New Yorkers are lucky to have one of the strongest public television stations in the country. Where the rest of the nation calls it PBS, we know it as Channel 13, and for more than a dozen years, it has hosted some of the most cutting edge filmmaking for, by and about New Yorkers, during the annual Reel New York Film Festival, currently a month into its 13th season at the difficult hour of 12:30 AM on Friday nights. Thank God for DVR.
"We've been going strong for 13 years now," says curator/producer Duana Butler, "and the response keeps getting better. A lot of New York filmmakers tell us, "I grew up with Channel 13, I've got to have my film on there.' When I ask a distributor for one film, they try to get me to take even more -- they're getting turned onto Reel New York, which plays a type of film which used to get played and no longer does."
The type of film Butler refers to is hard to define, yet unmistakably familiar. "We're so specific to New York and its independent spirit," says Butler. "Most broadcast programs only show narrative films, maybe some docs, but we have a program that's so strongly experimental, it really pushes the edge."
"There used to be a lot more avant-garde film and video work exhibited throughout New York," says Butler, "but as independent film has taken off, a lot more focus is placed on narrative film. The experimental filmmakers are still out there, but there are far less outlets for their work to be seen... Our founders thought it was important for these films to be on television, where they will reach much larger audiences than they would in the festival circuit. On any given night on Reel New York, so many new people will be exposed to their work."
To complement this avant-garde sensibility, the subjects of many of the series' films are artists whose work is shaped by the city. This Friday, July 25th, Reel New York will be presenting the broadcast premiere of the new film by master documentarian Al Maysles and collaborator Kristin Nutile, "Sally Gross: The Pleasure of Stillness," a minimalist portrait of the minimalist dancer. "We're excited about Sally Gross," says Butler. "It starts as a portrait of this one dancer, and ends up examining the history of experimental dance and the Judson Church, and the whole New York beat movement back in the 1950s. It's really fascinating."
Next Friday, the series will be closing with a number of shorts, with a spotlight on Seth Lind's "Barbara Leather," a visit with New York sandlemaker Barbara Shaum, who discusses her various trade experiences. The program also contains a work by Dorothy Braemer, "10 Documentaries about My Childhood Home." Says Butler, "Braemer is really a rising star. This work is a collection of one minute quirky documentaries about her and her sisters trying to move out of their mother's home. It's really terrific, but it wouldn't have any other place on television today."
This season has seen a number of other films about artists, as in season opener Heather Lyn Macdonald's "Been Rich All My Life," a look at the "Silver Belles" chorus line from Harlem's golden age, who made their name at the Cotton Club and the Apollo and are still dancing today; or in Douglas J. Sloan's "William Klein: Out of Necessity," a rare interview with the groundbreaking photographer, a New York-to-Paris transplant.
Of course, not all of the films are about artists. "We really try to represent the New York experience," says Butler, "and like the city, our filmmakers run the gambit of gender, and cultural background, and age." Thus the program has room for a film like "Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story," co-directed by high schoolers Terrence Fisher and Daniel Howard together with a large crew of young people in reaction to the killing of one of their friends by an NYC police officer; the film won a Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. There is room for Michael Blackwood's "Broadway Express," a 1962 black and white jazz-fueled ode to the subway, or Isold Uggadottir's "Family Reunion," in which a young woman contemplates coming out to her family during her grandfather's 70th birthday. There is even room for a Sonic Youth music video, the song "Do You Believe In Rapture?"
"When you see this work," says Butler, "you remember that everyone has fantasies of New York. Whether they're here or not, in some way they're striving to New York. People are endlessly impressed with the energy and spirit of the place. We love to show the different parts of the city, from neighborhoods, to unique personalities, to stories that would only happen in New York, and nowhere else. All of the things that remind us why we love to live here."