Thursday, June 16, 2011

BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN: Galinsky/Hawley make a political documentary for the ages; plus a quick Q&A with the couple

If good political documentaries are rare, great ones are even more unusual. Into that category I'd place BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN, the new film from the makers of another exceptional documentary, Horns and Halos (from 2002) -- Michael Galinsky (below, right) and Suki Hawley (below, left). What makes the film so special is how it allows us to see and understand politics at work from many angles via one particular you-can-easily-get-your-mind-around-it project in a large city that involves developers, elected officials and the general populace who, in the end, will be most affected by this project.

As a New Yorker, TrustMovies ought to have been more than dimly aware of this sleazy boondoggle (shown in its beginning stages, below) -- that was happening in Brooklyn (he lives in Queens) -- via which a private developer, Forest City Ratner, was practically gifted by NYC government, led by Mayor Bloomberg and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), with the right to build 16 skyscrapers and a basketball arena (for the New Jersey Nets, yet!) while disposses-sing, using the power of Eminent Domain, the many homes and businesses abiding there -- many of them for many decades. (Just wait till you get a load of how the MTA, forever crying poverty and raising its fares so that the poor and middle class are financially strapped even further, lets 50 million bucks go uncollected so that political connections can be rewarded!)

Galinsky/Hawley are of the film-making type that prefers to lay out pieces of the puzzle clearly so that their viewers can connect them. Consequently, we get no finger-pointing and raised voices (at least, not from the filmmakers; there are indeed some among the residents, politicians and organizations supposedly working for and toward the betterment of the community).

One of these oddly pro-development "community-based" organizations, B.U.I.L.D., which did not exist prior to this plan for "development,"  turns out to be funded by  the developer, while a local church, which goes over to the side of the developer, appears to have something other than god and morality on its side. Perhaps some new-found money? The movie's main character, whom the filmmakers follow most closely and base their film around, is Daniel Goldstein (above), who, around eight years ago when the film opens (the filmmakers spent a long time on this project) has recently bought an apartment in a building that is suddenly in the "footprint" of the development and so will be condemned. About to be married, Daniel and his fiancee quarrel about his becoming involved in any protest, and as the film moves along, he not only becomes involved but spearheads the protest -- sometimes working nearly solo, with the help of only one local politician New York City Council member, Letitia James and Civil Liberties attorney Norman Siegel.

The filmmakers speak with a diverse range of people, from Columbia University's Mindy Fullilove (who provides history and statistics showing that projects such as these, that begin by destroying  homes and businesses, also end up impoverishing the location) to Forest City Ratner flacks and political hacks like Marty Markowitz. There are even a couple of appearances by Reverend Billy and his "Church of Stop Shopping." Viewer tempers will likely rise when Ratner is given public money to buy out the owners in Daniel's building. Daniel, meanwhile, is undergoing love and life-partner problems, which take a most interesting turn as the film moves along and becomes a kind of love story -- without the usual accompanying suds.

I would wager that many -- even most -- U.S. cities (hell, cities around the world) have seen and/or will see boondoggle projects such as this one on their own ground. This, and the fact that the filmmakers have captured the project in all its sleazy glory -- political, religious, community-led, in which the local media barely wakes up to reality until all the underling politicos have rubber-stamped the thing into being -- is what makes their film universal.

The movie's surprises -- there are many of them -- comes less from all of the above than from the way outside factors (out of the control of the political bosses) come into play: real estate, the stock market and the entire economy, and the havoc these unleash. Does right triumph? See the movie and find out. It opens Friday, June 17, in Manhattan at the Cinema Village and of course in Brooklyn, at IndieScreen. From there, considering how important this topic is, I would expect the film to leap onwards to cities around the country. One hopes. Progressives everywhere should see this documentary and get the jump on tamping down our current tendency toward kleptocracy, which in the interview below, the filmmakers mention as the description of what is going on in their film and around our country. Michael and Suki also talk a bit about their movie and why it's so important.  And, oh boy, it is.


We have time only for a quick phone interview with Galinsky and Hawley (shown again, below), which they give delightedly and energetically, highlights from which are below. Because they seem to agree on everything -- except the date that one of their films made its Sundance debut (Hawley turned out to be correct), I am not attributing their answers to my questions solely to either one of them.  Below, TrustMovies is in bold, while the Galinsky/Hawley answers are in standard type.

Your movie encapsulates politics in a way that is so unusual. It makes us aware of so much that is going on in so many different areas, that we begin to see  the picture whole. Does this make sense to you?

Absolutely, and that’s exactly what we like to hear from viewers. Some people think documentaries should tell you how to think. If this happens, then sometimes you can forget very quickly what you have just seen.

Can you talk a bit about how you managed this project and its filming, and why you did it the way you did?

In our original filming, one person mentioned that it is simply not in the interest of the developer to unite people, instead, it is in his interest to separate them. Which was absolutely true, but by the time we had put the documentary together, and this was made so clear by all the actions, we finally took that line out because it felt cheap.  Unnecessary, really. That speaks to the way we’ve presented the film. When you can actually experience the film, then the education happens -- rather than your being told what to think.

When we set out to make a movie, we don’t think of it as a documentary, but instead as storytelling. So we try to break it down into its parts.

One of the problems with documentaries is that people think they already know the story. So we needed to counteract this.  When a developer is working with government and spending million on PR, they are going to own the narrative. So it’s very hard to get people to see the situation in another way.

Example: At the game in Brooklyn last week, there was this commercial shown for the Barclay Center (Ed: Barclay Bank has bought into the project so that its name will be used on the new arena)  – which I swear cost more than our whole movie!

What did your film cost?

It was out-of-pocket and mostly it cost us our eight years of labor. So maybe one million (the pair laughs) -- in terms of hours spent! We spent $50,000 just to ready the sound mix, color correction and films print. But for the out-of-pocket time spent, it was all me, Suki and Dave (David Beilinson, producer). We each have our different strengths.

You mention "controlling" the narrative: Horns & Halos was also much about controlling the narrative, right? 

Yes. It was a "kill the messenger, kill the story" kind of thing.

With Horns and Halos, we had the same issues crop up: "You guys don’t know what you are doing, because this was not an attack on Bush!" They would ask us, What do you think? What do you think? Well, tell me: What do you think we thought???

Docs like Farenheit 911, they unite one side and they have their place, but with our film we’re finding that all different political groups and different types of people seem to like it

Everyone hates a kleptocracy, when everybody in power is stealing.

And what is that?

It's a government subject to controlled fraud in order to increase the personal wealth and political power of the ruling class.

I am really hoping your film gets seen in the way is deserves to.

We premiered the film at Toronto’s Hot Docs fest, and in first weekend, Battle for Brooklyn was the fifth must popular out of more than 200 films that had played. And this was Toronto!

And we wanted to show even more than we did about the whole thing.  Yet the whole point was to make a universal story, so we could not get into the minutae of all the facts.

For the last six to eight months, we've had a weekly screening in our own house, and we invited different people who did not know the story so well. Through these screenings, we were able to develop new ways to show the story, so that if you didn’t know it, you could still follow it.

We did find that when we got closer to the whole story, it was darker maybe than people could actually take. People think they want the truth, but when they get too close and see how dark it is, they really don’t.

(Editor's note: This is why the film Never Let Me Go – our vote for best and most important film of last year – was so little seen. Or understood or appreciated.)

What’s interesting is that when we screened it in Toronto, and the house was packed, audiences always stayed for the Q&A. This is just like what is happening here. And in Dallas and elsewhere.... Every city seems to have or have had a project somewhat like this one.

We’ll leave it to Charles Ferguson to make the films that connect all the dots. That’s what he does and he does it very well. We leave the dots there, and hope that our audience connects them. People usually come to the right conclusion, if you show them enough facts. It is not a teaching tool if you tell people what to think. If it helps you to think and gives you the tools to do this, that’s a lot better.

Will the film play for more than the usual "documentary week"?

Even if the film only runs once a day at Cinema Village or wherever, we’ll be happy.

I am glad it's playing in Brooklyn, too.

Yes, and Indie Screen is really an incredible theater: great projector, great sound. And they are showing such great stuff there, too.

I believe your film is a wonderful example of what the best documentaries can accomplish.

Thank you. And when you think of all that documentaries can do! I am not against those other kinds of documentaries, but honestly, we are so fucking proud of this movie – just for the fact that Errol Louis -- from NY 1 and Inside City Hall, and who also writes for The Daily News -- he was a big proponent of this Stadium Project, but when he saw the movie, he really liked it, and he had us on Inside City Hall. If you can get the other side, who are eviscerated by the film, on your side, then you have won something! Even James Caldwell from B.U.I.L.D. likes the film!

By the way, the filmmakers will be at every screening this weekend at both IndieScreen and Cinema Village for a Q&A at the end of each screening.  So go -- and if you have questions, ask away.

No comments: