It's Not A Movement Without A Movie

New York City's activist and advocacy communities are putting their interests on video like never before.

By: Karen Loew

At a community gathering in Chinatown one stifling hot evening last August, a man sat on a chair holding a stack of newspapers, thrusting the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association bulletin at passersby, exhorting them to take one.

Whether turned off by the man's sweaty frustration, or not up for a long read about the latest struggles of low-wage Chinatown workers, the crowd gathered at Roosevelt Park for an outdoor movie night moved on. Children headed for the popcorn and soda table. Women sat on the folding chairs arranged before a screen. Men milled and smoked, their t-shirts pulled up their backs or over their bellies to catch a little relief from the heat.

The occasion was a “digital garden screening” arranged by Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which runs the public access TV channels in the borough and promotes media-making by regular folks. Convened for the purpose of “celebrating community produced social justice media,” the event unspooled – and the surrounding city blocks fell away – as short videos by New Yorkers about local lives and issues were projected on the screen. Homeless people talked about being homeless, teenage girls interviewed teenage boys about notions of femininity, and public housing residents revealed how to participate in public housing decision making. Never quite professional grade, the quality of the sound, camera work and storytelling varied. Some movies felt endless. Attention flickered.

Then two videos about the worker’s life in Chinatown were played back to back. The first, called “Chinatown: Immigrants in America,” was produced by Downtown Community Television and portrayed kitchen staff and seamstresses discussing their overlong work weeks: inhumane schedules allowing for barely any rest or recreation. The second film was made by the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association – the same group that was having trouble unloading its free newspapers. Called “Celebrating CSWA Victories of 2006,” it showed exactly that – footage of workers alongside politicians announcing advances for neighborhood laborers.

In the mostly Chinese audience, the women watched. The men stopped talking. Children were still. Everyone was rapt, and at a little after 9 p.m. when it was over, they applauded for the first time of the night.

The explosion

Videos made by grassroots documentarians – who often are not professional filmmakers – about local issues and aimed at raising consciousness have risen to a more prominent, even ubiquitous, place in city movements for social change.

Name a cause, and you'll find an advocacy video on the subject – or you'll find a few, or at least be told there’s one in the works. With the tools of video production more affordable and accessible than ever before, and more people reflexively turning to video for expression, New York City finds itself awash in a sea of video by the people, about their concerns, for the purpose of affecting the discourse. Some exhibit the craft and polish to earn the title “documentary,” or at least to be called a film. Others are rawer videos with lower production and editing values. Some is really just “footage.”

The program for the digital garden also included videos about poor treatment of young retail staffers, queer youths’ fight for turf at the Christopher Street pier, domestic violence survivors’ organizing efforts, and more. The months before and after the event included public screenings of films on the changing neighborhood of El Barrio (“East Harlem Focus: A Community Facing Transition,” produced by Hope Community, Inc.), the path drinking water takes from the Catskill Mountains to New York City (“Mountaintop to Tap,” by Stroud Water Research Center), and the police shooting of unarmed Queens man Sean Bell (“Unheard Voices,” by Global Action Project).

“Films are a way to bring in people that may not be natural supporters of an issue. It’s a way to gather people around. In that sense, it's very grassroots,” says Suvasini Patel, community and outreach manager at Witness, a Brooklyn-based international human rights group that uses video to document rights abuses.

Isabel Hill, director of the acclaimed documentary “Brooklyn Matters,” which critiques Forest City Ratner’s mega-development plan for Atlantic Yards, considers herself a historian and urban planner first and a filmmaker second – but says she simply had to jump into the Atlantic Yards debate with a movie.

“I had to get cracking because I knew time was running out” in the second half of 2006, leading up to the city’s key decisions on the property, Hill said recently. “I wanted to have something out there for people to respond to – and it has been good.”

In a previous job as a film reviewer for an arts organization, “I realized [film] was a great way to present something – ideas and concepts,” she said.

Particularly if the perspective you want to present isn’t the most obvious or dominant one. “It becomes this tool of resistance to mainstream media,” says Denisse Andrade, executive director of Art for Change, an East Harlem arts organization that recently put out a call for submissions of any and all video on gentrification in the neighborhood.

Groups are indulging in the great American pastime of going to the movies while engaging in a measure of resistance, too. Recent socially conscious film festivals include BYO Bike Film Shorts, hosted by the Time’s Up! bicycling and environmental advocacy group, MixNYC’s queer experimental film fest, and the disTHIS! Film Series, portraying “disability through a whole new lens.”

New York City youth are leading the trend as much as anybody, participating in groups that aim to teach both the students and their intended audience via filmmaking, such as Global Action Project or the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Youth Camera Action effort. And that’s not even mentioning the dozens of social policy-related projects in process among the throngs of film students at colleges and universities around the city.

For many years, New York City has supplied fertile ground for groups that insist anyone can and should make media – not just TV networks and professionals and journalism school grads, et cetera – from Paper Tiger Television to Downtown Community Television to the NYC Grassroots Media Coalition. The rise of the Internet and the falling prices of video equipment only serve to promote those groups' longstanding "public access" philosophy. Media makers note that in an age when new video-sharing websites crop up all the time, a portable digital video camera can be had for anywhere from under $100 to $2,000, and editing often employs software that's already on your computer rather than adding thousands for studio rental, there's more of every kind of video being made these days – with or without a reform objective.

~
Of art and advocacy

Many "video advocacy" makers do not aspire to achieve the level of art and craft of classic documentaries like Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, U.S.A..," about a long, painful Kentucky coal miners' strike, or Frederick Wiseman's "Public Housing," portraying the everyday realities of one of Chicago's massive public housing developments. Most show no interest in mimicking the shtick and gloss of Michael Moore's style of social critique, either.

Mainly the twin goals are simply to document – as opposed to "make a documentary" – and to democratize. Anyone can shoot, share – and, possibly, shape understanding and action.

"We live in a visual culture. Seeing is believing. We live in the media age – whether it's TV or Internet, it's all visual," says Patel of Witness. "The whole notion of citizen journalism is a big part of what's happening locally."

The empowering moment when a citizen becomes a reporter, a witness, a truthteller, is what it's all about to Andrade, of Art for Change. A video activist, she's interested in process and content for the footage about East Harlem gentrification the organization is collecting, with an eye toward editing it and holding public screenings this spring.

"Video is a very easy way to get some of this range of opinions and ideas covered," she says.

At the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that "makes educational projects about places and how they change," documentation and democracy are important, but the look of the finished product is too. CUP's method is to bring art and design professionals, like architects and graphic designers, to work with staff as well as student and community partners on films that investigate aspects of urban life. Currently in production are videos on the food and grocery distribution network in the Bronx; national organizing efforts by public housing activists in several cities; and the physical infrastructure that delivers fast Internet connections to some neighborhoods and slow ones to others.

"We get a fair amount of students who are mainly interested in the technology. Through the making of the project, they have to really engage the issues," says CUP executive director Rosten Woo. "We try to put a lot of effort into the production value – we think of video as a produced medium that requires a lot of design."

Although CUP's subjects are usually serious, high-stakes matters, the videos are "fairly lighthearted," Woo said. "We try not to hammer too much on gloom and doom. We try to make them accessible and inviting ... so that they're not viewed primarily through the lens of reaffirming a certain worldview."

Everyone’s least/most favorite subject

Gentrification. It's going on everywhere in New York all the time, and the topic is powerfully alluring to local media makers. Pick practically any controversial development in the works, any neighborhood in flux, any beloved institution that's closing, and there's at least one film or video project already available or being produced on the subject.

“This is a topic of conversation in every corner – and I’m not exaggerating,” said Andrade, who's focusing on the phenomenon in traditionally lower-income El Barrio, where “huge buildings with the word 'luxury' before the name” are proliferating.

For the real headline-grabbers, like the makeover of 22 acres of Brooklyn that is Atlantic Yards – a plan recently slowed down by the stumbling economy – there's "Brooklyn Matters," which Hill continues to screen around town. Columbia University's controversial expansion, which will entail large-scale razing and new construction across at least 17 acres of West Harlem, inspired former Columbia student Leah Michele Yananton to follow the process over three years and create "Manhattanville: A Neighborhood Under Siege." Coney Island's proposed renovation from down-at-the-heels amusement park to modern pleasure zone? One Brooklyn filmmaker (if there aren't a dozen more behind him) is working on it. Willets Point's possible changeover from gasoline alley to mixed-use business park? Check. Coming soon.

Others responding to the city's ceaseless remaking of itself are focused on smaller issues – those that fewer people know about, but feel as intensely as any anti-Atlantic Yards activist. When the Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights closed last year, its passionate community of skaters was crushed – and Kappa Chris Robinson interviewed them, assembled other footage, and promoted a documentary called "The Rise and Fall of an Empire." When native Brooklynite Stefanie Joshua returned to her old neighborhood of Bushwick after an absence, she was moved to account for a place that seemed to be getting better, with less crime and more development on once-empty lots, in "Bushwick Homecomings." And when artist Matt Kohn – who made the 2005 documentary "Call It Democracy," which provided a clear and sober explanation of the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore – learned that the Lower East Side music club Tonic was closing, he decided to film its last five days in April of last year. ("Five Days At Tonic" has yet to be released.)

The literally low-profile club, known as a place for international new music acts to find an appreciative audience, made for a particularly affecting portrait of gentrification. A tall, blue, futuristic apartment building called BLUE Condo rose next to Tonic and hastened its demise. When charming, human-scale, beloved places disappear and larger or colder entities replace them, media-making has become an expected element of mourning.

“We want to show that something we love is gone, and it’s not gone because of lack of interest," said Kohn. "It’s because of money."

What's the impact?

In a civic sphere swimming in video, it appears that some individual productions do cause ripples, and others make a splash. But if, say, workers at all Chinatown restaurants suddenly worked a well-paid, clear-cut 8-hour shift, it would be hard to say that the video “Chinatown: Immigrants in America” was why.

Rosten Woo wonders if the 2002 CUP film "Garbage Problems," which looked at NYC's waste disposal in the wake of the Fresh Kills landfill closure, had anything to do with the city's adoption of a revised Solid Waste Management Plan that was "the more progressive version of what it could have been."

"You'd like to think that because we produce all our films with partners, and try to connect it with people who will use the media when we're done, that it's effective in the same way that all coalition work is effective," Woo said. CUP tries to measure the impact of its educational videos – by seeing, for example, whether more public housing residents attended a major meeting of the New York City Housing Authority after a video on the "draft annual plan" was screened. But other variables affect attendance too, he noted.

The publicity materials for "Brooklyn Matters" quote a range of eminent architects and planners praising the documentary as a convincing indictment of the Atlantic Yards plan.

"I feel it's been a great educational tool," says Hill. “It has in fact changed people’s minds, which is why I made it." The development rolls onward, however, and anti-AY activists have yet to win a single one of their major legal battles against developer Bruce Ratner.

But one never knows when the fruit of changing people's minds will be borne. Filmmaker Kohn says art's power to penetrate can actually make it the most forceful kind of advocacy.

"The needs of a community tend not to have style," he said, so media makers must choose what style to employ. If the voice is imprinted with their own individuality, "then a film will reach deeper into the viewer's consciousness, whether or not it reaches a larger audience."

At Witness, Patel and her colleagues are used to viewing some of the most compelling footage of the human condition in the world. But even that won't make change on its own, without other tools like petitions and lobbying. "The footage itself isn't going to do more than raise awareness unless you use it strategically," she said.

But the future of advocacy video is wide open. "I think citizen media is going to go to another level," she said. "I think we're at the beginning of innovation and possibilities I can't even begin to predict."

- Karen Loew