to Oaxaca. We shot a little bit in Texas. But I had planned, and we had set up the infrastructure, to shoot the film in Nuevo Laredo and around the borderlands of Tamaulipas. And during the course of preparing the film, things really became grotesque. The violence became so horrific that we had to move. In fact, when we were trying to get insurance for the film, none of the insurance companies would insure the film, not only Nuevo Laredo, nowhere along the border, in fact nowhere in Mexico. We managed to convince—because I was living in Oaxaca, we managed to convince one of the insurance companies to let us film there. So we shot in Oaxaca. And the challenge, from a creative standpoint, was to recreate, as authentically as possible, everything that that means, from the geography, the flat geography of South Texas and Tamaulipas, the architecture and colors, the signage of those—you know, that chaotic look of the border, the way we cast the extras and costumed them. All of that had to be done from scratch.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But even when you were trying to shoot scenes on the border side, you initially had permission from the—from authorities to do that, and then they withheld it at the last moment?

DAVID RIKER: Yeah, well, in terms of the bridge itself, once we had lost the ability to shoot in Nuevo Laredo, the last strand of the border that I was going to film was the actual bridge connecting the two countries. Department of Homeland Security had worked with us for two years approving the process, and they were excited about it. We had sent them maps of how we would stop traffic, where we would place the cameras. And three weeks beforehand, they said we couldn’t film, and they refused to let us film on the bridge. And we had to actually recreate the bridge in a car park in Austin, Texas, in the last moments, in order to get that scene in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: In this scene, Abbie’s character Ashley discovers that her father, a truck driver, is smuggling immigrants into Texas.

ASHLEY: There’s people back there, ain’t there?

TOMMY: Yeah, there’s people back there, but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t ask.

ASHLEY: Brought them across the border? Jesus! We could go to jail!

TOMMY: Nobody’s going to jail.

ASHLEY: You know what can happen to me? I’ll lose Georgie for good.

TOMMY: Will you stop worrying? Passed the checkpoint a half-hour ago. You know how many trucks cross that bridge every day? Five thousand of them. You think they’re going to stop even a hundred of them and open up the back? No. There ain’t no border for General Motors or Wal-Mart. Or teas, for that matter. You can cross with your pants down, do you understand? As long as the trucks keep rolling, as long as I keep hauling their [bleep].

AMY GOODMAN: Will Patton and Abbie Cornish. Actually, Abbie Cornish plays Ashley, and that’s her dad, in the film The Girl. Ashley, here you are an Australian actress in the United—I mean, Abbie, an Australian actress in the United States playing the central figure in this film about immigration.

ABBIE CORNISH: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that David and I have talked about from the very beginning, is to show the other side of the story, because so often what we’re looking at, what we’re talking about, is the idea of Mexicans immigrating to America, and America being the land of dreams and the land of plenty, you know, the land of opportunity. And so, what was really beautiful about this film, and in making this film, is that it’s an American’s journey into Mexico and how Mexico changes her life, the richness and the culture and the differences, how that brings light and hope and something that’s so precious and invaluable and priceless into her life.


DAVID RIKER: Yeah, I would just add to that that there are many films that have told the story now of the migrant’s journey north. And we—but the Anglo character is absent. The American character is not there. But if you ask the question, “Who is responsible for the deaths on the border?” for example, you know, it’s a very complicated question. But part of the answer is that the migrants are coming north to work, and they’re coming to work for us. And yet, we generally, in the North—not just in the U.S., in Europe—have an attitude that it really doesn’t have anything to do with us. So we—early on, I decided, as a writer, what would it mean to put an Anglo right in the dramatic center of it, a character who never takes responsibility for her life, and force her on a kind of collision course with that experience when things go badly. And she slowly—the film really is about her taking responsibility, not only for what happened on the border, but for everything that she’s done in her life up ’til then.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the young girl, Maritza Santiago, who’s the emotional heart of the film?

DAVID RIKER: Maritza. Maritza Santiago was eight when we filmed. She’s from Oaxaca. She was one of 3,000 girls that we auditioned. She is like a little firecracker, tiny girl with the energy and power of an adult. And the greatest joy, I think for both Abbie and I, was just being able to work with her.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us. The Girl is remarkable. It opens in New York this weekend at AMC Village, as well as the Lincoln Center theater called the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. I’ll be doing a Q&A with Dave on Saturday. Jeremy Scahill will be doing it there on Sunday. Go to our website at for the details. And thank you very much, Abbie Cornish, for joining us—

ABBIE CORNISH: No, thank you. A pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: —as well as Dave Riker. The film is The Girl.

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