The rooftop of the Old American Can Company, an historic complex in Brooklyn, is packed with nearly 600 people glued to their seats. They watch the film on the large screen as the camera cuts from the gutting of a fish to broken shards of a mirror; then to Isaiah Zagar, a legendary mosaic artist, fingering colorful tiles embedded in a wall along the South Street Corridor in Philadelphia.
After the film, against the backdrop of the Gowanus Canal, filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar answers a question from the audience about the challenge of capturing painfully emotional images of his father. He responds with a tribute to Diane Arbus who once said, “If I have a camera in front of my face, I could let a tank roll over me.”
At the moment, it seems like the independent film industry is facing down a tank. Yet, talking with Zagar, it quickly becomes apparent that rampant idealism still exists in an industry often mired in cynicism. The summer screening at the Old Can Factory of his documentary In A Dream—a complex portrait of his artistic family—was, as The Rooftop Film Series romantically billed, “a marriage of widely public art and personal cinema.”
“When you decide you want to make movies, it’s either New York or L.A.,” Zagar explains. “Brooklyn has that spirit that we want to maintain in our approach.” Complete with its promenade, storied bridges, and vibrant communities in view of a booming city center, Brooklyn has long been synonymous with the arts. In recent years, the borough has emerged as a viable, sometimes preferred, location for independent cinema to make its mark with filmmakers and production companies cropping up throughout.
Now 27-years-old, Zagar and producer Jeremy Yaches have been making films together since they were 15 years old, growing up in Philadelphia. Under the banner of Herzliya Films, they have joined the growing ranks of independent filmmakers at studios in DUMBO and Williamsburg. Circumventing mainstream avenues of the film industry, they utilize the festival platform and grassroots networking to create their own opportunities, while holding tight to their ideals.
“It has exceeded our expectations,” says Zagar of the feedback they receive for In A Dream. Collecting dues at festivals from Slamdance to South By Southwest, In A Dream has been picked up by HBO and is set to air next year.
New York City film history can trace its origin to Charles Chinnock, who in 1895 shot his first silent movie in Brooklyn, capturing a boxing match from a rooftop. Since then the medium and the borough have become increasingly linked as film crews set up on corners in Park Slope and Cobble Hill and financed features screen at theaters like BAM Rose Cinemas and the innovative Brooklyn Indie House.
“There is a strong collaboration between films, venues, and the community now,” said Mark Rosenberg, founder and director of the Rooftop Film Festival. “It’s about finding inventive ways to create and show films.”
In 1997, Rosenberg did just that. Looking for a way to bring people together to enjoy films, he set up a 16mm projector and a white sheet on a tenement rooftop in Manhattan. The next summer Rosenberg brought Rooftop to an abandoned warehouse space on McKibben Street in East Williamsburg, where the festival played a vital role in the nascent film community in Bushwick. By 2004, Rooftop had teamed up with The Old Can Factory, where they constructed a large rooftop screen that serves as the Festival’s base.
A lot has changed since Rosenberg’s first screening: new media and the Internet have expanded access, giving more people the ability to produce films. According to local filmmaker Joe Pacheco, this has been “a double-sided coin.” Filmmakers are increasingly getting caught in a saturated marketplace, with more films created than distributors and theaters are able to handle. The result has been to further reduce available resources and payment for filmmakers. “It doesn’t add up right,” says Yaches of the amount of money it takes to make a film verses the money available to filmmakers.
Zagar and Yaches worked with a small budget. “You are constantly pulling favors,” Zagar explains of the years he and Yaches battled through several jobs working more or less for free while exchanging film and equipment, and shuttling between New York and Philadelphia to shoot footage. “There may be no funding but you still want to make great things. You do what you have to.”
“Shooting—even some of the editing—is the easy part,” says Yaches, noting that “third-party obstacles” like obtaining funding, distribution, and securing a theatrical release are much more laborious.
Film festivals have become an invaluable platform for independent film and a powerful marketing arena for smaller projects to gain attention. But even with the recent boom in festivals, many films are repeatedly locked out of a labyrinth of access and acceptance.
“Everyone wants to go to film festivals, but not everyone has that option,” says Pacheco, who founded the Brooklyn Independent Cinema Series, a bi-weekly screening event showcasing short films every first and third Monday at Barbés in Park Slope. With the blessing of owner Olivier Conan, the series is home for many short films that would otherwise go unseen. “It’s been a labor of love,” says Pacheco, explaining that the series is free—both for filmmakers to submit, and for people to attend. “With no commerce involved, it’s strictly about the films and the community.”
The film industry is known for cutthroat competition and door slamming, and Brooklyn is no exception. But Pacheco believes, “there is a different kind of creativity here, there’s a community of people who realize it’s not all do or die at the box office—you don’t need a red carpet for a really great film.” Now, both filmmakers and local venues are embracing new ways to exhibit films that seek to cut through some of the harsh realities of the industry.
“Above all we wanted to maintain control—it’s a stipulation of ours,” explains Zagar. It’s this articulation of the craft; a rare glimpse of optimism and clarity of focus that lends itself to Zagar’s work. His steady commitment, head-on approach, and humble reverence for those who have supported his work, are values found throughout this generation of emerging independents.
Zagar artfully captures his father’s mosaic walls as revelation of the collapse and reconciliation of a family’s creative passions. In a telling scene, Zagar frames his isolated father as he draws a bird in black ink while divulging, with raw honesty, the secrets of his past.
In the same way that Diane Arbus was fascinated with the moments in life that cause most people to look away, Jeremiah Zagar looks at his own experience and asks his audience to intimately share in it.
“It’s the story of films that I love,” Zagar explains. Whether projected in a bar or screened on a rooftop, independent cinema has gained its audience in Brooklyn where filmmakers like Zagar have room to believe that “creating together is better than creating alone.”
Jericho Parms is a writer in New York City.