Now starting its 16th year, the Rooftop Film Summer Series kicked off last Friday and continues through mid-August. In the words of founder and artistic director Mark Elijah Rosenberg, the series brings "underground movies outdoors" with their curated mix of non-traditional venues and a selection that brings together independent features alongside short films, documentaries and fiction films, American and international, and films with and without distribution.
Putting together the programs along with finding suitable venues is a process Rosenberg likens to "a cross between writing an essay and being a DJ." The first screening was a program called "This Is What We Mean By Short Films" at one of the series' signature venues, the Open Road Rooftop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Saturday night featured a screening of the indie drama "Think Of Me," starring Lauren Ambrose, at the same venue.
"I think one of the really special things about Rooftop is that it's different from just going to a movie in a movie theater or even at most festivals," said Rosenberg. "A different venue is paired specially to the film with live music beforehand, filmmaker Q&As, an after party that everyone is invited to. Every screening is unique."
This year's program contains a strong selection of films that have been making their way around the festival circuit, including "An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty," "Fat Kid Rules The World," "Gayby," "Welcome To Pine Hill," "Grandma Lo-Fi," "The Imposter," "Kid-Thing," "Kumare," "Heavy Girls," "Sun Don’t Shine," "The Comedy," "The Sheik And I" and "Detropia."
Some audience members even take on the event-oriented aspect of the screenings as a way of rolling the dice on something they might not be willing to check out in a more traditional screening set-up.
"If you’re sitting outside and you attention does wander you're not cooped up in a theater wondering, 'How much longer do I have to be here?'" said Rosenberg. "You’re outside and it’s a beautiful night. I think many films benefit from the interaction with the night sky and the lights of the city… from not being in a generic black box."
Rosenberg is particularly excited about the use again this year of The Brooklyn Grange, no mere flower garden but a fully-working rooftop farm in Queens, where viewers will be sitting amidst the rows of crops for a program of nature-themed shorts on August 5. New venues this year include MetroTech Commons and the Dekalb Market, both in Brooklyn. The Dekalb Market is constructed from salvaged shipping containers, and Rosenberg thinks the venue will fit well with Rooftop.
"One of the missions of Rooftop is always to revitalize spaces," he said, "to think environmentally and conscientiously about that as much as we can. The idea of using discarded industrial materials is an exciting place for us to be doing screenings."
Among some of the more community-based screenings will be a showing of "Brooklyn Castle," Katie Dellamaggiore’s doc about a local middle school producing chess champions and "Inocente," directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. "Inocente," about a homeless teenage girl who finds her way through art, will be presented as a series of screenings paired with art workshops for young and old alike.
"We want to have a mix of genres, styles, subject matter, filmmakers," said Rosenberg. "New York City is so diverse, and one of our missions is to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, community to community to show films that are of interest to different people."
Rosenberg makes special note of two screenings at another of the series' signature venues, The Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn. "The Waiting Room," a documentary on health care activism directed by Peter Nicks, and "Bovines," a wordless look at the world of cows directed by Emmanuel Gras, are both films that should engage audiences looking for a unique experience.
"People come to Rooftop for the experience," said Rosenberg. "Just watching a movie outdoors with live music and the social atmosphere of it is a different experience. We want to go even further and really engage people in a way they might not if they saw the film on DVD or even in a theater."
All told there will be nearly 50 events as part of Rooftop's Summer Series, and the organization assists other groups in producing a substantial number of the outdoor screenings around the city as well. While he is careful never to diminish the importance of the selected films themselves, Roseneberg stresses that the Rooftop Films Summer Series is in the end about more than just movies.
"Sitting in a dark room with your one friend, you could be in any theater in the world," he said, "and 90 minutes later you're not any more in touch with the people around you or the people onscreen than you were when you came to the theater. Every Rooftop screening provides a communal environment and that interactivity. Whenever we can we want to push that even further."