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New York Stories: Why Filmmakers Love the Big Apple

By Belinda Baldwin

No other city rivals New York's love affair with the movies. No city looks quite so beautiful on film. From the dawn of film history, New York was there, front row center, making movies and watching them unfold, first at nickelodeons, where movies were called "actualities"--short documentaries on daily life--and patrons witnessed the miracle of photography in motion. For them, nothing appeared quite as perfect on film as scenes of city life; indeed, much of early American cinema was devoted to documenting the hustle and bustle and heartbreaks and joys of life in New York City.

Since then, New York has watched motion pictures mature into a business, an art form and a medium for social commentary. When the industry moved to California, New York claimed experimental film as its own, hosting the modern avant-garde, the independent film movement of the 1960s and many of the great sociopolitical documentaries of the 20th century. Film schools, co-ops, filmmakers associations and archives emerged alongside production and distribution companies, equipment rental houses and streams of talented people. Through all of this, documentary has flourished here.

When International Documentary asked a number of New York-based documentary filmmakers, via e-mail, "What is it about the city that, for you, is conducive, inspiring, convenient, etc. to making good documentary films?" we were not surprised to learn that so many of those who responded could not imagine living anywhere else.

New York ain't easy. There's "the hellish heat and devilish cold," says Robert Richter. But it's also worth it. "The buildings, the people, the exhibits, the films, the dirt, even the suffering, all help to make a fertile and creative mind," muses Jennifer Fox. However else our filmmakers responded, they all agreed that there is no other place quite like it.


"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't imagine how I would go about making a city symphony of New York. Alas, there isn't a day that goes by that I realize how truly impossible a task that would be. In between the pulling and the pushing, between the known and the unknowable, between all the documentaries and dramas that unfold around me every day is an energy and inspiration that keeps me up at night in a city that will never sleep."

--Alan Berliner (The Sweetest Sound; Nobody's Business; Intimate Stranger)


"The best thing about making docs in New York City is walking to work. My office is a mile and a half from my apartment. In the 22 minutes it takes me to walk from one to the other, I come in contact with a cross-section of humanity, am grounded in the experience of real life and constantly reminded that my film isn't the center of the universe. It's also really good exercise."

--Doug Block (51 Birch Street; Home Page; The Heck with Hollywood!)


"I like that you don't have to go anywhere for things to happen; you just walk out your door, and it's all there. It inspires me to be in a city where so many people come to make their dreams come true, as corny as that sounds, with so much energy and passion and hard work. It's the people who inspire me--New Yorkers--and I'm happy to be one of them."

--Maryann De Leo (Chernobyl Heart; Terror at Home; Bellevue: Inside Out)


"Being based in New York City can be exhilarating and soul-destroying. While energized by the city's vibrant diversity and the potency of its creative communities (plus, being in close proximity to funding sources--television, foundations and folks with deep pockets--certainly doesn't hurt), the constant grind and considerable expense create challenges that can be utterly exhausting. But as filmmakers, we're uncertainty junkies, so we view this friction as part of the thrill of living here."

--Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner (Documentaries of Dissent; Document 2003; Girls Like Us)


"They say there are eight million stories in the Naked City; I've only found five or six so far, but that keeps me going. Not to mention the infinitely talented people in every arena of production with whom to discuss ideas, work on projects or just go for moonlit walks along the waterfront."

--Katja Esson (Ferry Tales; Adam, Made to Order Savior; Searching for Sense)


"New York City is endlessly inspiring the film mind; everyday I open my eyes and think of ten stories I could make without leaving home, just looking out my door and walking the streets. Of course I don't always act on what is unfolding before my eyes, but it is a city full of story riches. The buildings, the people, the exhibits, the films, the dirt, even the suffering, all help to make a fertile and creative mind. There is nowhere else I would rather live to eat, sleep and breathe real-life filmmaking."

--Jennifer Fox (Women and I; An American Love Story; Beirut: The Last Home Movie)


"New York is a city where you live with your eyes wide open. You are confronted with life in all its forms--from its most glorious incarnations to its most desperate and unjust. And this range of experience is what documentary filmmaking is all about."

--Liz Garbus (The Nazi Officer's Wife; Girlhood; The Execution of Wanda Jean)


"What I love about New York is the tough, raw vitality of the place. The filmmaking community is at once viciously competitive and deeply cooperative. The place can seem insular--remember the Steinberg cartoon or listen to the complaints of those in the West Village about how ‘vastly different' is the Upper East Side--but it also welcomes the world outside and is deeply curious about it. New York embraces contradictions."

--Alex Gibney (Behind Those Eyes; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; The Pacific Century)


"For a filmmaker, New York is an inspiring, stimulating and hopelessly distracting environment. Metaphorically speaking, making films in New York is like sailing across the ocean on a raft; one needs to be a skilled sailor and ready to swim on short notice. It's unpredictable but worth the trip." 

--William Greaves (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 1 and Take 21/2; Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey; Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice)


"While New York City is such a large, thriving metropolis, in actuality it is composed of a bunch of small neighborhoods and communities. And one of those neighborhoods--or communities, if you like--consists of a great group of documentary filmmakers. It is a very generous, supportive, creative community, and it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

--Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels)


"As an ethnographic filmmaker I am constantly looking for ways to exoticize the domestic, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I can think of no better place than New York City to achieve these tasks. There are so many stories to be told here. I need look no further than my own life for the stories that end up in my films."

--Murray Nossel (Why Can't We Be a Family Again?; A Brooklyn Family Tale; Paternal Instinct)


"How do I love New York? Let me count the ways: It is the energy and those fabulous places to see, the restaurants with ethnic cuisines from everywhere, the great museums, Off and Off Off Broadway, the hellish heat and devilish cold, cherry blossoms in Prospect Park, autumn leaves turning gold and red, memories of childhood and a career, and all of the history that happens here. It is almost everyone in the world conveniently reachable through a subway trip. Wherever I've traveled and relished what I saw and did, I always return to New York, thankful for the experiences and thankful for coming back to the best place a documentary filmmaker can live and work."

--Robert Richter (The Last Atomic Bomb; Convictions: Prisoners of Conscience; School of Assassins)


"For me, working in New York not only grounds me within an exciting community of filmmakers, but also challenges me to make films which reflect the world, as compared to simply my point of view. In addition, I have become profoundly aware of how insightful the writer Jimmy Baldwin was when he wrote that the work of any artist is to ‘question the evidence of things not seen.' Film is such a visual medium, therefore to be able to ‘see' a story is quite different from the act of ‘framing' a story. With each film I make, it is my hope that I will continue to work from the premise of ‘seeing' more and ‘framing' less."

--Demetria Royals (Conjure Men; BrotherMen; Conjure Women)


"My parents live here, my grandparents were born here, my children are growing up here, and while I love adventure, there is something perfect about a place I can call home on one block and be anonymous on the next one."

--Jonathan Stack (Liberia: An Uncivil War; The Wildest Show in the South: Angola Prison Rodeo; The Farm: Angola USA)


"I came to New York City as a refugee from small town America. And there are so many of us that never fit in there, couldn't be tolerated and had surprisingly different ideas. That contributes to the energy of New York City, and the ensuing tolerance for difference inspires me as a filmmaker every single day.

--Pamela Yates (State of Fear; Presumed Guilty; When the Mountains Tremble)


Belinda Baldwin is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer.