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ON THE ROOF

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Independent cinema is thriving on top of Peter’s Car Corp., an industrial building covered with graffiti that is now topped with a small movie screen.

As the Rooftop Films manifesto says, "rooftops are inherently cinematic." A visit to one of their Friday night shows, which start around sunset at 265 McKibbin St. in Williamsburg and run through September, should be enough to convince anyone of the truth of that statement. As it turns out, movies and rooftops enhance each other.

Rooftop Films was born in 1997 on the roof of its founder, Mark Elijah Rosenberg, now 27. Rosenberg began the airy screenings because, he says, "I wanted a place to show the films that my friends and I had made, and we didn’t like all the bureaucracy and fanciness of even the most down-to-earth festivals." He continues to make films when he can, including several that will be shown at the last screening of the season, on Sept. 13. The first year, the films were shown on the roof of his Manhattan apartment building.

"I got kicked out of my apartment for that," he says, "so it was natural to move to the expansive freedom of Brooklyn."

So Rooftop Films found a new home in eastern Williamsburg, and has grown in popularity every year since, growing into a non-profit corporation. (The $6 charge at the door goes to support independent, low-budget filmmaking in New York City.) Over the years the staff has also expanded, now including two co-directors, Park Slope native Josh Breitbart and Bedford Stuyvesant transplant Moira Griffin, as well as several people involved in design and submissions, and others who volunteer their time to help with the screenings.

Last year, their 12 screenings (comprising 85 different movies) drew 1,500 viewers, and this year, according to Rosenberg’s estimate, they’re on pace to attract even more. They will present more than 100 films of varying lengths over the course of their 2002 season. Still, the enormous roof area makes the crowd seem small; the available folding chairs occupy less than a fourth of the space.

The Rooftop Films program says low budget, and they mean it. The films tend towards the ultra-independent, with the accompanying lack of funding that entails. Some make the "Blair Witch Project" look like a glossy studio film. But that’s part of what makes them so appealing - these are personal, uninhibited movies that you almost certainly will never see anywhere else. It’s also what makes them so exactly suited to their unusual setting.

The "rooftop" in Rooftop Films is surprisingly unadorned, with graffiti doodles here and there and folding chairs set up in front of the modest screen. Concessions, from rice and beans to Twix bars, are sold from a folding table, as are season passes and - the true sign of an increasingly successful enterprise - $12 T-shirts with the tasteful Rooftop Films logo.

The setting’s main attraction, of course, is the view from six stories up - especially on a balmy summer night, with the sky and the city lights both glowing. You can look out over a vast expanse of Brooklyn in all directions, catch teasing glimpses of the Manhattan skyline and look into the yards and windows of neighboring buildings - a miniature movie visible in each, like an alternate set from "Rear Window." Floating on a screen above the city, with planes flying low overhead and the occasional passing truck audible on the streets below, the short movies feel like they might have materialized spontaneously from the night air.

The June 28 screening featured short films from the San Francisco-based High Concept/ Low Budget Film Festival ("...because $40 million can kill a good idea," says the program). The movies varied in quality but, like most shoestring-budget pictures made by dedicated people, they all had a certain intense energy that keeps you watching. They included animation and live action, video and 16 mm film, outlandish fiction and sincere confessional documentaries.

The featured artists hailed from a dizzying array of locations. There was a strange but funny short fictional piece called "ATM," set in Williamsburg, by that neighborhood’s own Will Carlough, and a brilliantly bizarre drama by scientists at the McMurdo Research station in Antarctica, aptly titled "The Strange and Terrible Fate of Sir Walter Scott." From North Carolina came a documentary about a "solo noise artist" who performs for Christ, and again from Brooklyn came a strange little animated film about knitting and childhood lust, by Holly Klein.

The budget and independence of the movies shown over the summer is what unifies them - they have no part of the traditional Hollywood-studio structure. The roof is a venue for filmmakers who will probably never make money off of this work, but keep at it because they have the drive to create something, armed with little more than a camera, and often not even an especially nice one. That drive is apparent in the comedies and the tragedies, in experimental visual films and non-fictional character studies - these movies want to be seen.

The variety of films is part of the point, as the Rooftop literature makes clear; the series covers almost every genre imaginable, with an eye towards drawing an equally varied audience. The filmmakers behind Rooftop Films chose this Williamsburg roof in part because they wanted to attract as many different kinds of viewers as possible - "people from communities that might not otherwise overlap."

They’ve succeeded to a certain extent: the audience, mostly an arty bunch, does vary in age and race, with a sprinkling of neighborhood kids thrown in. Still, it’s easy to spot the moviegoers on the Manhattan-bound L train after the screening ends.

The rest of the summer schedule includes the mixture of themes and styles that you might expect, including "Women Make Movies" (gay/lesbian films), Arab and Muslim films, full features and animated shorts. The July 26 screening will be a collection of films by and about women, called "Bikini Line."

The weekly shows continue to grow, and as they do, they’ll inevitably attract an even more diverse group of people and even more widespread submissions of small, sometimes beautiful, often strange and always determined movies that are finally getting some well-deserved exposure on, of all places, a Williamsburg rooftop.

 

Rooftop Films are shown Fridays at 9 pm through Sept. 13 at 265 McKibbin St. at Bushwick Avenue in Williamsburg. Admission is $6. Go to www.rooftopfilms.com or call (877) 786-1912 for more information.

July 26: Bikini Line (films by and about Women)
Aug. 2: Come and Get It (Ohio) and "The Late Show" (sick and twisted films at midnight)
Aug. 9: Feature: "What is Paper Mache?" (plus shorts)
Aug. 16: Scenes from Texas and/or Pacific Northwest
Aug. 23: Handmade Films (direct animation films)
Aug. 30: Sista 2 Sista (featuring DCTV and Children’s Media Project films)
Sept. 6: ImageNation (films from the African Diaspora)
Sept. 13: Rooftop Shots

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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