My essay The East Village Detective: On Bill Morrison's Historical Poetics went live today in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I began making films because of my work as a historian, but I could not have written this essay without my experiences making films. Ideas and practice between documentary art and writing history continue to reverberate in my work, changing each, especially in terms of form. In any case, this essay deals, among other things, with how Morrison's art (how art, period) is essential for the practice of history. It also deals with the interborough and intergenerational history of film and art in NYC, between Flushing's Joseph Cornell, about whom I'm now working on a film, and the East Village's Morrison.
with Sebastían Ospina, the film's subject, following its screening at Terraza 7, on Saturday night, was a difficult-yet-gratifying experience.
Photo: Javier Castaña
It was difficult because my film was, of course, a subjective perspective on its subject-cum-protagonist, one that depended entirely on his participation but also on my entirely independent production of my story about his life. The resulting profile was not uncritical, and it was, therefore, unnerving for me to have Sebastián view it for the first time, especially in a public screening; I glanced his way only once, furtively, while he watched, standing the entire time, behind the rest of the audience. Consequently, It was gratifying to hear Sebastián share how moved he was (he said that he cried throughout the screening) by a profile, the angles of which he had not anticipated, in which he recognized himself, anew, as an actor in his labyrinth. I could finally exhale as I absorbed his generosity.
I've received a 2022 New Work Grant from the QCA's Queens Arts Fund, supported by NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs, to produce and show the video essay I proposed about the history of art in Queens connecting artists (Joseph Cornell, Isamu Noguchi, Ben Shahn, and Peppino Mangravite) across neighborhoods (Flushing, Long Island City, Woodhaven, and Jackson Heights) over decades (between today and the Thirties). My bike rides through Queens generates this project's contemplation of the east of the East River legacies of these four artists in dialogue with my own practice's intraborough journey.
from conversations with students. I had the pleasure to do that this week at Columbia when I visited Professor Joshua Glick's Global Documentary course for what has become a yearly event – but the first in person for a couple of years. Things really have come full circle: I worked with Josh in the Film and History seminar I taught at Yale when he was doing his Ph.D. there; not too long after that I began to move from film historian to historian filmmaker (about a decade ago) while teaching at Barnard and Columbia where I began to conceive Between Neighborhoods (up on the screen, above, the other day) through lectures in my Projecting American Empire on Film course composed to footage that I was then shooting around the Unisphere and archival research including materials in Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It all gives a special feel to the exchange with film students the other day in Morningside Heights, where their comments and questions – about Small Kitchens, Our Neighborhood, The Actor in His Labyrinth as well as Between Neighborhoods – changed, again, how I see my docs.
This film series features three different programs each built around a different doc of mine about the present and past of immigration in Queens. The screenings take place on 23, 24, and 30 of October at 6:30pm, outdoors at Terraza 7 near the 7 train in Elmhurst-Jackson Heights.
• October 23/Sat The Actor in His Labyrinth
• October 24/Sun Between Neighborhoods
• October 30/Sat Small Kitchens + 2021 Epilogue
A short sample of Olmsted, Moses, Al, and Me – my new essay film about the intersection of public and personal histories – screens in each program, which includes filmmaker Q&A. Admission is free. This series is made possible by a City Artist Corps Grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs, the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, and the Queens Theatre.
It's great to have been awarded a City Artist Corps Grant, to stimulate NYC's "creative resurgence" this fall. Mine will fund a series of three public screenings + community conversations (October 23, 24, 30 @ 6:30 pm) of three docs of mine at Terraza 7, in Elmhurst-Jackson Heights, Queens, the pandemic's NYC epicenter. Terraza 7 has been the heart of the cultural resistance to that scourge by sustaining the arts in the center of the city's most socially vulnerable and culturally diverse neighborhoods, across Covid Time. Each event will feature one of my docs –– Between Neighborhoods, Small Kitchens, and The Actor in His Labyrinth (premiere) –– all of which contemplate this part of the world, focusing differently on immigration as the social context of this area's evident resilience and the city's reliance on its transnational diversity for its cultural as well as its economic sustainability. I will also preview short samples of Olmsted & Moses, Al & Me, a work-in-progress that maps intersections of personal and public histories across NYC. I'm very excited to show and discuss this new video essay!
Thanks to the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York Foundation for the Arts, NYC Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment (Made in NY) , as well as Freddy Castiblanco, owner and artistic director of Terraza 7. Details about each screening to follow here and Terraza 7 in early October.
Of course, you never know what will happen when documenting. Consequently, it's super cool when something super compelling happens unexpectedly –– and you capture it. We had one of those magical moments in July, when SLF summer intern Rabei Javaid and I were out shooting observational footage/scouting future shoots for my new essay film project Olmsted, Moses, Al and Me. In front of the Crown Heights apartment building where I was born, an unanticipated, initially awkward, encounter became the source for this teaser that contemplates the place of place in connecting people across decades, in a place that connects Brooklyn across centuries. Thank you Joe Taylor for your generous contribution and Rabei for keeping the camera running, so well!
Check out this new teaser for Our Neighborhood, my documentary underway about Washington's secret and semisecret production of TV propaganda for Latin America across the 1960s. The film grows from my original research as well as my published scholarship. Amos Damroth worked with me on the teaser's editing and Gaspar González of Hammer and Nail Productions consulted on its form as well as on the entire doc. Amos also works at Pickerel Pie Entertainment where Dewey Thompson and Chris Torella supervised the shooting of interviews sampled above. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to Our Neighborhood's completion, you can –– and please do! –– via the Center for Independent Documentary.
Discussing Small Kitchens with friends, new as well as old –– from across Queens, NYC, the USA as well as across the Atlantic and the Río Bravo –– was very cool. (The above photo, e.g., was sent to me by Marcos and María Elena Aguila who watched in Cuernavaca, México.) Here's most of the postscreening conversation, moderated by Jeran Halfap of the Queens Historical Society.
Viewing a film in person with other spectators on the kind of (large) screen the filmmaker intended to show their work is irreplaceable; yet, the expansion of streamed viewings and (more importantly postscreening Q&A's) necessitated by (and perfected during) Covid times, demands that this digital dimension continues postcovid as a supplement (not substitute) for onsite events, because it virtually enlarges interaction across space in real time. We need to think about how to do this, better and better, going forward.
I'm excited to screen Small Kitchens –– my new doc that contemplates work and food between a Nepali restaurant and a Mexican food cart, a few blocks away from each other under the 7 train, on the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst border along Roosevelt Avenue, in Queens –– at the Queens Historical Society in January. Completed just before this most global part of New York City became the epicenter of the the global pandemic, Small Kitchens' examination of labor and culture is now also a time-capsule of life just before Covid-19 changed everything here, and everywhere. You can register to attend the even online at the QHS link, above. There will be a Q&A after the screening, to which I look forward.
It's become a Summer ritual, visiting Josh Glick's Global Documentary Media course at Columbia. This year it was via zoom. But I've never learned more about my own work than I did from these superb students' discussion of Between Neighborhoods and Small Kitchens. Current events, between Covid-19 and the protests George Floyd's killing generated, enhanced our conversation about documentary art, Queens, and the world, from across which these students beamed in. It was all very cool and very rewarding. (And thanks for the picture.)
My documentary about the interborough and international histories that orbit Robert Moses's Unisphere in Queens, can now be streamed VOD for either individual or institutional (e.g., classroom) rental or purchase. It seemed like a good time to do this, while cooped up during this Corona Crisis, which provokes thinking about immigration in Queens and the limits of modernization as Covid-19 ravages and Trump threatens the globally diverse neighborhoods around Unisphere and around Seven Local Film.
At work on a new doc that chronicles the passion of Sebastián Ospina, as the Colombia-born actor promotes and performs in NYC the one-man play he wrote about Simón Bolîvar, the Great Liberator of South America's north. The Actor in His Labyrinth expresses how Ospina's life journey –– which has traveled from Cali to NYC, from Colombian TV star to itinerant theater actor –– viscerally manifests itself in his identification with Bolívar's peripatetic life, intense loves, and inspirational aura. Stay tuned for teasers.
We had a great rough-cut screening and conversation about Small Kitchens at Terraza 7 on December 14th; the film's first phase was supported, in part, by a New Work Grant from the Queens Council on the Arts, funded by NYC's Dept. of Cultural Affairs.
Good Night and Good Luck, Director George Clooney (USA, 2005) 93 min. Followed by a talk back with Seth Fein
Description: Democracy in America Film Series Humanities and Films at the Whitney, supported by the Barbakow Fund for Innovative Film Programs at Yale)
Terrific time talking doc with students in Josh Glick's Global Documentary Media seminar at Columbia, 10 June 2019.
Very excited to welcome Bill Morrison to speak to my Film History course this Semester after we screen his amazing Dawson City: Frozen Time. It's open to all.