As a work-resident of Greenpoint, I feel lucky that I can reap the benefits of the neighborhood without having to pay the increasingly steep average rent. My existence up here is dependent on a fair amount of lying to myself– that I can afford to eat at the nice restaurants here (false), that the nice people who work in the hip boutiques actually believe I’m going to buy something this time around (so false). But what really charms me about the neighborhood are its eccentricities– the picture window on Franklin decorated neatly with dozens of bobble heads gyrating in unison, the Polish bars where you can bet there’s a strange scene going down or at the very least some $1 Jell-o shots to pick at, and of course the ancient bag lady who shuffles along Manhattan Avenue screeching in a mix of gibberish and maybe Old Church Slavonic, sometimes disappearing down into the subway or inside an apartment, knowing that she can safely leave her bags and carts anywhere she pleases.
This is the Greenpoint of Behind the Wall, a short film directed by Bat-Sheva Guez, who lived here for close to a decade before moving to South Brooklyn. “I really love the history of Greenpoint, I love the little idiosyncrasies– if you’re walking slow, you can see the guy who has the old telephone booth from Britain in his backyard, and there was somebody who had a giant sailboat in their living room, there are just weird things,” she recalled. “If you walk and take your time and peek around corners, look in backyards, you’ll always be surprised by something.” Heck, you might even get a look into Billy Leroy’s house.
The 17-minute short– for which Guez won the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival’s award for Best Director on Monday– is a magical-realist mystery tale of sorts, one that mourns a changing neighborhood in unexpected and incredibly imaginative ways.
Really, it’s rare that artwork about gentrification goes beyond simply acknowledging that the problem exists and damning the powerful actors who are responsible for the phenomenon by which Brooklyn neighborhoods (and places all over the world) are becoming sanitized, whitewashed, and marketable versions of their former selves. Lately, we’ve seen a few projects that have encouraged a more nuanced look at the people whose lives are being negatively impacted by the shifting scenery, and Guez’s short film is no exception.
“These neighborhoods are changing so quickly, and we always talk about what that means for the young people and families being pushed out,” the filmmaker explained. “But what does that mean for the senior citizens who grew up in the neighborhood and expected to grow old in that neighborhood?”
The film centers on the story of Katrin (Alexandra Turshen), a dancer whose career has been cut short by a leg injury. We find her lugging a heavy boot around a new apartment in Greenpoint, in a building full of strangers and an unfamiliar neighborhood. While writing the script, Guez’s ballet teacher suffered a similar issue. “The percussion of the boot, and having someone who’s so light– almost like air these dancers– to be like a bird, sort of grounded with the heaviness of this boot, that was the visual and aural inspiration,” she explained.
At night, when Katrin lies down to sleep, she’s kept up by the sound of old radiator pipes– the clicking, bashing, and banging that anyone with steam heat will immediately recognize. But the pipes in this building are supernaturally loud. Guez captured the sounds from her own clashing radiator and basement boiler at her South Slope apartment. And in working with composer Mark Orton, the two transformed what might otherwise be an obnoxious but rather banal sound for anyone who’s spent a winter in New York City, into a surrealist symphony sonically attuned to the stuff of plumbers’ dreams. “Mark layered on top of that percussive world that already existed, and did all kinds of crazy things like putting paper inside a piano and banging on a waterphone,” Guez explained. “Which make the sound kind of zany and magical.”
While attempting to find the source of the noise, Katrine peers through a mouse hole and discovers a charming old couple dancing in the apartment next door. But when she tries to track them down during daylight hours, she discovers that the building has some hidden, impossible architecture– either that or she’s encountered a couple of ghosts.
Thanks to the film’s fantastical elements, Guez resists hitting you over the head with the theme of gentrification. And yet, the presence of the elderly people in the film and the ways in which Katrin interacts with them can hardly be removed from how Greenpoint is on a fast-track to turning into Williamsburg (even the feral cats are getting kicked out) at the stroke of midnight. This might also be owed to the fact that Guez has drawn on her own experiences with Greenpoint’s olds.
“A couple of years after I moved to the city, I lived in Greenpoint and there was a woman who lived downstairs who’d been there for 40 or 50 years. She was an elderly woman, I don’t know how old she was, I imagine in her 90s, and her family had been in the neighborhood for generations– she grew up there, her kids grew up there, and that sort of thing,” Guez explained. “It was just so interesting for me to think about what it meant for her to have all these young people moving into the neighborhood, and I was just sort of imagining what that would be like for her. She actually just passed away, like a month ago.”
Currently, Guez is knee-deep in the raising the funds she needs to make And How, her first feature film. Behind the Wall is actually something of a small sample that will give viewers a taste of And How without actually revealing anything from the film, which will be a tapestry of Greenpoint stories centered around a different female protagonist. “It’s a magical realism, coming-of-age story about the art world that’s set in a magical retelling of the neighborhood,” Guez explained. “It features a lot of the different characters from the neighborhood, and more magical people you’d imagine living in the neighborhood.”
The story follow a young artist who’s new to the neighborhood and struggling to reconcile her creative identity with her work for another, much more established and successful artist. She moves through the Greenpoint scenery, and convenes with various characters whom she asks for advice along the way. “She meets these different characters, and they’re all kind of quirky and magical, and they speak to her in riddles,” Guez explained. “So she never really gets a straight answer– it’s kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Girls.”
The larger script is based on imaginative interpretations of Guez’s own experiences exploring the neighborhood since she moved there in 2004. It was always a place she enjoyed for its historical context, relative isolation from the bustle of the city, and of course the people who lived there. “There is something magical about the elderly population– you’ll find strange gardens tucked away between the buildings, alley cats that live everywhere,” she said. “I couldn’t walk down the street without meeting a friend or saying hi, and one by one, we all got priced out of the neighborhood, and there are very few of us left. At my old apartment in Greenpoint you could look out over the East River and see all the towers and stuff, but now there’s a high-rise exactly where we used to be.”
Guez said that she’s actually somewhat relieved to be located in South Slope, where she doesn’t have to witness the rapid transformation happening farther north. However both of her films focus not on her own misfortune (which was relatively benign), but the comparably much graver situation faced by the elderly and others who’ve lived here for long enough to have family ties that run deep. “I do have a really strong affinity for Greenpoint, it was really hard to watch it change,” she said. “The Greenpoint that I wrote my feature script about barely exists anymore.”
“Behind the Wall” will screen Thursday, July 14, 7 pm at the Triskelion Arts Dance Film Festival, Muriel Schulman Theater, 106 Calyer Street, Greenpoint.