INTERVIEW with Charlie Ahearn

[Article originally appeared: http://www.pbs.org/pov/bamcinemafest_2011_charlie_ahearn_jamel_shabazz]

Charlie Ahearn has been taken up with New York City street art since he moved here in 1973. His 1982 film “Wild Style” featured graffiti artist Lee Quinones and a who’s who of hip-hop superstars. His latest, “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” falls neatly into place, following the titular photographer with whom he crossed paths back in the day. In my efforts to track Charlie down and interview the heck out of him, I went so far as talking myself into an art class he was leading in the subway system. He scoffed at that idea, but he was congenial and forthcoming in our long conversation.

Adam Schartoff: You grew up in Binghamton, New York. When did you arrive in New York City?

Charlie Ahearn: 1973. I came here to be a visual artist. I had a studio at the Whitney Museum independent study program that was sort of [an] elite finishing school for avant-garde artists. A lot of interesting people have gone through those doors. They set you up in a studio and you would meet, on a weekly basis, the creme de la creme of the avant-garde of that time. We would meet artists who were doing the most interesting things at that point, artists like Vito Acconci. It was a great way to come into New York.

AS: It must have been remarkable.

Ahearn: It was 1973, and what was going on at the time was a turning away from the traditional art world and the White Cube, and towards being out in the streets. There was this strong sense that if you were a happening artist of the time, the place to go was out, connect with people. It was a fresh view of what the whole process was about.

You had Gordon Matta-Clark deconstructing buildings up in the Bronx. He was taking photographs of graffiti. I was going into housing projects on the Lower East Side. I have 16mm film of kids break dancing in one of those housing projects from 1978. This morphed into my making a kung fu movie in one of those housing projects. During that time I saw the murals of Lee Quinones all over the housing project. He was an extremely allusive person. I was captivated by him as sort of the cutting edge of what I thought was the youth movement. He was the most respected graffiti writer among the kids in New York. Adults didn’t really know who he was. This led me to becoming involved in the Times Square Show in June of 1980. Fred (“Fab Five Freddy”) Brathwaite came with graffiti-related paintings. I ended up commissioning Fred and Lee to make a mural — which is like an illegal piece — out in front of the building. It was done in broad daylight in Times Square. Where they just wrote the words “Fab Five” in bubble style.

AS: So you were spending your time between the Bronx and the Lower East Side.

Ahearn: I wanted to pull away from that gravitational scene of the downtown punk scene and CBGB’s and the Mudd Club. The rapping, the dancing and the deejaying was coming from the Bronx. I felt that it would be a much more consistent, more codified statement to have the film about that. And, of course, the rest is history because that’s how people see it and understand it now. Otherwise, people would think it came out of the club scene. That would have been an easy mistake for people to make. Read more

Until the Smoke Clears

Photographer Godlis shooting STRANGER THINGS co-directors Eleanor Burke & Ron Eyal; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Standing on the steps in front of BAM yesterday afternoon, I was reminded of why I love CinemaFEST so much.  As things wind down on this last weekend of its 10-day run, a small crowd which had gathered to get in to see the 4:15 showing of Eleanor Burke & Ron Eyal’s film, “Stranger Things” was not allowed to enter.  Turns out there was some smoke or gas detector that had gone off and alerted the fire department.   But, hey, the sun was shining and everyone was in good humor.  Photographer David Godlis took the opportunity to photograph the co-directors in front of one of the fire engines (pictured here).

After a short time we all filed in and were then treated to the lovely film “Stranger Things” which is about a young English woman who returns home to her recently deceased mother’s house and finds a homeless squatter who has taken up residence.  The movie stars two relative unknowns, Bridget Collins and Adeel Akhtar (“4 Lions”).   Their chemistry has both a sincerity and integrity to it, lending the film a somber and touching mood.  Afterward the filmmakers took the stage along with Akhtar, who was in New York filming another project,  and some of the crew.

ELEVATE director, Anne Buford (left) with some of her film's subjects (right); photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Earlier in the day I had been fortunate to have seen a screening of Anne Buford’s “Elevate“, a documentary which follows the paths of 4 young Senegalese basketball players on the quest for the NBA.  Truthfully, that description is more the publicity sound bite.  It’s really about these young men getting this amazing opportunity for a full life including a chance to live in the U.S. and get a real education.  They see that only too clearly.  The transition is both exhilarating and terrifying for these guys.  They are placed in different prep schools though two of them wind up at Kent Prep School in Kent, Connecticut.  They all do end up reuniting at a tournament and stay in very close contact through the internet and mobile phones.  It’s a terrific documentary and Ms. Buford, a Kansan, is one to watch for.  Read more

B4B: Not Limping out of the Gait!

Getting ready to step into the last PTA meeting of the school year last night, friend and filmmaker Michael Galinsky limped over and leaned on my shoulder.  He was suffering from a case of pretty severe sciatica.  Weeks of non-stop scrabbling to get word out about his and wife Suki Hawley’s new documentary, “Battle For Brooklyn“, had finally seemed to catch up with him in the form of a pinched nerve.  I’m not lowering the odds on him by a long shot.  Anyone who knows Michael knows that he won’t rest until everybody —and I do mean everybody— has purchased a ticket to this very fine, albeit controversial film.  And, “Battle For Brooklyn” is very much worth seeing, regardless of whether you live near the Atlantic Yards footprint or on Florida’s panhandle.  Land grab deals are rampant in this country.  Anyone is a potential victim of developers and politicians and what they are doing in our towns and cities.  If Brooklyn can be upended, with many of its residents tossed to the curb in the process, why not you or your neighborhood?

“Battle For Brooklyn”, a film some 8 years in the making, had its world debut right here in Kings County where it opened this season’s Brooklyn Film Festival.  It subsequently took both Best Documentary Prize and Grand Chameleon Prize for best movie overall.  The film also enjoyed a recent soggy screening at Rooftop Films and then went on to have a terrific theatrical opening last weekend.  That opening, at both Manhattan’s Cinema Village and Brooklyn’s IndieScreen (home to the BFF), was successful enough for the former theater to extend its run another week. No small feat, just ask any documentary filmmaker. Read more

A New Doc about Polarized Jews

For many Jews expressing sympathy for the Palestinian plight in Israel is far too intimidating.  To do so would be a betrayal to many, making an already vulnerable Israel only moreso.  Considering a scenario of a world without a dedicated Jewish homeland is to consider a world without Jews.  While there are now a relatively small number of Holocaust survivors around, there is a generation of  young people (roughly my age) in America, Europe and Israel who hold on the memories of their Bubbes and Zaydes like having taken a blood oath.  To suggest that one can be pro-Israel and sympathetic to Palestinians at the same time is,  for many, an oxymoron.  But the new documentary, “Between Two Worlds“, shows that through much work and respectful discourse, some common ground may be reached.

The film, co-directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman (who coincidentally founded the festival in 1980), starts with an incident at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival where the controversial film “Rachel“, directed by Simone Bitton, was screened.  That film criticized the Israeli army for the death of peace activist Rachel Corrie who was killed by a bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes.  Rachel’s mother was invited to participate in a post-screening Q&A, something which caused sponsors to pull out and a mob of angry protestors to march outside the theater. The film does sensitively depict how polarized the Jewish community is between those who staunchly defend Israel at any cost, and those who dare to criticize.

“Between Two Worlds” will have a special screening at the Stranger Than Fiction series  on Thursday, June 30th at 8pm.  Both filmmakers will be present for a Q&A following the screening.  The film will then go on to play at the Jerusalem Film Festival on July 8th and then, quite neatly, on to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival later in the month.

INTERVIEW with Heather Courtney

Filmmaker Heather Courtney at BAM; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

[Article originally appeared: http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/2011/06/bamcinemafest_2011_heather_courtney_where_soldiers_come_from.php]

Heather Courtney returned to her hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the idea of filming a documentary about rural small-town America. What she ended up with was the story of four local young men being deployed for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Courtney found herself drawn to the story of the loved ones left behind and the effects on the community in general. Therein is the story behind her new documentary “Where Soldiers Come From”.

Adam Schartoff: Was Where Soldiers Come From always going to be about the effects on a family and community, as opposed to just following soldiers?

Heather Courtney: That was always my main motivation for making the film, to be the portrait of a town and how the community is affected. When I first started filming I didn’t even know the boys were going to be deployed. It was much more a coming-of-age film. They were trying to figure out how to grow up, what to do with their lives, and how to go to college. One of the ways they were going to do that was to join the National Guard, for the money. Then they got deployed. I had already filmed for two years.

AS: Did you find that it became increasingly more challenging to keep true to that original idea as the story was expanding? You had the period in Afghanistan and a national election going on at home.

Courtney: That’s true, but I still don’t consider it a war film. Again, it’s a coming-of-age film and how the men changed over the course of those four years. Afghanistan is a big part of it and we get to see how the people are going on with their lives at home while their sons are away. And the last segment of the film, when the men return, it’s also about the family’s struggle dealing with the men trying to adjust to a normal life. Read more

BAM’s LoveFEST

Last night it almost seemed as though BAM CinemaFEST was competing against itself for Brooklyn’s indie film audiences.  The festival simultaneously screened two from its amazing 2011 slate of narrative films: Azazel Jacobs’ TERRI in its theater on Lafayette and in a joint event with Rooftop Films, CATECHISM CATACLYSM screened outdoors in BAM’s parking lot just kitty corner.

The attendance at both venues was sold-out.  Afterward –the screenings and Q&A’s– CinemaFEST turned into LoveFEST as indie filmmakers celebrated each other’s success shuttling back and forth between after parties.  Then a composite of casts and crews went out for late night cocktails and more camaraderie.

Here’s a slideshow of last night’s festivities in Fort Greene, Brooklyn!

film review: PAGE ONE — INSIDE THE NY TIMES

Directed by Andrew Rossi
Written & Produced by Kate Novack & Andrew Rossi
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 88 min. Rated R.

[Article originally appeared: http://film-forward.com/pageone.html]

Did The New York Times sound a death knell when they began charging subscriptions for online readers a few months ago? The jury is still out on that one, and it’s one of the many issues that Andrew Rossi highlights in this fascinating documentary. Given unprecedented access to the venerable paper (established in 1851), Rossi had the opportunity to film inside “The Gray Lady” during arguably one of the newspaper’s most crucial periods. As other major metropolitan newspapers have claimed bankruptcy and folded, The New York Times struggles to keep sales up while seeing ad revenue dwindle. The decrease in advertising was so swift and abrupt as to have caused a whiplash effect for the company. Not to say the publication wasn’t already taking necessary measures to remain both fluid and relevant. Reaching out across all media platforms was one method, encouraging 100 employees to take early retirement packages was another.

Rossi follows several journalists but mainly, and wisely, focuses on two. Both work for the relatively new media desk. The first is David Carr, former crack addict and welfare dad. His history is well noted in both his memoir, The Night of the Gun, and also in his candid openness about his past. Somehow, even amidst all his personal drama, he was able to function as a journalist, and after he cleaned up, he impressively snagged a job at the Times. Since then he has become the paper’s staunchest advocate, fiercely defending the institution at various media conventions and panels. Carr, at first a reluctant blogger and Twitter user, has become an unleashed attack dog, fiercely defending his home turf and his masters. And while he proves most effective in this role, it is not at the cost of his role as a journalist. During the course of filming “Page One”, Carr covers the financial fall of the Tribune Company. Just surreptitiously watching Carr questioning a source from the organization makes for a riveting moment. Read more

film review: BUCK

Directed by Cindy Meehl
Produced by Julie Goldman
Released by Sundance Selects
USA. 88 min. Not Rated

[Originally article appeared: http://www.film-forward.com/buck.html]

By the time Buck Brannaman’s mother died at the age of 11, his already abusive father ramped up the level of physical and emotional abuse on Buck and his brother. Fortunately for the boys, they were placed with a foster family who gave them lots of love, and over time, young Buck was able to overcome his broken spirit and gain back his confidence.

From as far back as Buck can remember he had been a performer. His Dad, despite or as a direct result of his harsh ways, turned both of his sons into circus cowboys. Much like the Jackson 5 story, the overbearing father bullied his kin into becoming top-level talent. While Brannaman has long since left the world of performing, his relationship to horses has evolved into something many people liken to a Zen experience. Buck Brannaman is also the model on which Robert Redford based his performance on in his movie “The Horse Whisperer”. Not so surprisingly, Mr. Redford makes an appearance in this documentary, a first-time feature directed by Cindy Meehl.

Thom Powers with filmmaker Cindy Meehl;photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Wisely, Ms. Meehl chooses to just set the camera on her subject and let him do most of the talking. Buck, it turns out, has the charisma, humor, and intelligence to fill up the movie and probably one or two others. Part of his charm is his openness about his childhood abuse. While no longer shocking—not in the age of Oprah—it is still unusual to hear New Age wisdom spoken by someone in a Stetson and cowboy boots. But the confessional tone is also necessarily for him to successfully explain his approach to healing troubled horses. During one of his horse clinics, an enterprise he has been running for a few decades now, Brannaman describes the moment of clarity early on when he realized that disturbed horses just needed the same opportunity that he was given by his foster parents, to know that he was safe. As he also explains, “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” Coming from someone else that might sound highhanded. Read more

Northside Shorts – This Point in Time

This evening IndieScreen will be playing host to “Northside Shorts – This Point in Time”, a collection of short films show as art of the Northside Festival.  Quite a mouthful but the slate looks quite promising.  For one thing they have all been directed by New York filmmakers, a number from Brooklyn itself.  While Rooftop Films is not technically running the show —the screen has not been moved up to the theater’s roof as far as I am aware— their imprint is on the screening and the event is on their calendar.  What follows is the evening’s line up!

Welcome to Pine Point (Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons of The Goggles | Canda | 14 min.)
Imagine your hometown never changed. Part book, part film, part family photo album, Welcome to Pine Point unearths a place frozen in time and discovers what happens when an entire community is erased from the map. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada. interactive.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint

Broad Channel (Sarah J. Christman | Brooklyn, NY | 13 min.)
Over the course of four seasons, nuances of everyday activity are examined along one narrow stretch of public shoreline on New York City’s Broad Channel Island. Moments of recurrence and change cycle through an ecosystem rooted in migration. Read more

INTERVIEW with Marshall Curry

[Article originally appears: http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/2011/06/bamcinemafest_2011_marshall_curry_if_a_tree_falls.php]

Marshall Curry is one of New York’s more prolific documentary filmmakers having made “Street Fight” (POV, 2005), for which he received an Oscar® nomination, and “Racing Dreams” (POV, 2011). In his latest film (co-directed by Sam Cullman), “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (coincidentally, a film you can watch later this summer on POV), Curry follows the story of environmentalist Daniel McGowan and what led to his house arrest and subsequent imprisonment for domestic terrorism. Even though this blogger lives in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as the filmmaker, I conducted this conversation over the phone two days before his film launched the documentary lineup at BAMcinemaFEST 2011. (You can also read my preview of BAMcinemaFEST’s documentary slate in my last post.)

Adam Schartoff: What influences your choice in making a film? Is it completely intuitive decision making or is there a practical approach to it, like what’s commercial or timely?

Marshall Curry: I guess the main thing that I am drawn to is making a story that I would want to watch. If you have to work on something for years and you get bored with it, that’s a disaster. All three of the movies I’ve made [Street Fight, Racing Dream, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front] have kept me engaged with new questions and new twists all the way through the process. The film has to be about someone or something complex enough to keep me engaged. One of the things about this story that attracted me was how different Daniel was from what I expected. He turned out to be nothing like what I thought a domestic terrorist would be like. It’s when stereotype cuts against reality, that’s appealing to me. Of course the characters have to be compelling and I need to see an arc in the story. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end so that it feels like a movie. All those things are important when I’m looking for a new project.

"ELF Fire at Superior Lumber" Photo credit: Roy Milburn

Curry: From start to finish, probably five years. It was about five years ago when Daniel was arrested out of my wife’s office. That started the story. So Sam Cullman [the film's co-director] and I decided to jump in.

AS: During this same period you were making “Racing Dreams”?

Curry: That’s right. During the first year I was shooting both films. Then I put “If a Tree Falls…” on hold while I edited “Racing Dreams”. As soon as I finished “Racing Dreams”, I started editing this one. Read more

BAMcinemaFEST Kicks Off Third Season Bringing Blue Chip Docs to Brooklyn

[Article originally appeared:  http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/2011/06/bamcinemafest_2011_preview.php]

In just three short years BAMcinemaFEST has gained a reputation for being one of New York City’s most exquisitely programmed film festivals. Located in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, the festival — which runs from June 16-26 — skims the best off festivals like Sundance and SXSW and tosses in a few New York premieres and a world premiere for good measure. In addition to a tasty slate of indie narrative films, there are eleven documentaries, all arguably worth checking out.

As a professed documentary junkie it’s especially difficult for me to weed out any of those films as being more or less worthwhile, so better to just interpret the following as a collection of thoughts about some of those nonfiction films.

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer
Charlie Ahearn’s “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” is the endearing portrait of the Brooklyn photographer. While the film seems at times to also act as an extended advertisement for Shabazz’s new photo essay book, one can’t deny the man’s charm or talent. The documentary deftly integrates spoken reminiscences over Shabazz’s vintage photos from the ’70s and ’80s while cross cutting with the photographer today as he continues photographing the same streets in Brooklyn and Harlem and their willing denizens.

Read more

film review: THE TRIP

Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Produced by Andrew Eaton & Melissa Parmenter
Released by IFC Films
UK. 109 min. Not Rated
With Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon

[Article originally appeared: http://www.film-forward.com/thetrip.html]

“She was… only… 16… years old.” These words are spoken over lunch by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon during a duel of dead-on Michael Caine impersonations. Dueling is the operative word here. Michael Winterbottom’s new trifle of a film is the very unlikely follow-up to his 2006 comedy “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”, which was a meta-adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel. Continuing to play variations of themselves, Coogan and Brydon reprise their roles from that earlier film in “The Trip”.

The new film takes the two British actors out on the open road for little more than a series of skits that involve the aforementioned Michael Caine impressions among others, including Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Woody Allen, each funnier than the last. Oh, there’s some backstory about Coogan being sent on the excursion by a newspaper, ostensibly to write reviews of Lake District eateries. Since Coogan is currently experiencing a rough patch with both his American girlfriend and his career, he invites his old pal, Brydon, to join him. Brydon, happy to be asked, comes along despite having to leave his wife and toddler behind. The competitive tension between the two friends is what elevates this movie from your average cable TV series, which is exactly its genesis. The six-part mini-series, a recent BBC hit, has been edited, rather successfully so, to a 100-plus breezy minutes. Read more

film review: LIMBO

Written & directed by Maria Sødahl
Cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro
Edited by Jens Christian Fodstad
Cast: Bryan Brown, Lena Endre & Line Verndal

[Article originally appeared: http://ondemandweekly.com/blog/article/limbo_-_from_eurocinemas_on_demand_scandinavian_film_festival]

“Limbo” tells the story of Sonia a Swedish wife and mother who joins her husband Jo, an oil engineer, stationed in 1970’s Trinidad. When she arrives with their two kids in tow it’s not long before Sonia discovers that Jo has stepped outside their marriage. Jo’s transgression puts their marriage into a tailspin. That, plus the utter lack of anything productive to do, plunges Sonia into an ever-increasing sense of despair.

While it’s plain that Jo loves her and is terrified of losing his family, he is ultimately an emotionally limited individual and doesn’t know how to help his wife. When he suggests she join him on a business trip to Chicago, she declines and ends up taking the kids for a weekend away exploring the other side of the island with one of their servants.

“Limbo”, one of the selections from Eurocinema’s On Demand Scandinavian Film Festival, benefits from some strong casting. In addition to Line Verndal and Henrik Rafaelsen who play the less than happily married couple, there is also Jo’s friend and business partner, Daniel, an aging Australian played by Bryan Brown and the Swedish Lena Endre (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) who plays his wife Charlotte.

Ms. Endre, in particular, is a welcome presence. She plays Charlotte as a tragic Shakespearean character without the melodrama. Unlike the Lars Stieg Larsson adaptations, LIMBO gives the theatrically trained Endre a chance to really dig into a role far more substantial. Mr. Brown is also a welcome and familiar presence. He’s obviously years beyond those roles he played in “F/X” or “Cocktail”, but that may be a good thing. For those familiar with his work in “Breaker Morant”, it’s no surprise that he solidly delivers in “Limbo”. Read more

film review: SUBMARINE

Written & directed by Richard Ayoade
Edited by Chris Dickens & Nick Fenton
Cinematography by Erik Wilson
Executive Produced by Ben Stiller
The Weinstein Company
127 minutes. 2011. Rated R.

Why the film is called “Submarine” is anybody’s guess. It belongs to a genre of quirky coming-of-age dramedies, a genre of which there has been no shortage of entries. Some that come to mind include “Rushmore”, “Harold and Maude”, “Juno”, “The Squid and the Whale”, and “Napoleon Dynamite”.

This one is set in Wales in what I gather, by one of the main character’s hybrid spiked/mulleted hairstyle, is the 1980s.

The primary issue with “Submarine”, is that while the film launches, it never quite gathers any velocity or momentum. In more capable hands, this might not have prevented it from being a cult classic, but that’s not the case here.

SUBMARINE director, Richard Ayoade; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Whether it was a result of direction or otherwise, the lead young actor playing Oliver Tate—a likeable enough Craig Roberts—doesn’t do anything to transcend the role. He remains expressionless throughout, never so much as cracking a smile.

The same can be said of his young love interest, Jordana, played by Yasmin Paige. While she does at least play coy, flirtatious, happy, and sad among other classic feelings, there’s just not enough meat on the bones.

What “Submarine” does have going for it, however, is a number of first-rate British actors among its supporting cast. Sally Hawkins plays Jill Tate, Oliver’s loving but confused mom, and Paddy Considine plays Graham Purvis, a former-actor turned cheesy spiritual guru. Read more