The Brooklyn Presence at SXSW
Four short films from Brooklyn explore home, identity, and liberation at the South by Southwest film festival.
On camera, Brooklyn glitters; it is bright, striking, and constantly regenerating. An abundance of stunning cinematography of the borough appeared on screens this year at South by Southwest (SXSW). The festival resumed its former in-real-life glory in Austin for the first time in two years. Between March 11 and 20, four Brooklyn-based short films screened, each shot in Brooklyn and made by and featuring Brooklynites. SXSW is known for celebrating innovation in tech and education, and these projects offer their own kind of innovation: namely, an irreplaceable artistic ingenuity that flows out of this borough. In Bay Ridge, ongoing realities of exile and futurities of return are animated by collective dance. In Brownsville, histories of struggle and deep neighborhood pride are brought to light through personal narrative. At the Brooklyn Public Library, innovations in public infrastructure are a potential fly in the ointment of the incarceration machine. And in a story set in Clinton Hill, self-congratulating white liberalism during the George Floyd protests morphs into something utterly terrifying. Here are the films that made up Brooklyn’s presence at 2022’s SXSW.
Coming Home (March 13, 17)
10 minutes, Naim Naif and Margot Bowman, World Premiere
A slow-motion take of five young men, arm in arm and in letterman jackets, dancing with fast footwork on a basketball court, set to Palestinian Jordanian electronic group 47SOUL’s song “Intro to Shamstep,” has been hard for this writer to forget. The legendary subjects of Coming Home are the boys of Freedom Dabka Group, a Bay Ridge-based dance collective that has almost five million likes and more than 200,000 followers on TikTok. Video-based social media platforms have long been friendly to dancers, but this group doesn’t do just any dance. Dabka, their form of choice, has deep roots in the Levant. As the title cards in Coming Home read, “For Palestinians, dabka represents their aspirations, struggle, and history.” Groups like FDG are introducing viewers all over the world to dabka. Coming Home is a beautiful, sophisticated document of dabka’s meaning for one generation of the Palestinian diaspora.
“When I’m in Bay Ridge, I feel closer to who I am,” says Amer Abdelrasoul, leader of the group, early in the short doc. “I’m not going to say closer to home, but closer to my culture, to my people.” At every turn, the participants are sure to say Palestine is home. But they admit Bay Ridge is special too. Footage of the neighborhood on black-and-white 16 mm lends the film the timeless quality of old New York on celluloid. Images from the Palestinian Museum archive in Birzeit and clips of the 2021 Free Palestine protests play with temporality as well, even though they are in color. These glimpses of memory and resistance are washed in warm, orange-gold hues, to show that the past, when Palestine was free, is also the future.
Co-director Naim Naif grew up between Palestine and Florida and is now based in Bed-Stuy. For him, so much of being Palestinian is joy, music, dance, food, and laughter. “I just went back to Palestine,” he says, “despite the occupation, Palestine can be a really happy place and Palestinians do find happiness in life.” He and collaborator Margot Bowman said they were asking: “What is something [that] people could type in ‘Palestine’ on Google and see Palestinians happy and celebrating rather than dying and living in trauma?”
Brownsville Bred (March 13, 17)
22 minutes, Elaine Del Valle, World Premiere, Winner - SXSW Audience Award in Episodic Pilot Competition
Young Elaine (Summer Rose Castillo), Brownsville Bred’s plucky main character, is outspoken about her pride for her home: the Langston Hughes projects on Sutter Avenue. She recites a poem she’s written for a school talent show. In the poem, she lists facts about the projects: the buildings are the three tallest in East New York, each twenty-two stories high, housing more than three thousand people on one city block. Castillo’s delivery, almost akin to spoken word, starts off Brownsville Bred’s spirited, emotional style of storytelling. Adapted from a critically acclaimed one-woman show of the same name, this production is writer-director Elaine Del Valle’s latest about her life growing up in a Puerto Rican family in Brownsville. It depicts a rough time in the neighborhood’s history, the 1980s.
Big-hearted and sensitive, Elaine idolizes her building about as much as she idolizes her father (Javier Muñoz). After finding out he is a heroin addict—as was Del Valle’s real-life father, who eventually died of AIDS—Elaine is overcome with an immense sense of rage and betrayal. He goes to Puerto Rico to recover, and she’s left to navigate a cloud of stigma and poverty, and her teenage years, without him.
The predominantly Black community in Brownsville played a clear role in Del Valle’s 2010 play and subsequent young adult novel, published in 2020. Being light-skinned Puerto Rican in a Black neighborhood generates a specific set of experiences: in the play version, Elaine laments her dad’s obsession with salsa when, to her, it is the era of rap. “We live in Brownsville, I wanna be Black!” she even says in her childish tone. In this cut of the film, Black people are conspicuously absent—a disappointing fact, especially since the conversation after In the Heights (2021) about colorism and inaccuracy in Hollywoodized New York stories is so close in the rearview mirror. However, the film isn’t finished. While this premiere was billed as a pilot, the twenty-two minutes that showed at SXSW are actually proof-of-concept to develop a feature-length film. A full movie of serious import is yet to come, and hopefully with it, many dimensions of honest Brownsville representation.
Video Visit (March 13, 17)
22 minutes, Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Premiered at BAMcinemafest June 2021
Is the library an antidote to the prison? Video Visit, a short documentary, explores a fraught negotiation between these two institutions. Since 2014, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) has offered televisits to family members of incarcerated people at Rikers Island. For many, this is a welcome alternative to traveling to Rikers in person, a demeaning, sometimes traumatic experience. Video Visit follows two mothers who rely on these visits to see their sons: “Whenever I went [to Rikers], I cried, going and coming back,” says one of them. The documentary also depicts the televisit program team at BPL—including one of the mothers who later takes a job with the library system, as the library struggles to negotiate policies from the Department of Corrections (DOC) designed to surveil patrons. There are moments of painful, humanistic footage, but the focus is on systems and policy, and upon its distribution this summer, it could meaningfully add to the #CLOSERikers campaign.
Bookended with dramatic shots of the Brooklyn Public Library’s central location and its Art Deco façade, Video Visit calls up symbols of language and reflection. Here, the library is a space of sanctuary, dignity, and enrichment. These values define it in opposition to the prison: in a meeting about fighting the DOC on new rules that would have demanded librarians enforce more restrictive ID policies than in-person visits require, one of the mothers says, “the culture of the library totally contradicts all of that.”
What’s most interesting about Video Visit is what it points out about these two supposedly civic-minded institutions, one organized around human need, and the other organized to punish and suppress it. Both libraries and prisons have a use for technology. Should tech be used to bridge distances and support human potential, or to monitor and regulate human behavior? In this vein, Zouhali-Worrall presents two contrasting models of video visits: One is free, easily accessible, and operated through libraries. The other is private, for-profit, and preying on the most vulnerable. The latter is unfortunately not a hypothetical. Tech corporations like Securus, a prison communications firm, have already implemented televisits across the US with profit in mind—prisons take a percentage—and in 74 percent of cases, the prisons have ultimately banned in-person visits altogether. Separation may be part and parcel of the capitalist machine, but public infrastructure is its antithesis.
White Devil (March 13, 17)
14 minutes, Mariama Diallo and Benjamin Dickinson, Premiered at TIFF in September 2021
Asked by their producer, Brad Becker-Parton, to create a project about the pandemic, Diallo and Dickinson worked together as the actors, writers, and directors behind White Devil, a horror short about an interracial couple during the George Floyd protests. They shot it in black-and-white in July 2020, abiding by the COVID restrictions of the era: any wide shots are through windows, taken by cinematographer friends from outside the brownstone they live in. Diallo is the mind behind Master (2022), a Prime Video feature that premiered in March; this short kept her busy after shooting was paused at the start of the pandemic.
Exaggerating the specter of a white boyfriend who fixates on the George Floyd case to a disturbing degree, the film satirizes self-aggrandizing and performative white allyship during moments of Black trauma. Diallo’s character grows terrified of her partner as he watches the video of George Floyd’s murder obsessively, insists on going to in-person protests while she stays home afraid of getting COVID; weaves creepy dolls that are meant to resemble her in the basement; and drifts into increasingly bizarre, vampiric behavior, like a demon feeding off her fear.
While the narrative’s execution doesn’t always keep up with the ambitious concept, White Devil is a consuming watch, employing both campy excesses of horror and the sharp psychological component of the thriving Black horror genre to turn an idyllic Clinton Hill block into a pandemic-era hellscape. Diallo and Dickinson are vulnerable and brave for making a film about characters in a relationship that looks like their real-life one. “This was something that we were both thinking about and talking about,” they said, so making White Devil together felt organic. Navigating the interpersonal dynamics of race under the restrictions of a single setting is an intriguing experiment that fits into Diallo’s growing body of work.