It’s June: Festivals and Pride are in the air. In this era of “fake news,” 90-second sound bites, fast food documentaries, and the constant “breaking news,” we welcome the 28th edition of The 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF), which is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) and IFC Center (June 9th through June 18th). This international, traveling film festival is especially strong this year with 21 films and discussions showcasing courageous activists during challenging times. The Blood Is at the Doorstep is about the killings of black people, mostly men and boys, in the U.S. In Complicit, one worker stood up and said “NO!” to Foxconn and its Chinese government connections. Foxconn has 13 Chinese plants that manufacture Apple cell phones in slave-like working conditions reminiscent of 1984. In Home Truth, murder made a newly-minted activist fight back and confront the police department’s cover up of what actually happens. These are just part of the inspiring stories of the HRWFF. A complete list of films can be found here: ff.hrw.org. I will cover more extensively the films and panels on the WestView website and my Reel Deal blog. Besides film, there are special events and panels and all the films will have Q&As after the screenings. If you have kids, or a significant other, make a play date and take them to the HRWFF.
BAMcinématek (June 14th through June 25th) has, since its inception nine years ago, become one of the most exciting festivals in the U.S. Its programming features some of the best new American independent films. Now in lock step with MoMA and FSLC’s New Directors/New Films, it targets the Brooklyn millennial filmgoers and the creative community. The line-up this year includes the big-screen return of acclaimed New York filmmaker Jim McKay. He is back from the land of the small screen after his move to Los Angeles where he worked in quality network and cable television and raised a family. I have waited almost 10 years for him to return to the kind of cinema so needed these days, the kind that tells the stories of everyday people. McKay is committed to humanizing by making visible the people who ride public transit anywhere. In features like Girls Town and Our Song, he “sings the song electric.” His new film, En el Séptimo Día, which is about an immigrant, feels like it was ripped out of today’s newspapers. In fact, it is the story of people who come from somewhere else to build a better life—a story that started with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Also returning is one of my favorite storytellers, Andrew Dosunmu, who has an eye for beauty and a sensitivity for what lurks beneath the mask of secrecy. The director of Mother of George, Dosunmu returns with Where is Kyra? We also see the return of Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre with Landline. Be warned: this festival sells out.
Really, BAM’s Rose Cinema is just a short subway ride away.
Gentrification and its effects on residents and small businesses in the City, including Greenwich Village, is a subject important to older people who have lived here a long time. It borders on sentimental nostalgia for what once was. While documentaries are the logical place to put into context what has been happening in our neighborhood, I recommend two award-winning narrative films by our neighbor Ira Sachs, which you can view through all the normal streaming platforms (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.)
Sachs puts into context how disruptive to family life and neighborhoods gentrification is. Love is Strange, set in the Village with a cast of recognizable faces, tells the story of how one same-sex older couple loses its rent-regulated apartment and how its intergenerational community of friends come to the rescue (Marisa Tomei, who was brought up in the Village, is perfect). In Little Men, which is set in Brooklyn, a house left to an actor and his psychologist wife becomes the template for what happens when the high cost of living, taxes, and rents make it impossible for small businesses to survive. How this affects the friendship of two boys is the core of the story. Both of these narrative films capture the effects on individuals when relationships are impacted by gentrification. Sachs is a master storyteller and a genius at casting.
Let’s Go to the Movies…
Director: Laura Poitras
Risk is Laura Poitras’ follow-up to her Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour. Julian Assange is the subject of this well-crafted documentary containing subtle touches of artistic vision. Poitras first started shooting whistleblowers in 2011. Assange was the most prominent and she continued to follow him with her camera. He and WikiLeaks lawyer Sarah Harrison (who I met at Fort Mead in Maryland when we both attended the Chelsea Manning military court trial) were instrumental in getting Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong to safe harbor when the U.S. government made it impossible for him to switch planes in Russia. (Snowden got stuck at the Moscow airport.) Poitras is upfront about her conflict between respecting the courage of Assange and maintaining a distanced view of his personality as he lives confined to a small apartment in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. While Assange has nerves of steel, she also questions in a voice-over his “creeping vanity.” Many people hate Assange, from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton voters. The latter are still outraged that he had WikiLeaks publish the Democratic National Committee emails which showed that Clinton’s campaign was complicit in shutting out Bernie Sanders. Poitras appears to take no sides in Risk and it is not a puff piece on Assange. What she does, as in her other work, is present in a complex and challenging manner living history. I came out of the theater thinking about Abbie Hoffman with whom I had a close relationship in the 1960s. (Hoffman was a charismatic narcissist, who was much loved by people who did not know him personally.) Risk is a compelling documentary that moves like a thriller not the least because of the soundtrack by Jeremy Flower. Poitras has made what we see little of today in popular, fast food documentary filmmaking. It is easier to produce black-and-white advocacy by taking sides on complicated issues, both political and personal. But Poitras, like Charles Ferguson and Alex Gibney, puts all the facts on the table and allows the viewer to make the choice. Because of the political climate we are living in today, Risk should be seen by all, regardless of how one personally feels about Julian Assange. Risk raises questions of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right of the public to know what its government is doing.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Jane Jacobs lived in Greenwich Village for about 30 years. When she heard that city planner Robert Moses was going to put a road through Washington Square Park, she said to herself “NO!” Robert Moses was well known for his bullying tactics and had an almost imperial presence in re-shaping New York City into something that would no longer point to the past but to the modernist future. Moses either had the support of, or stood above, the politicians of the City and succeeded in implementing his vision overall. However, Moses went one step too far in wanting to put the roadway in the middle of Washington Square Park. Jane Jacobs’ quiet outrage set to challenge the giant not with a slingshot, but her pen. Skilled at letter writing, she choose her weapon carefully. Citizen Jane is not a documentary which is neutral in its viewpoint and, if you live here in the Village, you probably don’t want a neutral documentary. Citizen Jane is very relevant today as we see our community being ravaged by real estate cabals united in greed—their frenzied building of luxury condos even where a hospital used to stand and serve the community.
Michael Bloomberg was the “socially conscious and morally ethical” independent, political entrepreneur mayor. He saw development as the future of New York City and placed Amanda Burden, a woman born into a billionaire family and a member of the Social Register, as the head of the New York City Department of City Planning. There wasn’t a development plan that Bloomberg wanted that he did not get. This time, there is no Jane Jacobs to emerge like Joan of Arc to save our community and so the “ghost condos” have been built on the skeleton of a hospital.
I think it is critical for anyone who cares about saving whatever is left of the Greenwich Village culture and community to see this film. Is it too late? Possibly! The court win involving the NYU expansion as well as the local politicians’ and Community Board 2’s (CB2) acceptance of the St. John’s Terminal waterfront project are poised to fundamentally rupture the infrastructure of what is now called ‘Greenwich Village.’ The amount of people moving in to live and work within the boundaries of CB2 I think would give Jane Jacobs a major migraine. But I do believe that cinema has the power to give people the will to stand up and say “ENOUGH!” Well, you can see what Citizen Jane has done to me. Go see it for no other reason than to learn the history of Greenwich Village.