BookMan to Doc-Director, Jason Rosette's "Bookwars"
by Michelle Handelman
A former bookseller aka BookMan on the streets of New York, first-time feature filmmaker Jason Rosette never intended to make a documentary. He was content “dealing with books and the people — without getting hassled by The Man.” But after bringing a videocamera with him to the table one day, and with a little encouragement from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Michel Negroponte (“Jupiter’s Wife,” “WISOR“), “Bookwars” — a gritty look at the travails of New York City booksellers — became Rosette’s life’s work for over 4 years.
Among the wild assortment of Rosette’s compatriots — from bibliophiles, bums, thieves, con-men, and scholars — there’s Pete Whitney, an accomplished collage artist and sculptor, as well as an avid collector of toads; Rick Sherman, perfecter of The Anti-Sell; Polish Joe, smoker-of-one-hundred-cigarettes; and Marvin, a God-fearing man always in a black hat. (More info on the booksellers and Rosette’s background are available on the “Bookwars” website: http://www.camerado.com>).
Before winning Best Documentary at the New York Underground Film Fest, “Bookwars” was scheduled for a two-week run at New York’s Cinema Village, where it can currently be seen. Just days after its premiere, filmmaker-artist Michelle Handelman spoke to Rosette about his collaboration with Negroponte, distribution and shunning the festival circuit, and unintentional activism. [Anthony Kaufman]
indieWIRE: You were a bookseller for three years before making this film. Since you approached it from an insider’s perspective rather than an outsider’s ethnographic perspective, what do you think that brought to the film?
Jason Rosette: It made it possible to shoot it. The nature of these guys is that they’re inherently suspicious of outsiders and the system. Not that they’re anti-social, but they’re fiercely independent. That’s why they’re doing this; they’re leading autonomous lives as much as they can. And they want to stay that way. So when it came to shooting, it was not that I was an ethnographer who I gained the trust of my subjects, I was just out there already and I brought the camera to the table. And consequently, in the beginning, it was just like home movies, a very loose document, and accumulating footage, cracking jokes and hanging out.
iW: It seems quite serendipitous that Michel Negroponte just happened across your bookstand and suggested you make this film and then he’s on board as a producer. How did your relationship develop? What was his role?
Rosette: I kept running into him over the years. Then further on down the line, I was set up on the bookstand and it was like, there he was again. By that time, I had already been bringing the videocamera to the table for my own purposes. It hadn’t reached the aspiration of becoming a documentary. But when he happened by, and we started talking about it, from that point on, I entered into it with a different state of mind. I also didn’t have the experience. Michel remained a mentor figure; this is pre-desktop Final Cut Pro. This was back in ’96; I made the first assembly edit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Even then, I sent him the assembly to get his feedback, so it was always back and forth, helping shape ideas. But his input was more of a sounding board. It was a casual thing. But he did help me to produce it; he put me in touch with the commissioning editor at Arte and they purchased the film and have already broadcast the hour-long version for France and Germany.
iW: Do you think it would have been different if you hadn’t been affiliated with him?
Rosette: Sure, it would have existed, but it wouldn’t have been as solid. I would not have had those connections that resulted in the Arte broadcast or a regional cable sale. He was definitely instrumental. What else can you do, really? If you’re making a film and you don’t have any experience, you should couple yourself with somebody who has the experience and is on some congruent wavelength as you. But it was more than that. He generally loves documentaries. And I cannot say the same for myself. I liked documentaries, but I’m not certain if it’s my life to make documentaries. As far as the concrete things, I edited it virtually all myself, showing it in various open screenings and roughcut screenings at Anthology Film Archives and Film Arts Foundation to get feedback. At one point, I hired an editor on a deferred basis for a week, and that was to help get an objective point of view. Michel was also helpful in putting me in touch with Doug Block and Deborah Rosenberg, he made “Home Page” and she’s the editor of “Home Page” and they graciously let me use the equipment on a deferred basis. But I would have finished it, anyway. It just would have been different and probably not quite as cogent.
iW: Most new filmmakers let their films play the festival circuit to garner attention and a distribution deal, but you decided to circumvent the festival route altogether. Why did you choose to do that?
Rosette: It seems easy to get lost on that circuit and you can play and play and play, and there are so many festivals and I suspected that if we were playing at many different festivals, we might have burnt out audiences that might come to see it later. Also, we did not get into Sundance, Slamdance or SXSW, those were the three that I applied to, and at that point, I realized to turn back to Plan B: realizing it was a New York picture, to just try to get it exhibited in New York. To go straight for the goal. Not in a four wall situation, but I contacted Ed Arentz at Cinema Village, and he saw that there was potential to exhibit it, and we did conclude that prior to the New York Underground. The very day I said I’m going to give up on the festivals, Ed Halter of the New York Underground invited me to the festival, and I thought it seemed like a suitable launching pad in conjunction with the theatrical release at the Cinema Village, in terms of generating publicity for the picture.
iW: Who’s the company handling distribution now?
Rosette: Avatar Films. Now this is an interesting relationship, because Avatar was originally limited to foreign TV sales, but it became apparent as we were underway with the new connection at Cinema Village, that in some way it’s necessary to have a distributor. You can do the publicity and the liaising with the exhibitor, but it’s nice to have someone onboard, so we agreed to expand our collaboration for the New York launch and if this was successful, then we would continue expanding. So it was a gradual expansion of the role — in no case was it giving the distributor everything from the very beginning. And it was done in a very accessible fashion. They’re a small, boutique distribution company; they’re able to return my calls. We have a very, fast, aggressive approach to making things happen at this critical stage, the New York release.
iW: Have the characters in the film seen the final cut?
Rosette: A lot of them have seen it the whole way through, never ceasing to get a kick out of it. Most are very pleased with it. A couple were upset that they were not figured more prominently. But you know, it’s not an objective journalistic documentary. It’s kind of like one of those posters you see that show New York City really big and China really small. The characters in the film that figured more prominently just happened to be selling on my stretch of turf.
iW: Do you see “Bookwars” as an activist film? Do you think film can perform that function?
Rosette: Maybe, it can. But not for me. My personal opinion is that art and politics don’t mix very well. It seems like when you set out to make some polemical piece, it becomes very rigid and is laden with one attitude. It doesn’t breathe. The film is political because of what happened out there [The Guiliani administration’s “Quality of Life” program ordered the booksellers off the streets]. I didn’t set out to make a political film. I don’t think it is a political piece. I set out to explore these characters and part of what occurred in their day-to-day lives, particularly during the crack-down era, was political by nature: individual verses the System, the Man cannot take our books.
iW: So I think it’s interesting that the completion of this film coincided with your finishing your life as a bookseller . . .
Rosette: Although I was selling recently… I was back on street waiting for the Arte money to come through. I spent every fucking last dime on the mix and there was no money. And I went to visit my secret source Upstate and she was there and the place had not been picked through, so we got a lot of great books, and I’ve been back on the street. But it’s not in the same way; it’s not a way of life.
iW: So do you feel independent filmmaking can be used in a way to shape your own life?
Rosette: Sure. What’s the motivation of making a movie like this? It’s certainly not the big bucks. I’m not rolling in dough. I didn’t have an agenda. This idea just came through me, this idea, to put it together was not really a rational act. Maybe you’ll learn something years later when you look back and you’ll have achieved some objectivity. I’m new. I don’t have many films under my belt, but it’s already happened where I look back on old shorts and say, wow, that’s what that was all about. So yeah, it’s like an archive of the soul.
[Michelle Handelman is the director of “BloodSisters,” a feature documentary on the leatherdyke scene, now available on video. She is also a professor at the New School and will be performing a new video surveillance piece on June 24 at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art.]