November 30, 2005

Queen(s) of Documentaries: In Defense of 'Hollywood East'

American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

The first place one thinks of when considering of New York City is Manhattan. Why not? It has the most amazing skyline on the planet. What can compare to Broadway when it comes to theater? With that small island hosting museums such as the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, how could you not think of Manhattan?

But Manhattan is a small part of the richness of what is New York City. The city is made up of five boroughs and one of the greatest happens to be just across the East River, bordering on the Atlantic Ocean. Queens is named after Catherine of Braganza, Queen of Charles II, and was settled by the Dutch in the 1640s. It remained an agricultural area throughout the 19th century. The borough came into its own as a strong residential community in 1909 with the completion of the Queensborough Bridge, allowing for a huge explosion in housing development. This explosion coincided with the great influx of immigrants to the United States and Queens was primed as an ideal region for settlement of these soon-to-be citizens. Nearly a century later, Queens County is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in America.

In the contemporary filmmaking landscape, the Borough of Queens is filled with many opportunities, as well as a ton of talent. In 2003, the Queens International Film Festival (QIFF; www.queensfilmfestival.com) was founded by Marie J. Castaldo. This was to be the first "official" gathering of filmmakers and movie fans alike in Queens County. The festival, based in Rego Park, boasts a strong program of cutting-edge independent features and documentaries. Among its roster of films in its first year, QIFF screened the highly acclaimed documentary Shelter Dogs, by Cynthia Wade. This year's festival runs November 17-20.

Among other opportunities for exhibition, Queens is home to the Queens Museum of Art (www.queensmuseum.org), which is based in Flushing Meadows, the site of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs. The museum hosts a regular screening program. There's also the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI; www.movingimage.us) in Astoria, which was founded in 1977 as the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation. MoMI's mission is "to educate the public about the art, history, technique and technology of film, television and digital media and to examine their impact on culture and society."

In addition to exhibits and permanent installations, MoMI hosts many screenings and seminars for some of the most impressive documentaries to date, including the premier of UNSTOPPABLE: A Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis (John Lewis, dir./prod; Warrington Hudlin, prod.), which also became a tribute to the legendary Davis, since he had passed away just six days before the showing. Hudlin himself curates a monthly series called Black Light, a presentation of hard-to-find classics and groundbreaking new films from the United States, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Among the recent offerings include Favela Rising, Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary's documentary about Brazilian social activist Anderson S and the rise of Rio de Janeiro's grassroots Afro-Reggae movement.

Another special screening program at the museum, scheduled for October 15 and 16, is Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a project spearheaded by Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, which worked with 60 of the world's leading film archive collections to uncover hitherto unknown accomplishments of American filmmakers working in the US and abroad from the invention of cinema until World War II.

Queens is known as "Hollywood East," given that the American film industry had much of its beginnings here. Kaufman Astoria Studios (KAS; http://kaufmanastoria.com) opened in 1920 with the legendary Adolph Zuckor at the helm, and eventually became a home for Paramount Pictures. Over the next 20 years, more than 120 silent and sound pictures were produced there. At the beginning of World War II, the studio was taken over by the US Signal Corps and became the Army Pictorial Center. After the war ended, the building fell into a state of disuse until a nonprofit foundation reclaimed the facility to make the 1978 film The Wiz.

In 1980, the City of New York, in cooperation with real estate developer George S. Kaufman, renovated, expanded and restored this great landmark of cinema. Today, KAS offers sound and music studios and lighting and audio facilities. In addition to these resources, KAS rents out sound stages, studios and office space on a weekly or monthly basis.

With all of these resources available in Queens, what about funding for the documentary filmmaker? The New York State Council on the Arts (www.nysca.org), while based in Manhattan, does have an Individual Artists grant program for Film, Media and New Technology; individuals must apply through a New York State-based nonprofit organization. The New York Foundation for the Arts (www.nyfa.org) also has a long history of supporting individual artists.

There are a few Queens-specific funders, and one that stands out is the Queens Community Arts Fund, operated by the Queens Council for the Arts (www.queenscouncilarts.org). This program is supported in part by funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, Decentralization Program; City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs; Greater New York Arts Development Fund; and JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Two recent recipients include Aaron Schock for Song of Roosevelt Avenue, a documentary short that tells the story of three recent immigrants to Queens, and Linda Moroney for Meat on a Stick, an experimental documentary film. Along with these funding opportunities, a New York-based filmmaker can take advantage of the New York City and New York State Film Production Tax Credit Programs, which provide qualifying film and television productions a fully-refundable tax credit equal to 15 percent of production expenditures.

Queens has a very rich history, and much of it is rooted in filmmaking. The diversity of the community, as well as its "Hollywood East" moniker, makes the borough one of the greatest places to live as a documentary filmmaker in New York City. Visit it once and you may want to move here.

 

Lynn Lane is a documentary filmmaker living in Astoria, Queens. He is the founder of Coal River Pictures and is currently editing the documentary Ring Days: A Boxer's Story, which he co-produced and directed with Mario Mercado.

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