BAMCinemafest ’19 Interview: Ben Garchar on the Changes Coming in “Neighborhood”

Often lifetimes can be condensed into a single cut through the magic of film, but Ben Garchar wondered if the opposite could be true in making “Neighborhood,” a wondrous short making its debut this weekend not far from where it was filmed at the BAMCinemafest in Brooklyn, New York. Like many around the country who are seeing the local flavor of their streets suddenly overtaken by homogenous chains and the influx of wealthy new tenants displacing those who have been in the area for generations, Garchar began to wonder about the rapid evolution around him and how best to capture that often subtle process unfold onscreen when he thought of the journey of a discarded beer can from a busy dance hall, still shiny and new even as it’s crushed and thrown into the trash, making its way to the loneliness of the local recycling center where presumably it’ll be reborn.

“That can to can cut – that was the inception of the film to me,” says Garchar, who needs not explain much else with the judicious editing that juxtaposes the two ends of one life spectrum and serves as an opportunity to tap into multiple veins within a community that grows and changes as any living organism would.

There’s a restlessness that becomes propulsive in “Neighborhood” when Garchar contrasts the panoramic views of the city when it’s being used as a public space while honing in on the lives of three locals who have created their own private worlds outside the hustle and bustle. Tucked into the buildings that people pass by on a daily basis, the filmmaker sneaks into the homes of Pucho, who keeps a roost for pigeons atop his apartment building, Gabino, whose basement contains a reserve of spirits that can only obtained from his native Puerto Rico, and Lindsay, a webcam model who has cultivated a fanbase for an unusual fetish, to find entire universes just simmering beneath the surface. Although their individuality stands out, the trio’s distinctive personalities and abodes reflect contributions to the collective experience that may be often unacknowledged and immediately imperceptible, but add up over time and in just 14 minutes, the film marvelously makes this chrysalis visible in all its intricacies from the energy that emerges from what people can build in their own spaces to the emptiness that accompanies the increasingly impersonal urban environments that are being erected left and right.

Shortly before the film’s premiere, Garchar spoke about making a triumphant return to BAMCinemafest where just last year he attended the debut of “Feast of the Epiphany,” which he worked on as an editor, and how he refined the ideas for “Neighborhood” over the past two-and-a-half years into something concise but expansive and ultimately quite memorable. [Update: The film is now streaming and can be watched right here below.]

Neighborhood from Ben Garchar on Vimeo.

How did this come about?

It came about really from a sense of internal conflict — of living in this place, being on the same block for three years, and when I first moved in, it was half-empty lots and by the time I moved, those lots had been developed into luxury apartment buildings. As a transplant, I was wrestling with not my direct role in that, but [knowing] this is one of the reasons why these things is happening, so I wanted to delve into those questions and explore that on a macro level here in the neighborhood of Bushwick and [how it] also applies to neighborhood and cities across the country and across the world as we try and make decisions on how we expand and progress and grow. Initially, I was going to try to make something that was more of a visual journey, which is the second half of the film [is more like] – something “Koyaanisqatsi”- esque, but ultimately, it felt like it wasn’t enough, so I went through the process of trying to find the right people to speak about different aspects and generations in the neighborhood.

How did you gravitate towards these three subjects?

I have to credit Jeff Johnson, who shot the movie and is also the producer. I was able to find some people, but they didn’t quite work in the context of the film and Gabino was someone [Jeff] had lived next to for a number of years, and through that connection, we were able to connect with Pucho, the guy on the roof with the pigeons. And then Lindsay was an Instagram find. She’s done a lot of artwork about her experiences in Bushwick, so that was a good find.

Did anything happen that changed your ideas of what this could be?

The whole film was an evolving target as it went along. I always had this kernel that I wanted to explore [is] this impermanence, but how I got there was really informed by walking around and observing things changing. One example is when we found Gabino and [during] his interview, he said something [about how] he went back to his father’s farm in Puerto Rico and after many years, he noticed there was a big rock that’s become smaller because of the rain. That to me spoke volumes about passage of time and change and impermanence and I wasn’t really sure how to end the film until after we did that interview.

It’s shot with beautiful, wide lensing – how did you figure out what this would look like?

It’s all based on trying to capture reality as accurately as possible, at least to my eye. When I look through my eyes at the world, I see a 2.35 frame, and then a lot of the movie was shot with a 50mm lens, which is a regular lens that replicates closely what the eye can see. It came down to picking fast lenses and a camera that was sensitive to low light so we can try and replicate what we see and feel when we walk through this neighborhood.

In general, was it difficult getting a camera into some of these tight spaces? Gabino’s basement also looks difficult to get a camera inside.

Yeah, since Jeff lived next to him for a number of years, he had known about that space, so I let him take the lead on that and how to navigate around all that wonderful stuff that’s in his basement. But that was a complete surprise to me. New York apartments are just kind of small, so in that case, sometimes you have to throw in a wider lens, but we did try and stay with that 50mm as much as possible. All of Gabino’s stuff was that 50mm lens.

It was also impressive how you went about filming Lindsay – was it difficult to portray what she does as a webcam model without being exploitative?

That was definitely in talking with her and talking with Jeff, who shot that [about] trying not to be explicit about it. The film is different than the webcam space, and it’s not that I have anything against showing explicit things, but they’re different realms, so you can meet Lindsay in that way in the web space — she would love that. But they’re two different things, and a lot of it is editing too, just picking the things that show enough, but not too much.

In terms of editing, did the rhythm of this come naturally, putting these individual portraits in the context of the larger community with these transitions showcasing the environment?

Yeah, it’s one of those things that just happens when you live with the footage and watch it and think about it and find these like moments that you can put together to transition in cool and exciting ways. That’s one of my favorite things to do – a dance that is happening, like a religious ceremony and people are putting their hands up in the air hearkens to people going out on a Saturday night, each celebrating in their own way. The cans thing- that was something I intended to do, but other things, you just live with the material and as you learn more and more about what the film is as you put it together, you find these transition moments that work nicely.

With a short, are you able to live with this for a while?

For a while, yeah. I wasn’t constantly working on it, but it was two-and-a-half years from start to finish. A lot of that was just taking some time to find the characters. It was probably just a couple months of putting feelers out and trying to find the right people to be in the film, so that in combination with life happening and going out and shooting and watching the footage [took time]. I initially wanted to film it all in one summer and finish it a couple months later, but that never happens. [laughs] But ultimately, I think it’s better because I had that time to think and ruminate about it.

What’s it like getting to the finish line and screening it at the BAMCinemafest?

Really cool. It’s beyond humbling and I’m grateful. As far as I know everyone’s going to be there – Lindsay and Gabino and Pucho – and also a woman named Anna, who runs the Sure We Can Recycling Center [where we filmed]. So it’s nice that a lot of people are going to be able to come and see it and you know, it’s BAM. It’s the best venue in Brooklyn for a film about Brooklyn. I couldn’t be happier to show it to the hometown crowd.

“Neighborhood” will screen at BAMCinemafest as part of the Documentary Shorts Program on June 22nd at the BAM Rose Cinemas in the Peter Jay Sharp Building in Brooklyn.

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