They say you can’t fight City Hall, but you wouldn’t know it watching Battle for Brooklyn (trailer here). There’s so much sparring in Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s new documentary about New York’s Atlantic Yards project that you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a screening of The Fighter . The opposing sides — the project developer, Forest City Ratner, and a grassroots organization that wants to sink said project, Develop Don’t Destroy — canvas, rally, plot, meet, speak, and, yes, battle over what city councilwoman Letitia James calls “the soul of Brooklyn.” It’s a credit to the filmmakers that Battle for Brooklyn convinces you they’re fighting for even more than that.
Following community members who stand up against the flashy new development, the film emerges as a great work of advocacy journalism. It amasses maps, interviews, archival footage, voiceovers, renderings, and still photographs to expose an issue and bring it to life. As the information piles up, it becomes damning: Forest City Ratner is given public money for buyouts, which come with a gag order; the eminent domain appraisal is a low-ball offer; those blocks not bought out are shadily designated “blighted.”
That the film is not completely “balanced” is moot: who says the news has to be, or even could be? Whatever your feelings of affection or hatred for Brooklyn and New York, for basketball and the Nets, for housing, jobs, and tourists, this film makes its point: Atlantic Yards using eminent domain is the sort of precedent that could change how development happens in this country, wherever you live.
“I’m not much of a patriot, but it’s un-American,” says face of the opposition Daniel Goldstein (pictured above), who lives in the area to be razed, about the way in which corporate greed has superseded individual rights. But then he corrects himself: “No, maybe it is American. What [Ratner’s] doing, it seems to be the American way.” And for all the catcalling and flaring tempers, the claims and counterclaims of flyers, conferences, church meetings, and press releases, the film captures a valiant effort to take back “the American way” and make it what it should be. Whatever side you’re on, whatever the outcome when the project is finally complete, it’s inspiring to see Americans put a lie to the suggestion that they are apathetic, self-obsessed, greedy, fat, and stupid. Watching Battle for Brooklyn , my only wish was that I could say the same thing about the politicians who run the place.
Darwin, California (pop. 35) doesn’t have a City Hall to fight, or politicians to run it. Even the self-styled unofficial “mayor,” says Monty, a resident and former miner, “was like everybody else. She died.” Saying this, Monty sports a handlebar mustache, thick black suspenders, and a canary yellow shirt with the words “Wild West” emblazoned across the front. Like everyone else in Darwin, he’s a character. You have Hank and Connie, paganist tour guides on their fifth and fourth marriages, respectively; Ryal, their transgender son, and his tarot-reading girlfriend Penny; neighbors include a survivalist, a nudist, and a postal worker. If California were tipped on its side, Darwin’s where the loose bits would end up.
Darwin (trailer below), director Nick Brandestini’s searching, honest depiction of this fucked-up Death Valley hamlet, homes in on another quintessentially American way of doing things: making a run for it. At the far end of cracked roads and heat haze, parched earth and low-slung vegetation, Darwin is a paradox — a town whose inhabitants hide from the past (deaths, disagreements, divorces, drugs) as though it were a monster, and in which the past is omnipresent. Brandestini’s film is not unsympathetic, but for that its candor is all the more chilling. The wind chimes tinkle incessantly, as though haunted, and the unending horizon begins to feel like a trap. “That’s one thing we don’t talk about too much,” Monty tells us, referring to the reasons people stay in Darwin: we like our secrets around here, and don’t you forget it.
It would be easy to say that Darwin doesn’t amount to much — it’s not a narrative so much as a group portrait. Some formal touches, like an awkward coupling of slow motion and voiceover, are awful enough to wake you from reverie. But generally the style of the film serves the place well. In Darwin, the same stories are told, the same grudges held, by the same people who’ve been telling and holding them all along. This is a town, still, of gunslingers and water board bickerers, of hippies, and artists, drifters and drinkers, grandstanders, prophets, addicts. Monty’s shirt is on to something: Darwin really is a Wild West, always about to become a ghost town. From what I could tell watching Darwin , it already is.
Battle for Brooklyn and Darwin open in Los Angeles Friday, August 19.
Photo credits: Battle for Brooklyn stills by Tracy Collins, courtesy Rumur, Inc.; Darwin still and trailer courtesy Nick Brandestini, darwindoc.com