This evening was warm enough to walk from Park Slope to Brooklyn Heights, where the Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting an evening of Brooklyn-themed documentaries. I arrived too late to get a seat, but managed to get a good space to stand in the back. As I looked around the room, I realized that I was probably the youngest person in the audience by a good amount. Almost immediately, the documentaries started.
The first films that were shown were of late 19th century and early 20th century Brooklyn. The footage was quite amazing (and apparently available at the Brooklyn Library as well as the Museum of Transit), showing shots of a century-old Coney Island and the East River Waterfront. Most interesting was footage of French actress Sarah Bernhardt giving a speech in Prospect Park in 1917. Although the footage had no sound, the speech itself is quite famous, as she was addressing over fifty thousand people about French-American cooperation in the war.
The title of the festival was a bit misleading, as I thought that the series would feature films spanning 1899 to the present. Instead, there was the archive footage show first, and then six documentaries that were made in the past ten years.
Nonetheless, the archive footage was followed by a short documentary called Brooklyn: Among the Ruins. The film, directed by Suzanne Wasserman, focused on Paul Kronenberg, a resident of Sheepshead Bay, who has a fascination with subway cars, to the extent that he has fashioned his own apartment after a 1930’s subway car. He takes Wasserman on a tour of some of his favorite subway stations, including an old and unused platform at Chambers Street. He looked at these old stations as if they were aging pieces of fine art, outlining the beauty of water sewage stains and comparing them to his own life. This was definitely the audience favorite, and Paul Kronenberg joined the director after the screenings for questions.
After this was the longest of the group, a series of clips from an unfinished documentary called Player Hating about a rapper named Half A Mill living in the Albany Projects who was on the verge of breaking into the mainstream before committing suicide in 2003. Some of the other people involved in the documentary, as well as the subjects of the film, attended the screening, but left towards the end.
The evening then took a turn towards the gentrification of Brooklyn, with an amusing fake advertisement about condo real estate in Greenpoint called Greenpoint: Rezoned So You Can Own. This was followed by Brooklyn Matters, where director Isabel Hill documented the conflicted Atlantic Yards project and the problems it will cause both the Prospect Heights and Fort Greene neighborhoods. Hill talked about trying to get her film screened throughout Brooklyn, and the trouble she has been having. At one point she even spoke about a chance meeting with Marty Markowitz. She had sent him a copy of her film and asked if she could give him a private screening. To Hill’s surprise, Markowitz apparently responded that he would not watch the film “until the last skyscraper goes up.”
Other than these, there was an interesting series of photographs called Vodou Brooklyn, taken at Haitian Vodou ceremonies in the Flatlands, and a short documentary about Crown Heights called New Heights: How the Crown Gets Down, about race relations between African Americans and Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood.
Though I would have been interested to see more documentary footage of Brooklyn between the early 1900’s and the present, it was still an interesting evening with an eclectic group of films. About half of the audience stuck around after the films to ask questions, and the directors were eager to answer. For more information on the films shown (or footage of the films), see below.
- Brooklyn: Among the Ruins
- Player Hating
- Brooklyn Matters
- Vodou Brooklyn
- New Heights: How the Crown Gets Down