Two young female filmmakers who became infatuated with an overweight, often shirtless Williamsburg eccentric while filming a movie about his life, have convinced the masses to donate thousands of dollars to help them finish their masterpiece — while its temperamental subject sits in cell on Rikers Island convicted of menacing his neighbors.
Ashley Benzwie and Arielle Tayar have taken in more than $18,000 thanks to a video on the crowd-funding website “Indiegogo” previewing their documentary “U R Not Alone.” The flick follows Joseph Loiacono, a quirky Graham Avenue shopkeeper, whose antics they filmed for two years — until his shocking arrest for rape.
Now, while Loiacono sits in the can, the filmmakers are trying to get their movie, well, in the can.
The motion picture was intended to explore Loiacono’s life, but after Loiacono was accused of sexually assaulting a sleeping house guest and threatening to kill his neighbors with a baseball bat, it turned into an examination of the filmmakers’ confused relationship with a person they grew to like so much, they couldn’t believe he got arrested.
“We want so badly to think that he’s good,” said Benzwie. “At the same time, you have to wonder how he got himself here.”
In 2011, Loiacono took over his family’s Graham Avenue house and tried to turn the home’s storefront into a meeting space for the community. Instead, he quickly drew the ire of many in the neighborhood for his obnoxious behavior, such as dancing around shirtless while blaring opera and classic rock, and cluttering the storefront with detritus.
The two filmmakers thought he was the strangest guy they knew and decided he would make a perfect subject for a documentary. Although Loiacono was shy at first, the women eventually gained his trust. The longer they hung out with him, the more boisterous and obnoxious he became. Still, they found him endearing. The women saw something deeper and more intelligent than just the neighborhood nut and spent hundreds of hours with their subject discussing philosophy and his unorthodox views on dating, religion and government rule.
“He wasn’t just a crazy guy. He wanted to be cultured,” said Benzwie, though she admitted he could be crude, loud and inappropriate.
Instead of keeping a journalistic objectivity toward their subject, the two unexpectedly found themselves embroiled in the drama of Loiacono’s life. They thought that the story was about much more than a neighborhood eccentric.
“We started to watch him deteriorate,” said Tayar, who described Loiacono as a magnet for neighborhood drunks and drug addicts. “He was drinking a lot more and the people surrounding him were a lot sketchier.”
Suddenly, last October, Loiacono disappeared.
The filmmakers found out that he was sitting in Riker’s Island, accused of raping a girlfriend and threatening to kill his neighbors. The rape charges were dropped, but last month he pleaded guilty to menacing, harassment, and contempt of court. His attorney, Michael Marley, said Loiacono will probably be in jail for another six months.
Despite it all, the filmmakers remained fond of their subject and are now the only people, other than his lawyer, who visit him in jail.
“The last time we were there, he freaked us out a little. He was saying that we’re all he has,” said Tayar.
The two women said they raised most of the money for the film by badgering friends and family. They were, however, surprised at how many people were offended and refused to donate.
“We’ve had a lot of weird responses,” said Tayar. “Some friends of mine from high school said they don’t want to contribute because the subject matter is associated with rape.”
Still, there are many people who donated because they are intrigued by the movie.
“Two young women becoming friends with a rapist is something you kind of can’t look away from,” said Tayar. “It’s like a car accident.”Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@c