Friday, March 7, 2014

QWFF Day 3: Hands across the water

Iconoclastic director Spike Lee recently made some statements about the changing, gentrifying face of New York in general and Brooklyn in particular. Whether or not you think gentrification is a good thing is a separate issue. What had me thinking, especially after writing about the changes to Long Island City and Astoria yesterday, was how this issue relates to Queens. I've lived in both East Elmhurst and now Jamaica; I remember how Queens used to look and I'm familiar with how it looks now, and while I've certainly seen signs of changing demographics, the thought that whites are taking over neighborhoods in Queens at a rate similar to that in Brooklyn doesn't quite jibe with what I see.

Maybe LIC and Astoria (and Ridgewood, to a lesser extent) are becoming more like Park Slope and Williamsburg, in their own little way - and gentrification on a larger scale could sweep through Queens the way it has through Brooklyn one day - but right now, I still see enclaves of broad ethnicity. I can point out Orthodox Jewish and Indian and Chinese neighborhoods on a Queens map. I see pedestrian plazas bringing all kinds of people together in places like Jackson Heights and Corona. If I walk down Roosevelt Avenue long enough, I can hear Spanish, Korean, and Bengali languages spoken and more besides.

QWFF's Don Cato leading the procession of student
filmmakers at the PS 69 film premiere
And at a school like P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, I can see children of color thriving in a curriculum that lets them explore their creativity through the arts - in particular, film. A major component of the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) is its Young Filmmakers Program, in which school kids not only get the opportunity to learn how to make films, but they get shown as part of the festival and get treated like big shots for a day.

Yesterday was that day this year. Five films from five groups of fifth graders played at the school, and the atmosphere, while less than a world premiere at Cannes, was more than that of a typical school assembly. There was a delightful little "red carpet" down the center aisle of the auditorium made of construction paper, decorated and autographed by the student filmmakers, who walked down it amidst an audience of their schoolmates, their parents, faculty and others.

Led by Don Cato, in his role as QWFF programmer, the filmmaker mentors for this year - Sharif Sadek, Patti Lowenhaupt, Shelley H. Miller and Richard Calvache - assisted the students in making short films that mirror their lives, exploring themes that reflect their experiences, such as bullying and how to prevent it, or coping with wearing glasses or braces. Yes, there's an "afterschool special" vibe reflected in these shorts, but overall, they're fun to watch, they show the enthusiasm the kids bring to the work, and unlike many adult-made films, they don't try to be anything other than what they are. Katha Cato told me afterwards that she was amazed at how mature the kids looked on the screen, and to a degree, many of them did.

Councilman Daniel Dromm
Among the attendees included City Councilman and former teacher Daniel Dromm, a long-time supporter of QWFF, who was recently appointed chair of New York's Education Committee. After the screening, he assisted Don Kato in handing out certificates of achievement to the student filmmakers, along with CDs of the films.

And in case I didn't make it clear - these are (mostly) students of color: black, Latino, Indian, Asian, as well as white. They dressed up for the occasion (one girl wore a lovely sari), and some of them hammed it up a bit for the iPhone and iPad cameras as they walked down the "red carpet," as kids will do. They seemed pretty proud to be there. A few of them spoke to the audience, basically saying how much they enjoyed the experience of making films and how it changed them, and I have no doubt that this will stay with them, even if they never pick up a camera to shoot a movie again. So maybe gentrification is a thing in the rest of New York, and maybe it's something to be resisted... but here in Queens, diversity is by no means a four-letter word.

Later on yesterday, I headed west to the Secret Theater in LIC and had the place virtually to myself for much of the afternoon as I screened two outstanding feature-length documentaries:

The students receive certificates from Councilman Dromm
The Second Meeting deals with the relationship between a U.S. pilot, Dale Zeiko, and the Serbian officer, Zoltan Deni, who shot his stealth bomber down during the Balkan war in 1999. Both men's lives were changed as a result of the confrontation, and twelve years later, they met again, under much more peaceful, and kinder, circumstances. Both men were soldiers in wartime; they knew the risks that came with their jobs and they knew it was kill or be killed in that situation, but off the battlefield, we see how they were able to find common ground and put the fighting aside for good. It's the kind of tale that makes one wonder: if two men can leave their conflict aside and find peace, why can't two nations? Here's the trailer.

Breakin' LA is not an 80s breakdancing movie, but rather a German film about a group of German bicyclists who explore Los Angeles on their bikes. They take in not just the local biking scene, but aspects of American culture at large; we see them do things like volunteer at a homeless shelter and fire guns at a shooting range. The cinematography is dynamic, as we follow them breezing through the streets from various POV angles and doing biking tricks in parks. We also hear locals talk about the difficulties of biking in such a car-centric city, and how biking has become a thing, not only in LA but around the country. Entertaining and enlightening. Here's the website.


  1. I've been enjoying the QWFF posts, Rich, although I say to my shame that I haven't commented 'til now ... wish I had been at this event. I love to see kids enthused and active about film, and it's always a pleasure/shock to see a politician doing good things .....

  2. Thanks Becky. I realize that most, if not all, of these films are completely unknown to people, but hey, even Spielberg was an unknown once, right? And yeah, QWFF is very lucky to have support from local elected officials.


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