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Documentary Grows in Brooklyn

By Michael Galinsky

A Rooftop Films screening at the Old American Can Factory in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Photo: Sarah Palmer/Rooftop Films

When cities recover from hard financial times, creative souls are often pushed to the peripheries. It should come as no surprise that the young upstarts of the New York City documentary world tend to live in the Borough of Brooklyn. What is a surprise is that Brooklyn has no organizations with the galvanizing might of an AIVF, FVA, IDA, IFP or DCTV. Instead the borough houses something of a diaspora, with small groups of filmmakers connected through less established organizations. 

The flight from Manhattan took place in the mid-1990s, in convergence with the increased availability of low-cost editing and video equipment. Whereas filmmakers formerly needed to deal with groups like FVA that provided equipment rental, this new breed of filmmakers has found ways to make films without this support network. Subsequently, Brooklyn-based filmmakers have relied more on the festival circuit than the local film society to meet their peers. Attending festivals in Miami, Austin and Washington, DC this year, I met a lot of people who live just around the corner from me.

This is not to say that there aren't any organizations or support networks in Brooklyn; indeed, a number of groups are rapidly growing and filling that void. Most of these organizations are focused on screening work, and some that started as primarily screening venues have branched out into funding and education as well.

Rooftop Films started in 1997 when Mark Rosenberg decided to borrow 100 chairs from a furniture store and screen some films on his roof in Manhattan. It was such a good time that he decided to continue, and he eventually moved the project to Brooklyn. For the first few years Rooftop operated in Williamsburg and later expanded to a more central Brooklyn location, with an office and screening site in the Gowanus section between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. The organization continues to screen work in Williamsburg as well.

The big transition came in 2000 when Rooftop started asking for donations at the door and stopped paying for everything out of pocket. By the end of the year, with a little money left over, Rooftop started a filmmaker fund. "We realized that instead of giving each filmmaker 10 bucks, it would be better to give that money away in small grants to jump-start projects," Rosenberg points out. Filmmakers who show work are invited to submit proposals for grants, and the filmmaker fund has grown to $7,000. As awareness of Rooftop Films has spread, so has attendance, which has risen from 200 in 1997 to over 4,000 in 2004.

As attendance and income have grown, so has the vision. "One of our goals is to become a production center for low-budget, independent filmmaking, giving people a way to break into that world," says Rosenberg. "It's true that the tools have become cheaper, but you still need training and support in order to make good films." To that end, Rooftop Films has started offering low-cost Avid classes, and has established a production collective to bring together filmmakers and equipment. "The key to the collective model is that in exchange for the services Rooftop Films provides, a filmmaker would agree to work on other Rooftop Films projects," Rosenberg explains. "All the while, filmmakers maintain complete artistic control over their production, while reaping the benefits of having an independent studio working for them." 

When asked what else is in the future for Rooftop, Rosenberg responds, "A lot of the filmmaking right now is centered in a few small areas of Brooklyn like Williamsburg, Park Slope and Fort Greene. At Rooftop we want to do what we can to bring in filmmakers and go to filmmakers of all different backgrounds throughout Brooklyn. While it's true that there aren't any organizations with broad institutional might, Rooftop is giving them a run for their money."

About the same time that Rooftop kicked off, the Brooklyn International Film Festival was launched in Williamsburg, the hip locale that was the focus of Brooklyn's cutting-edge art and culture scenes in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. According to festival co-founder Marco Ursino, "I chose Brooklyn before I even thought of the festival. I was looking for affordable space like many others and I ended up making a film in Brooklyn. The festival was born as an experiment with three friends. At the beginning we had a meeting and everybody said the same thing: ‘This is going to be a failure... It will never work.' I think I proved them wrong."

The fest started small but had big ideas. For the first couple of editions it took place in an old-school, single-screen theater that was massive, but falling apart. A couple of years ago the festival forged a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum, shifting the event from its gritty Williamsburg roots to a more upscale area near Prospect Park; in addition, the festival provides films for the museum's Saturday screening programs. The festival is also known for its generous prizes for the winners--and for its parties. Documentaries were a main focus of the festival this year.

 "In reality, the idea is the same from the very beginning, which has a lot to do with a need to provide an outlet for films from other countries," says Ursino. "There are 109 different ethnic groups in the city and we want to reach them." In keeping with that goal, this year's documentary award winner was Price of Letter from Bhutan and the director, Ugyen Wangdi, was in attendance to receive his prize.

Despite the departure of the festival, Williamsburg continues to have a number of film outlets. In addition to deeply programmed video stores like Reel Life and Photoplay, Williamsburg is also the location of a long-running screening series called Ocularis (, which, like Rooftop, began as a rooftop screening series, but soon moved into the Galapagos art and performance space and began a weekly series with deep roots in the experimental film world. As it says on its website, "The Ocularis program is comprised of work largely excluded from the commercial milieu: experimental, independent, documentary, video art and other underrepresented cinemas as well as select art-house features." Program Director Thomas Beard explains, "In the past few years Ocularis has had the opportunity to show a lot of exciting documentary work, much of which defies easy categorization within the genre--from the under-shown Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On to work by Brooklynites Elizabeth Subrin and Jem Cohen, as well as traveling programs by filmmakers like Bill Daniel and Jason Livingston."

Over in Clinton Hill, the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival was started in 2002 by a group of Pratt University students. It has quickly grown into a formidable event with a mission to "create a fresh arena for discussion among artists, filmmakers and audiences, with a focus on personal cinema and work driven by new process." In addition to these filmmaker-run groups there are a few organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) that do show some documentaries. However, the majority of venues for documentary screenings are in Manhattan. 

The groups above have done a great deal to help bring together communities of filmmakers--and to debunk my original thesis, that there's no cohesive force in the Brooklyn filmmaking world. Manhattan may have the big organizations, but Brooklyn has the energy.

Still, it remains true that I tend to meet my neighbors at festivals outside of the city. So after discussing this article with some new Brooklyn acquaintances at Silverdocs, I decided to set up a Brooklyn doc-maker social event this past summer. About 20 people gathered at a bar in Clinton Hill, although I was unfortunately stuck in the hospital with a staph infection. According to Rosenberg, "I had a great time because I was able to connect with some new people but also had a chance to hang out with others that I knew but don't get to see much. It's important to have a chance to meet your peers outside of editing rooms, screening rooms and production offices. It's indicative of the vibrancy of the community that something like this can spring up and be a success right away." A subsequent event drew 60 filmmakers, as well as a selection of musicians. For more information on this ad hoc assemblage, e-mail


Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker and film distributor. His films include Horns and Halos and Code 33. His company, Rumur Releasing, is currently distributing Occupation: Dreamland.