Living Los Sures, a collaborative work-in-progress documentary project by UnionDocs, is a multifaceted portrait of Williamsburg’s South Side that has been four years in the making. The ambitious project—selections of which are now on display at Fordham University’s Idliko Butler gallery—was inspired by Los Sures, Diego Echeverria’s 1984 feature documentary about the then-blighted Hispanic neighborhood. “Remarkably,” wrote Eleanor Mannikka of the film, “some hope and ambition and drive are still present in spite of the crime and grime that settles over the neighborhood like dust.”
The neighborhood may now be teetering on the edge of transformation, as gonzo news outlets and march steadily southwards, but Living Los Sures is a testament to the continued diversity and tenacity of the area’s inhabitants. UnionDocs—a non-profit center for documentary art—has functioned from its current home at 322 Union Avenue, on the border of the South Side, since its inception in 2005, and will be there at least until 2021. We spoke with Founder and Executive Artistic Director Christopher Allen about Living Los Sures, the Fordham installation, and the future of the neighborhood.
Sure. It means “The Souths,” and it refers to the streets South 1st, 2nd, 3rd. I also was not familiar with the term until we came across this film. Similar to El Barrio in Manhattan, Los Sures is a kind of colloquial name, but unlike El Barrio it hasn’t been adopted much outside the Latino community here. So part of the effort and the idea behind the project is that along with a number of different organisations in the neighborhood, we are helping to make people more aware of that designation. We’re hoping one day the neighborhood will be known officially as Los Sures.
We showed it in 2006, I believe, after we were given the film by Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís, both great local filmmakers. Diego Echeverria, the director, we were able to locate in Nicaragua, so we Skyped him in for the first session. We continued to show the film in a variety of different contexts—usually small, local screenings. In 2010, after having realized that the film was a unique way to connect to the neighborhood and to build relationships with long-term residents, we started the project.
Throughout the time that we showed it there’s always been this massive reaction where people get very emotional and have tons of memories. People shout out when they recognize somebody—a family member, a friend, someone that they’ve lost or haven’t seen in a long time; shout out when they recognize fashions and styles from that time period and also places that are still here and some that aren’t. It’s just a very rich screening experience and shows the value of documentary, especially over the long term.
We’re thinking of this as a multi-platform documentary, so it doesn’t really have a final product. But there are a couple different categories. Firstly, there’s the feature film which will be restored, and will eventually have a theatrical run for some time at least in new York City—Manhattan and Brooklyn to start off with. Then, we’ve produced 30 short documentaries. Many of those have already played in festivals. They’ll be released on the Living Los Sures website, over the course of this next year after the site goes up at the end of September. Those made more recently haven’t yet had their festival premiere, so we’ll wait for them to do that then bring them online.
There’s two main elements to the interactive project that will also be accessible starting the end of September. One is a project called “Eighty-nine Steps,” which tells the story of Marta, who is one of the characters from Los Sures. She’s a single mother of five living on welfare. We met Marta and followed her as she sold the apartment she fought to take over from the negligent landlord. She helped to organize her building, and she decides finally that she’s ready to leave the neighborhood after 40 years. We follow her as she makes that decision, and sells her place, and relocates to Florida. We tell that story in a web-based format. That project will be available through both our site and POV.
The last bit is called “Shot By Shot.” It’s really a participatory platform for the original film. There’s 326 or so shots in the film, and we’ve broken them up and used them as the starting point for stories from other people in the neighborhood. Not just stories about what’s in the shot, but about what the shot reminds people of in their lives. It’s sort of to break up the film and allow any other different voices to talk about the history of the place in response to the film, as a form of organizing all these different memories and ideas, and also to talk about today.
And this will all be launching at the 2014 New York Film Fest? Is this the first time you’ve been?
Yes, it will be. The film from 1984 was premiered there, so this will be a return for the restored version. We’ll be showing the feature, and having a panel that illustrates all the different aspects of the project, and a party to celebrate the launch.
Yeah. The project has been the focus of our collaborative studio for the last four years. This studio takes a group of international and U.S. artists into a fellowship program basically. They come with a blank slate and we lead them through a research process and together they develop ideas and seek out documentary subjects, and each year we produce about eight pieces through the program.
From the selection I saw, it very much feels like a time capsule project. I was wondering if you think it’s an essentially positive look at the neighborhood, or a nostalgic grab for something being lost?
The “living” part of the title is really important for us. We’re not proposing a museum or a time capsule. Documentary in some ways is almost always involved in the past but what we’re most interested in is attention and awareness and respect for the culture of this neighborhood that is. And I think there are some mythologies and inaccuracies in understanding the way in which this neighborhood develops. I don’t think the future is set in stone. Many people would be surprised to know that south side is 45% Latino, and that the median income by recent census figures, I believe, is around $32,000. So it’s still not the neighborhood that some want you to think it is, and I’ve heard local politicians say that they believe a lot of the displacement that has happened due to rent increases has sort of ebbed. The people who remain are, by and large, property owners. The long-term residents organized in amazing ways to take over buildings that landlords were neglecting and that the city was looking for tax revenue on.
These questions of identity, and respect, and heritage, and where people feel at home, are very much part of the future of the neighborhood. So, Living Los Sures is not just about looking back, but about looking differently at the neighborhood today, and understanding its history—providing entry points for that, and highlighting it, and celebrating it—in order to provide the context for a more inclusive, more creative, and more diverse community going forwards.
Living Los Sures: Selections will be on display at Fordham University’s Idliko Butler Gallery (113 West 60th St) through October 5th, 2014. The exhibition is free and open to the public.