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_Interview with Christopher Allen

UnionDocs director Christopher Allen discusses the motivation and process behind the organization’s cross-platform documentary project, “Living Los Sures.”

Living Los Sures  is a multimedia, expansive documentary project that responds to Diego Echeverria’s 1984 documentary Los Sures, a cinema vérité portrait of South Williamsburg, New York, and the largely Puerto Rican and Dominican communities that lived there. Produced over five years by 60 artists at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Arts in Williamsburg, the project includes an interactive documentary, a collection of short films that look at how the neighborhood has changed, and a “cinematic people’s history” in the form of a shot-by-shot analysis of the film by its subjects and local community members.

Open Doc Lab Research Assistant Sara Rafsky discussed the project with UnionDocs Founder and Executive Artistic Director, Christopher Allen.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity

                                    Image courtesy of UnionDocs

Sara: What was the genesis of the Living Los Sures project?

Christopher: We came across the film in the early days of UnionDocs. Some other artists who were actually contemporaries of Diego and knew about it mentioned to us that there was this project about the south side of Williamsburg where we had been situated since we started, and wondered if we had heard about it. The film was pretty unknown at that time, so we hadn’t heard about it, and they got us a VHS copy.

This was probably 2007. Then in 2010, when I was starting to think about what the next focus for the Collaborative Studio [residency program] would be, it became clear that that film offered a lot of possibilities as a starting point for a series of projects. And so in a pretty humble way, we just started studying that film in greater depth and using it as a starting point to work with the Collaborative Fellows. And then the project evolved over five years and grew in scope and ambition but was always kind of related to the discovery of the original. We applied to a few interactive pitching forms at hackathons, including the first POV hackathon and Tribeca and HotDocs, and began to develop some of the ideas behind the interactive work.

Each part evolved kind of independently. Shot-by-shot was a reaction to the very obvious way in which showing the film to people who had experienced that history and lived in the neighborhood during the time of the film … not only were they able to identify so much of the detail in sort of the margins of the frame from people, places and things, and sights in the background, but also it returned this flood of memories to them. We would get overwhelmed after screenings with conversations with people about things that it sparked. Also, it was very emotional for a lot of people to experience.

I guess there was an intention in the project for it to address one of the strongest forms of segregation that we found in the neighborhood, operating in the early 2000s, which was the segregation of newer residents from longer term residents and thought that in many ways, a form of reciprocity in the project could be building an archive assembled of other stories that relate to this history. There was an obvious need for that, so the question was just how it would form. Earlier iterations of that were in a kind of database driven model where we thought we would just collect all these stories and kind of roughly attach them to the narrative as annotations and references.

And that model sort of stayed with us for a while, even as we went out and started really doing the serious, real, tough work of actually collecting all the stories and doing the interviews, and we went through a number of different iterations of how we did that.

Sara: How did you find the subjects?

Christopher: So we’re here in Southside, and we are connected to a lot of the long-term community based organizations here like El Puente, Southside United HDFC, Nuestros Niños and St. Nicks Alliance. So these places were starting points, and then we also had just done a lot of activities and actions in the neighborhood. This is just sort of midway through the project that we started getting more serious about this. So from screenings, and we’ve gotten mail lists and met people that way, and had been keeping a log of people who came up to us.

There is a corner building down here that was vacant that we took over for about two weeks and projected images from “Los Sures” into it, and kind of had this sort of social hours in the evening where anybody could … It was like an open gallery kind of space. And we called it Los Sures Organizing Space, and just invited anyone from the community who was intrigued by the images being projected at the windows to pop in and talk to us. And that way we actually met a ton of people at the start, and then each of those people would introduce us to other people, and that kind of thing. It’s a very tight-knit community and the more organic pathways were the most productive we found. We also ended up bringing together a good audience on a Facebook page and being able to also get to people through different groups on Facebook.

We’d release a small clip of Los Sures and it’d get shared 400 times and there’d be 400 comments on it. We focused first on the people who were still living here and less on the diaspora from this neighborhood, because this project is really about celebrating the continuity of the neighborhood and the resilience and strength of the community, more than a nostalgic look at the past, exclusively. Although, of course, there’s definitely a whole bunch of nostalgia in the piece.

Early on, we did interviews with people where we’d just find a group and watch it with them, invite them here, watch the film, then have a conversation afterwards. But we didn’t get that much good material from that. You might get a few key moments, but they weren’t located at a single point in the narrative. It was hard to locate them sometimes. After the film’s over, it’s harder to remember all the emotions and things that came through.

So then we tried to watch it just with one person, and then we watched it with one person and sort of started and stopped and asked questions in the middle.  Bu these were very time-consuming and tricky. And then eventually, we realized that the shot as a unit for this project was really exciting. For the interviews it was exciting because it offered a way of breaking down the project, and we could sit down with a handful of shots, maybe a dozen shots that hadn’t been responded to yet or that had particular relevance to this person’s history. Like we think, okay, this is someone who ran a bakery, so maybe these shots might be interesting to them. They might have something specific to say about that.

So we’d prep that and then we could go in and just show that shot, which would be very brief, and then we’d let it loop silently in front of them and then we didn’t even have to ask a question. It’d just be like, “so what’s there? What does this make you think of?” Because it was repeating, they could see more details and were more attentive and it’s clear where you’re going to place this in the narrative. So on the collection side, that was very useful.

And then on the design side, we were able to think about attaching all these stories to a single shot and then designing for an experience. You still have a database model, to some extent, where you could jump anywhere in the film if you’d like to, but that once you’re in a shot that actually mattered… you would then be introduced to a series of stories and images and videos [related to what was shown in that shot].

So then we went into sort of a more scroll-based model. But that then implied a whole bunch of new editorial work for us, to decide what’s going to be the right order for these things. [For example] this shot seems to be about the relationship between the police and the neighborhood. And then we could almost treat it as a kind of form for memories about that moment and sort of organize things in a way that made sense to us.

And it’s something that can kind of grow, and we’re hoping to do more with it. And I feel like it’s one of the richest parts of the project. It makes watching the film kind of like a psychedelic experience, because there are so many references and other stories that are contained by it.

Sara: Is it every shot in the film?

Christopher: Yes, 326 shots. And they’re all available, so you could actually watch the whole film. It would be very laborious to do that.

Sara: What is the distribution model in terms of showing it to the community?

Christopher: We have always done a lot of events locally, especially events in the summer. We love to use the handball courts as a screening room in public parks, and that works really well. We did five temple events, which had 500 or more people involved. And then probably two dozen smaller events. And maybe another two dozen really small events over those five years. We’re still doing stuff.

Most of the events are outside of the UnionDocs space, because I think that it was always more effective to meet people where they are most comfortable.

[The shot-by-shot part] works as a kind of oral history project, so we can have it be projected before a screening. We’ve had it set up as an installation and it just sort of cycles.

Sara: How many stories ultimately were collected?

Christopher: There’s 500 right now that we call stories, that may just be like a two-sentence thing and some of them are much more extensive. We interviewed I think, about 150 people and we’re adding people.

Sara: Is this project ever over?

Christopher: No, I don’t think it needs to be over. It’s a resource, we think of it more as like a museum. We work with high school students because shot by shot gives you a really good template to investigate the past, have conversations, introduce concepts in documentary, and oral history and that kind of thing.

Sara: What kind of tools did you use to build it?

Christopher: It is a WordPress back end, so we wanted to do something that was super simple and that we could teach people.

And then it was basically a fancy JavaScript front end and an intermediary that just pulls everything out of the database and kind of translates it into this front end experience that can be very seamless and works well with different sizes and is responsive.

And we created a few custom tools to be able to use Google street view as a camera to mimic the angles of the film once we had identified every exterior location in the film. We worked with a young women who is an aspiring documentary film maker, who grew up in the neighborhood and was able to find all those places pretty quickly, 200 and some locations.

There were a couple of other things like an x-y coordinate identifier, where you just highlight a piece of the frame that you want a circle to be drawn around at some point. A few little small things like that … really it was like defining a syntax of what are the categories that this content is coming to us in and what do we need to provide to be able to display it well.

Sara: What about the other two components of the project? The 89 steps interactive documentary and the short films?

Christopher: There’s a total of 40 shorts. They are made in batches of about 8 every year with different collaborative fellows.  And so we go through a ten-month process working with them, to do group research, come up with project proposals, build teams and then develop the projects, produce them and fine tune then over the course of 10 months.  And then we help those to get out to the world and get them into festivals and sometimes we pitch them as programs on their own.

We really encouraged a broad variety of topics and aesthetic approaches.  And it was really a collaboration with 72 different fellows who were then also collaborating among themselves during five years and responding to the previous work.

They’ve been installed in museums and galleries and then we’ve done a lot to get them out to top notch festivals, and often screened alongside the feature film.

For “89 Steps” [the interactive documentary] we had met Marta who is the main character in the film, one of the protagonists. In the film she appears as a single mother of five, living on welfare. We reconnected with her and found her at a very delicate moment where she was thinking about leaving the neighborhood.

Sara: How did you find her?

Christopher: We actually found her by taking her picture from 30 years ago out and walking around with it, and we found it at the first Bodega that we went to. We talked to the guy behind the counter and he was like, “Oh yeah, Marta”. After months and months of thinking of ways of doing it and trying to do it through email, we walked across the street and got it done.

We wanted to tell and capture her story and update it. She’s a woman in her 60s, living alone. It’s really about her memory and we wanted to do something that would be more compelling than we thought that story would appear in a short documentary about her.

We wanted to lend some attention to Marta’s incredible story telling abilities and collaborate with her on that. I had some things I wanted to try out in terms of a model for a flow which incorporated moments of linearity but also incorporated different moments of interface challenges and a narrative that could be built up ambiently. I had an idea about her voice being an omniscient narrator that was aware of where you were in the narration and responded to you in a natural way. Almost like she’s looking over your shoulder.

Sara: How did you decide the narrative would be finding her walking up the 89 steps to her apartment?

Christopher: Well the stairs became the center point of the story. There’s a great shot of her and her children descending the stairs in the film [Los Sures] and the fact that she was in the same building 30 some years later and that now these stairs- because she lived on the 6th floor- were really a conflict in her story [to stay in the neighborhood]. So we thought of the stairs as both the space for character development and the introduction of the conflict.

Sara: On a broader level, how do you see this project as being in dialogue with Los Sures?

Christopher: Los Sures provides an umbrella for this vast number of different projects and … it’s an interesting experience of many different narratives colliding…The project also challenges the original narrative shot by shot… its literally a deconstruction of the film.

I think some of the shorts are very responsive to correct certain things in the film in a way. So [the film] is able to be an object of study as well as something that we are promoting with all these pieces.

Before it was released [on iTunes] there was a lot of energy, especially from the diaspora about the shot-by-shot. Older, middle aged folks, and people who don’t spend a tone of time on the Internet were finding this thing and finding it really exciting. People would kind of get addicted. They’d get this little taste and they’d say “Oh, I could do one more. Oh just one more.”

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