Brooklyn filmmakers debate the pros & cons - and swag

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Park City, Utah - It starts on the plane. The guy across the aisle on the early morning flight out of JFK to Salt Lake City is reading Jonathan Lethem’s "Fortress of Solitude." You can take ’em out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of well, you know how it goes.

Last month’s Sundance Film Festival cranked out another edition peppered with Brooklynites. While there were many films from all over the country that will probably make appearances on screens large (director-writer Craig Brewer’s "Hustle & Flow" seems a likely contender for wide release) and small (Jessica Sanders’ documentary, "After Innocence," is already slated for cable sometime this year), it’s likely that we’ll also see work by our neighbors on these same screens within the year.

(Last year, Williamsburg resident Joshua Marston’s film "Maria Full of Grace" - the audience favorite in 2004 - wound up making quite a stir: among many other prizes, he won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best first feature and the lead actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, has been nominated for an Academy Award. Not a bad year’s work.)

Noah Baumbach’s latest film "The Squid and the Whale" is a cinematic take on the filmmaker’s youth in Park Slope. With great performances by Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels as parents going through a painful separation and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as the sons caught in the middle, the film was shot in Brooklyn and makes an immediate connection with the audience, not only geographically, but emotionally. It is a powerful and heartfelt portrait of divorce. At the end of the festival, Baumbach - who also authored "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and directed and penned 1995’s "Kicking and Screaming" - walked away with jury awards for directing and writing.

"Loggerheads" is Cobble Hill resident Tim Kirkman’s handsomely written story of three separate lives that may or may not connect over time. A winning cast - Chris Sarandon, Bonnie Hunt, Tess Harper and Michael Learned - help make this subtle film work. Both "The Squid and the Whale" and "Loggerheads" screened in the American Dramatic competition.

The Duplass brothers - Mark (of Greenpoint) and Jay (of Williamsburg), who were here last year with their short "Scrabble," made a return trip this year with their first feature-length film, "The Puffy Chair." It didn’t take them long to start the march up the film food chain with their film’s appearance in the American Spectrum section of the festival.

Also in the American Spectrum section was "Love, Ludlow," directed by Carroll Gardens resident Adrienne Weiss. Weiss’ film, about three lonely individuals who learn to connect emotionally, is this stage director’s film debut. In an e-mail interview with GO Brooklyn, she wrote about the differences between directing for the stage and for celluloid.

"For me, the most exciting thing about film acting vs. stage acting is the immediacy and intimacy of film," said Weiss. "You’re going for a genuine connection between the actors, and you can capture it up close and completely spontaneously when you’re working with a camera. There’s an element of surprise and spontaneity that I find thrilling."

For a first-time filmmaker, Weiss had a relatively easy time getting started.

"The project came about in a kind of magical and unexpected way," she said. "I had another project I was getting ready to do, and out of the blue I got a phone call from a former student of mine, Ruben O’Malley, a wonderful DP [director of photography] and fellow Brooklynite. He told me he’d been hired to shoot the project. There was a script, the financing and the start date, but no director. As it was based on a play, they were looking for someone who was good with actors, and so he thought of me." Weiss is a former adjunct professor to New York University’s graduate film program who now teaches workshops in New York and Los Angeles.

"I read the script, thought there was something there, and shortly after was hired to direct it," she said. "I worked with the writer for about two weeks on a re-write, and then we went into pre-production! I still can’t believe it was that easy to do my first feature. I feel very fortunate."

This is Weiss’ first time at Sundance and all was going well for her.

"It’s great to connect to other filmmakers, and also really be introduced to the industry. Our first screening went amazingly well, and our producer is talking to distributors." The Sundance festival is working as it should for Weiss.

Brooklyn at Slamdance

While the Sundance Film Festival takes place at many venues throughout the suburban town of Park City, the Slamdance Film Festival uses two smaller and funkier theaters to ply its wares. Eleven years ago, this upstart festival was a reaction to the Hollywood-ization of Sundance. Although it’s still more edgy than Sundance (in one room, the video projector sits on the floor), the organization has about as many sponsors as does Sundance and they give their filmmakers loads of "swag" - just like their wealthier cousins at Sundance. (For the uninitiated, swag is the free stuff - the gift bags!)

Slamdance also has their own publicity department, which sends out press releases whenever a film is sold to a distributor. But they can be forgiven this crass bit of business, because, after all, getting films seen are the reason film festivals exist. By getting publicity and distributors for these films, the festival helps to get the films seen by even more people.

I ventured over to Slamdance (for the first time) to see works by a number of Brooklyn filmmakers who were making their mark there.

Don Bernier, also of Carroll Gardens, was on hand at Slamdance to present his documentary "In a Nutshell." This film documents the trials and tribulations of artist Elizabeth Tashjian.

Raised in New York, Tashjian moved to Old Lyme, Conn. with her mother, with whom she lived until her late 40s, when her mother died. She began painting at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1931. Her work consisted almost entirely of still lifes, and all contained images of nuts. Tashjian was so obsessed with them that she opened a nut museum in her home. When Tashjian became old and ill, she became a ward of the state against her will.

Bernier’s lovely, touching film asks the question, was she really "nuts" or just an eccentric artist? "In a Nutshell" speaks to issues of age and gender as well.

Bernier chatted with the audience after a screening of the film and told GO Brooklyn that he became acquainted with Elizabeth a few years ago and put aside his avant-garde tendencies to make a straight-forward documentary. (Bernier’s experimental work has been shown in the New York Video Festival.)

"I still love the idea of a small screen," he said. Consequently he’s looking into screening it on public television. In the meantime, he was having fun in Park City. "Good swag bags," he volunteered.

Documentaries about musicians abounded at both festivals. Philip Di Fiore, of Brooklyn Heights, discovered the subject of his film "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" at his New Jersey high school.

"He was the father of a friend of mine," Di Fiore said. "The kid managed the football team. I just knew him as Mr. Worrell who would pick up his son after school." It turns out there was much more to the man. Bernie Worrell is a keyboardist extraordinaire, who worked with such music luminaries as Talking Heads, George Clinton and Mos Def. A child prodigy who studied classical music, he found his way to popular forms, including his own group, P-Funk. But for all Worrell’s talent, he owned none of the music he wrote.

Filled with interviews of some of the best and the brightest of rock, funk and rap, "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" is an indictment of racism and corruption in the music business, but also a lovely portrait of a forgotten genius. Bernie Worrell himself showed up and played with George Clinton for the closing night party on Jan. 28.

"Tragedy: The Story of Queensbridge" covers the hip-hop scene that stems from a Queens housing project. Directed by Booker Sim, of Williamsburg, and produced by Malcolm Heard, of Fort Greene, the film scans the life and times of rap artist Tragedy (aka Percy Chapman) and a host of other rappers. It’s a gritty film, brimming with life, loyalty and machismo.

The first question I had to ask Sim and Heard was how two white Canadian boys (the filmmakers are childhood friends, moved to Brooklyn together and lived in the same house in Fort Greene until it burned down) get to know and gain the trust of these "up from the street" kids?

"We came to New York to work with them, to use their music on a documentary we made about Liberia," Sim told GO Brooklyn. At the same time they were looking for a way to use hip-hop to examine geopolitics.

"We had to earn their trust, naturally," said Sim. Once that was accomplished, they had to beg favors and borrow to make the film - the usual route of truly independent filmmakers.

I sat down with Sim, Heard and DiFiore for bagels and coffee in the New York State lounge on Main Street on Jan. 26. We talked about the pluses of a festival like Slamdance.

"Slamdance is truly independent," said Heard. Di Fiore concurred.

"A film like mine could get lost in the shuffle of Sundance," Di Fiore said. At Slamdance the films stand out. And most screenings sell out. Granted, most of these rooms (and they are rooms) are smaller than the theaters showing the Sundance films. But that’s the point - better a 50-seat theater filled to capacity than 50 people lost in a 200-seat hall. In Salt Lake City, however, where films from both festivals screen, "Tragedy" played to a full house in a huge theater. And what did they discover there?

"There were groups of local hip-hop fans," said Sim. Who knew?

"On the Outs," by former Cobble Hill resident Lori Silverbush and Fort Greene resident Michael Skolnik, won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for best feature narrative at Slamdance.

Last year, Skolnik was at Sundance as associate producer of Ivy Meeropol’s documentary "Heir to an Execution." This year at Slamdance, he and Silverbush showed "On the Outs," a drama about the lives of inner city girls.

In an e-mail, Skolnik told GO Brooklyn about the genesis of the film: "As a documentary filmmaker, I felt very strongly that this film had to be truthful and honest. The only way to make it a reflection of young women incarcerated was to go to the women themselves. So we spent three months inside a juvenile detention center working with young women who were incarcerated on a variety of charges.

"These young women shared their stories with us, which ultimately became the basis for our film. We are indebted to them because without them we would never have been able to make this film the way in which it was made."

Skolnick appreciated the reception "On the Outs" received at Slamdance.

"We had a blast at Slamdance," said Skolnik. "As it was quite a struggle to get people to pay attention to our film, because Sundance is such an attraction, at the end of the day, we were blessed to be part of the festival. The fact that we won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature was icing on the cake. We never expected to win any awards and the fact that we won two is amazing."

To be sure, these were not the only Brooklyn filmmakers in Park City. Short filmmakers and artists with online works were also at both festivals. In fact "Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story," a short in which Terrence Fisher and Daniel Howard examined police shootings in their neighborhood, won the jury special recognition prize. But it’s come to this - there are just too many Brooklyn artists to be included in one article. Bad news for those who couldn’t be listed. Good news, though, for filmmakers all over the borough.

Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of The New York Video Festival.

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