Jackson Heights Film Festival Opens
Jackson Heights / September 18, 2008. Thursday night was the opening night of the film portion of the Jackson Heights Film and Food Festival. While over a thousand came for the food segment of the festival, about a hundred or so appeared for the showing Thursday night. Too bad for those that missed it.
The Film Festival continues through the weekend with shorts from around the world [Friday], including one about someone from Elmhurst Queens. On Saturday there's a special installation beginning at 6 pm as well as matinees - click to the Jackson Heights Film and Food Festival website for details about events on Friday, Saturday and the Kids Films on Sunday morning. See map for the Eagle Theater location which may be reached via the E, F, G or 7 subway lines.
Two films were shown: ‘Chop Shop’ and ‘Basket Boy’. The first was a locally produced film about life in Willets Point, and the second was a short film produced in Burundi. I’ll grant you that this wasn’t a night for light comedy. And at times I admit to being a bit restless. But ‘Chop Shop’ took us on a very real and very interesting ride. The story involved two people living very much on the edge, in one of our own communities in Queens [Willets Point]. I could literally feel the vulnerability of their two lives, as well as the heartfelt bedrock of their love for one another. Like a strenuous workout, it hurts a bit during the process, but at the end of it one feels better for it and refreshed.
I entered the Eagle Theater in Jackson Heights around 7 pm. A few people, mostly volunteers, were busy preparing for the event. I met Bryan Pu-Folkes, the lead organizer of the event, at the door, and he introduced me to a few of the other people associated with the Festival. One of them was the Food and Film Festival Treasurer, Amiee, who kindly filled me in on a bit of the history of the festival.
Aimee was one of the people who was around for the first Jackson Heights Film Festival. It was held at another theater and ran on the second Thursday of September, October and November. I recall Bryan telling me that Prerana Reddy, who moderated the discussion with Director Ramin Baharani, was instrumental in helping the group screen films for the first festival. Today the group does its screening on its own and seeks to identify themes that will resonate within the multi-dimensional ethnic composition of the neighborhood. As a point of fact, Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods are some of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, the nation and the world.
Today there are between 30 and 40 active volunteers who work on the Jackson Heights Food and Film Festival. They are primarily from Jackson Heights and surrounding communities like Elmhurst, Astoria and Corona. And they are organized into the committees for 1) the food event, 2) the adult film events, 3) the kids film event and 4) the general group. By the way the Kids Film event starts Sunday at 10.30 am and includes a number of very short films, which I understand adults also found entertaining.
For those who are interested in getting involved in this cultural endeavor, email Bryan using the email address on the Jackson Heights Food and Film Festival website. The committees meet once per month in the ten months following the event, and then meet more often in the two months prior to the event.
Eagle Theater In Jackson Heights
I walked around the old Eagle Theater, enjoying its unkempt, but classic appearance. I tried tracking down the owner to get a bit of the history of the theater as it continues to provide some of what one used to enjoy about going to the movies: the drama of the architecture of the theater. Unfortunately it seems that the appreciation for artistic craftsmanship is mostly lost in today’s efficiency driven world. It seems we strive to make ourselves more like machines. And to what end, I ask.
But I digress. The crowd was thirty and forty somethings, with a sort of intellectual coolness about them. I’ve seen other small groups around Queens like them; at 5 Pointz open houses, the Museum Of The Moving Image, Socrates Sculpture Park and PS1 events. This web magazine hopes that over time these small groups will use the Queens Buzz free events calendar to take matters into their own hands in terms of getting the word out and generating a sort of … dare I say ‘buzz’? [Sorry, but I can't help but try to make people aware of how to use this site to further their community's interests.]
So the film program began with Bryan Pu-Folkes introducing the primary sponsor of the event: Capital One Bank. Lee Mittelman and Avanell Jacobs were the people at Capital One who helped obtain much of the funding for the event. There are other local sponsors, such as MPC Properties, who are listed on the Food and Film Festival website.
Basket Boy – The Warm Up Film
The first movie was a short flick about a boy in Burundi. The film, ‘Basket Boy’, was about how the boy had come to acquire his name. It was a film about social injustice on the African continent, but one that has relevance for us here in Queens too. Since you likely won’t see the movie, I’ll tell you a bit more about it.
The story was about how people in Burundi couldn’t afford to pay the doctors or hospitals to deliver their children into the world. Basket Boy’s father couldn’t pay for his son’s delivery and so had to find a way to ‘free’ his wife and son from the hospital that birthed him. The hospital was holding both captive until such time as the father came up with the money to pay the bills associated with birthing the son. So he tried to sneak him out in a basket. According to the movie, today Burundi has a policy that all births are free. This resonates with us in this country, in that some 40 million Americans are uninsured, hence they don’t use the healthcare system preventively, and thus end up getting deathly ill before seeing a doctor. In some cases this results in premature deaths because they cannot afford the healthcare they need.
Chop Shop – The Main Feature Film
The next film is the one I had actually gone to see – Chop Shop. The setting for this film is Willets Point, which is located just a block away from Shea Stadium. As anyone who has been watching the local news knows, Willetts Point is being converted into a huge real estate development, and this very unique place in Queens is about to disappear.
The story of the film is about a young boy around the age of ten. He and his sister have only each other and little else. The story is about their love for one another with all of its ups and downs. It is also about the ups and downs of life itself, but in this case, for two people living very, very close to the survival edge.
The movie moves slowly and thoughtfully through the landscape of the two leading characters’ lives as well as the setting of Willets Point. I admit to watching it apprehensively, expecting at any moment that something violently terrible would befall the main characters, as all too frequently happens in the movies coming out of Hollywood.
But that Hollywood style shock never came. Instead the story moved us through some very natural turn of events, which included some of the disappointment I was looking for, but it was introduced into the story in a very natural, not super dramatic, way. This was exactly what the young director, Ramin Baharani, had strived so hard to achieve. And achieve it he did.
Director Ramin Bahrani Discusses The Film
While the content of what Ramin Baharani produces is not mainstream, it showcased his talents as a storyteller and as a director of the highest caliber. After the screening he was introduced to us by Bryan and interviewed by Prerana Reddy, Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art and co-director of the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival.
Film Commentary At The Jackson Heights Film Festival
Ramin talked about how he screened some 600 applicants for the leading roles and how he came to choose the boy who played Alejandro. He did a marvelous job of screening, because Alejandro played that part so well, that I remember wondering how this story had come to be. I asked myself, ‘was this story based on a real person’s life or was it an invention of someone’s mind?’. And the same goes for the leading actress, who played Alejandro’s sister, Isamar. She too, was a joy to watch. And neither was a professional actor or actress.
Ramin then relayed some of the more interesting aspects of shooting his film. For example there’s a scene toward the end, involving pigeons which Ramin worked hard to create naturally, by adapting the relationship that a Willets Point resident had with the pigeons through feeding them. Ramin also talked about how he slowly gained acceptance into the Willets Point community, which for anyone who has spent any time there knows, is a very unique place in Queens and in all the nation.
Film Discussion: Willets Point - A Unique World Unto Itself
Like Ramin, I had come to know Willets Point by having a windshield replaced some years ago. The place fascinated me because of its dilapidated streets, which on a rainy day fill up with water to give it a rough third world look. While my car was being fixed, I went down the street to get a bite. This was at 10 or 11 in the morning and some of the soiled, solid, muscle bound machinists came into this lunch box and ordered beers, spending the money they had just made fixing cars. Like Alejandro’s sister, Isamar, some of the women wore tight fitting clothes that showcased their curvaceous feminine bodies. There was a rawness and reality to the place that captured my interest. I never forgot the place, and like Ramin, I had a desire to return to it, because of the locale’s intrigue. It was like entering a whole other world.
And that is what Ramin wanted to do – produce a real movie about real people living in this unique and very real part of the world. And in watching the film it becomes obvious he wants to convey realness in a very natural and - you guessed it - real way. To achieve a natural effect, he went around Willets Point shooting the movie many, many times using a handy cam, before actually shooting it on film. The purpose of this was to get the real people who work at Willets Point, who served as the backdrop characters to the movie, to get accustomed to seeing Ramin and his camera crew. Thus, over time Ramin’s group became a part of the Willets Point landscape and everyone went back to behaving naturally. Ramin also told the Willets Point inhabitants that the movie was about Alejandro, so as to deflect any possible Hollywood aspirations of the Willets Point inhabitants.
Film Discussion Wrap Up
The movie was about love. Not some hot Hollywood romance being played out around the globe or in rich fancy settings, but a binding love that transcended the ravages of daily life. In this case the story was about the love that existed between a brother and sister. Ramin delved into the depths of this relationship, probing its many dimensions in the same manner as he sought to peal back the layers of the story's location.
If you’ve read this much you surely know that this kind of movie isn’t for everyone. Perhaps most people get enough reality in their own lives. But for those of us who attended the event the Jackson Heights Film Festival opening film provided a very intriguing exploration of others lives in a real locale found in the borough's backyard.
My compliments to the Jackson Heights Film Festival screening committee for their thoughtful choice of an opening film that captures the essence of our own Willets Point. And my compliments to Ramin Baharani for preserving on film cells some of our locale’s heart and soul which will soon be destroyed by bulldozers.
Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival Jackson Heights NY - Related Links
Click this link to read / view a story about the Jackson Heights Food Festival segment or click this link to read / view a brief description of the Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival. Click this link to obtain a map of the locations of the Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival which is where the event occured. Click this link to obtain the contact info and website url for the Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival. Click this link to go to the Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Neighborhood News / Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Neighborhood Guide and Map / Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Restaurants Guide & Map / Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Shops Guide & Map / Queens, Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Events / Jackson Heights Business Directory / Elmhurst Business Directory / Jackson Heights & Elmhurst Shop Announcements.