“If These Knishes” and other Great Docs in the Brooklyn Film Festival

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Really loved the documentary shorts I saw last night in the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival. 

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Into Noise was a lovely, elegaic and thought provoking short by Janna Kyllastinen who contrasts New York’s noise pollution with the quiet of her native Finland ( meeting them both in the middle in the almost-vanished “Fintown” neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen.)

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Screw You, Bloomberg Gardens was Ilja Willems’ delightful portrait of feisty and fierce Audrey Silk, founder of NYC C.L.A.S.H., the smokers’ rights organization. (As it happens the two ladies were sitting right in front of me). A 20 year (retired) veteran of the NYPD, Silk is now into civil disobedience, smoking in public parks, and growing her own tobacco so she doesn’t have to pay the high cigarette taxes. The audience loved her and they loved the film. Very few people (including smokers themselves) are under some illusion that smoking is a good thing. But having the freedom to choose what to do with your own body is ultimately even a better thing. The ultimate, logical conclusion of Bloomberg’s recent regulatory frenzy is Big Brother determining EVERYTHING we’re allowed to put into our bodies. I applaud Ms. Silk and her efforts. She’s a Libertarian Hero. Only…she shouldn’t smoke so much.

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And best of all was the movie I was there to see, Heather Quinlan’s If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent.  She has been working on this labor of love ever since I’ve known her (at least four years) and she had to have been at it long before that. That’s a lot of build up, but far from being let down, she exceeds all expectations. I shall be very shocked if this film isn’t some sort of phenomenon, if it doesn’t win awards, gain her national attention. Her relentless investigation of the subject covers every conceivable base: from experts like linguists, historians and speech pathologists…to nitty gritty New Yorkers from all walks of life and every imaginable ethnicity…to well known native New York celebrities like Penny Marshall, Pete Hamill, Pat Cooper, Alan Dershowitz, Charlie Rangel, Amy Heckerling, and James McBride. 

As you can imagine, the common denominator amongst all this diversity is New York attitude, toughness, bluntness and humor. The title (which I’ve never been crazy about) makes more sense when you learn its source in the movie. Alan Dershowitz says, “If knishes could talk they would have a Brooklyn accent.” We learn that African American Charlie Rangel talks the way he talks because he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. A kitchen full of Italians kibbitzes around a table — one of them says, “Hey! If you don’t like the way I talk, fuck you!” (There’s your pull quote for the poster). We meet such interesting people.  Two garbagemen: a Korean from Staten Island, and an Irishman from the Rockaways who is studying Gaelic on a Fullbright. And our own Michele Carlo carries the agua for the Puerto Ricans. Quinlan even takes us down to New Orleans to meet two guys who have a remarkably similar accent to the New Yorkers — similar history, same ethnic groups merging.

And in the last act, she gives us the changing city as it is today: gentrification, with the poor and working class being pushed out, and the extreme likelihood that the accent will be gone in a couple of generations. As in her previous short O Brooklyn, My Brooklyn, one walks away with reverence for Quinlan’s wicked sense of humor, but the OVER-RIDING takeaway is her immense love for this city and its people. She is an artist of the first water. Her poetic populism appeals to the sentimental vaudevillian in me, and frankly make me bawl with happiness, which is why I sat in the back row. It resonated big time with the audience last night, and it’s already got her massive attention from NY-1, NPR, New York Times, Wall Street Journal etc etc. I envision  the city’s Dept of Tourism screening this and selling the DVDs in Times Square. I really don’t think I’m getting carried away.

At any rate, I just heard they’re screening it at the festival again Saturday May 18 (since it sold out last night) and then it will be at the Quad on June 21. Support this film!!!

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