Life is a Festival
Part I: The Brooklyn International Film Festival
Brooklyn is by far the most populous of New York City's five boroughs, as well as one of the most diverse counties on the planet. Blue in the Face, the 1995 movie that attempted to capture the wily essence of the borough, claimed that Brooklyn was home to 2.3 million people including 90 distinct ethnic groups, numbers that may be gross underestimates by now.
This is all to say that Brooklyn is the perfect place for an international film festival. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (who recently made national headlines for removing portraits of George Washington from Brooklyn's Borough Hall) echoed these sentiments in his introduction to the Brooklyn International Film Festival at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (April 29 to May 5). Markowitz cited Brooklyn as a major film setting. "Many of our streets have been involved with filmmaking," he stated. "It's hard not to bump into it." He even bragged about having secured a promise from Steven Spielberg to hold a big, glitzy premiere in the borough one of these days, although he seemed less than star struck. "When you make it in Brooklyn," he boasted, "you make it big time."
But the festival was like that. A shaggy dog mix of foreign titles and real local crop, low-budget videos and big eye-popping action flicks. The film's opener, Maurizio Sciarra's Off to the Revolution by 2CV, is an Italian production about a Portuguese guy who, along with his Italian roommate and French ex-girlfriend, hits the road through Italy, France, and Spain to attend the 1974 Portuguese revolution. Throw in a couple of Jamaicans and an Eskimo and you're looking at a typical Brooklyn street.
Even the festival itself reflects the unruly, ever-changing shape of Brooklyn. In its fifth year, the Brooklyn International Film festival is actually something of a rookie. For the past four years it's been known as the Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival and it took place at the now-defunct Commodore Theater in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that has added a significant artists' community to its traditional Polish population over the last decade. Sensing a need to expand out of the 'hood, festival director Marco Ursino changed the fest's name (giving it the odd but somehow appropriate anagram BIFF) and moved it to its current location, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York's second biggest museum and home to controversial exhibits like "Sensation," which featured the elephant dung Virgin Mary painting. According festival director Marco Ursino, the folks at the Brooklyn Museum "stand up and do whatever they want for the sake of art," even when that meant coming under fire from then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.
This attempt to encompass more of Brooklyn than just Williamsburg also helped increase the scope of the fest. "It's truly internationally known," says Ursino, referring to the museum. "Williamsburg is like la-la land; not quite Manhattan, but not quite Brooklyn. The BMA opened the door to Brooklyn." And, luckily, a new audience responded. "We didn't lose the audience of past years. We still have the artsy crowd, but for the first time we were confronted with regular Joes from Park Slope. There is a strong curiosity in Brooklyn everywhere you go." And the festival was ready to reflect back the diversity of the audience in its selection of films. "We don't have films that feel or look like each other," Marco explains. "We received 1000 [submissions] from 69 countries, so the ones we put in are films we really believe in."
Still, the heart of the fest may well be the local films. One particularly gripping feature was Sergio Goes's documentary Black Picket Fence. Goes spent over two years taping the lives of a loose crew of friends and family in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood that turns up on the local news almost nightly for either a tragic house fire or a grisly murder. Goes' subjects are centered around Tislam Milliner, or Tiz as he's affectionately called. Tiz, an aspiring rapper, is an articulate, intelligent guy with ambitions outside the projects and the talent to potentially get him there. Goes' film uses the relationship between Tiz and his friend Mel, a drug dealer whose life has mostly been spent in jail, to establish a dynamic that is easy for audiences to grip. This good friend-bad friend duality, with each trying to bring the other over to his side, is a frequent theme of New York flicks that goes back at least to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. In Black Picket Fence, however, the morality is more complicated. Tiz also sells drugs. He talks about the terrible things he's done, including having shot innocent people, and while he claims that his thug days are behind him, the path doesn't seem that straightforward. Meanwhile Mel has a tough side, with eyes that can go from sleepy and stoned to cold and alert in a moment, but at the same time he dreams about moving his girlfriend (who he seems to really love) and her kid out to the suburbs and to get out of the life. The film doesn't let the roles be cast quite so easily.
Goes finds even the question of the genesis of his project to be rife with complexity. "Someone 'like me' is not supposed to know someone 'like them'. We live a few miles apart in the same Brooklyn, but in two completely different worlds," he told Cinema Gotham. Still, he found working with Tiz and his friends to be extremely rewarding. "We were blown away by [our] first encounter. The stories we heard were right out of a crazy script. This group of people had grown up dealing with the inevitable cycle of round trips to prison and witnessing their best friends being shot and killed. It seemed like in East New York that was no big deal. At the average age of 25, they could call themselves survivors. Alive and out of jail. These convicted felons also happened to be some of the nicest people we ever met." He sees his project as an opportunity for different groups of artists to exchange ideas. "My film is a collaboration between the filmmakers and the subjects. They had a story to tell and the balls to do it in front of a camera, and we made it happen together. There is so much untapped artistic talent in these communities. A lot of negative, violent energy could be redirected towards artistic expression, if you could only give these children a little bit of opportunity." And there couldn't have been a better screening than the one at the fest. According to Goes, "I'm very very happy to be able to premiere my film at the Brooklyn Museum because it will be possible for everyone in the hood to be present at our first screening and that is so important. Park Slope is not East New York, but Brooklyn is Brooklyn."
Will Keenan and Gadi Harel's Operation Midnight Climax is a different kind of New York story, borrowing some of the madcap tone of hometown independent producer Troma. (click here for Cinema Gotham's Troma article.) In fact, Keenan even starred in Troma's Tromeo and Juliet as Tromeo. Operation Midnight Climax concerns a web of secret conspiracies, unseen by the public, but discovered by Will Nitch (Keenan) who forms an all-woman secret society to combat these nefarious forces. Keenan certainly feels an affinity for the off-beat films of his neighbors. "New York City breeds a lot of things weird, heh? As the official home of 'indiewood', New York saw a film boom after the early nineties, and of course, when everyone in town's making movies, some are bound to be weird." He feels that his films fit into the scene nicely. "Operation Midnight Climax is a nice hybrid I think of Troma-inspired comedy and docu-mocku drama. As for conspiracy, the whole film business thrives on it." Keenan, who won the Audience Award and Best Actor Award at the Brooklyn fest two years ago for his film Waiting, is thrilled with the new digs. "I've always wanted to do a stunt in a museum. [Our film] makes the "Sensation" exhibit look like a kindergarten's arts and crafts class! I'm just glad Giuliani's out of office. There are other places to police besides museums."
One of the most sublimely moving films of the festival (and probably of the year) has to be Monika Bravo's September 10: uno nunca muere la v'spera. Bravo, a Columbia-born artist, was part of the WORLD VIEWS Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Studio Residency Program that placed artists in studio space on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. She planned to shoot footage from the various views out of her windows there and incorporate it into an installation project called A_Maze. On September 10th she captured a series of shots of an impending storm including gathering dark clouds and dramatic thunderbolts. Of course, it would be the last footage that she would get to shoot there.
September 10 is a five minute montage of the footage from that day edited to an electronic score. Bravo manipulated the footage in a variety of ways (time lapse, freeze frame) that plays with the passage of time, but the overall effect is stunning. At the Brooklyn festival the film left the audience speechless and emotional, unable to ask the filmmaker any questions during her post-screening question-and-answer session. Afterwards, Bravo expressed her mixed emotions about the building where she did her work. "It was awkward. It took a half hour to go have a cigarette. And I found the view overwhelming." In fact, she covered up the windows when she was working on other projects. "I started filming [the footage out the windows] on and off but I couldn't have the view every day. It was too much information." On the morning of the attack she watched the building burn from her Brooklyn terrace. She reflected on her shots from the day before. "If I had known what was going to happen I wouldn't have done it. Even the night before putting my equipment away I thought 'this stuff is probably safer here than it is at home.'" Still, her film is a beautiful and simple memorial. The film is dedicated to Michael Richards, a Jamaican born sculptor who was the only artist from her program to die in the attack.
It's a testament to the programming of the festival that it can support such diverse films and still feel like a coherent experience. But as the festival's Communication Manager Matt Heindl says, that mix is built into the bedrock of the festival's foundations. "Even when I was at my class reunion in Wisconsin this summer, 'Brooklyn' raised eyebrows. It sounds tough and 'hood'y. I'm sure the average American thinks similar. The good thing for us is that Brooklyn is well known in the filmmaker and arts communities as a hotbed of activity and growth." Even without the glamour of that island across the way, Brooklyn is able to represent.
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