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Spotlight on filmmaker Jennifer Callahan

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Interview by Briege McGarrity

As part of the third anniversary of Sandy and remembrance of that harrowing night, talented documentarian Jennifer Callahan released her latest film entitled, Everything Is Different Now: Rockaway After the Storm.  Using a blend of archival footage, photos and insightful commentary, mostly from Sandy victims, Callahan takes us on a journey through the Rockaway Peninsula to get a peek at life and recovery efforts following the wrath of Superstorm Sandy.

Callahan, who also directed the well-received The Bungalows of Rockaway, shows genuine interest in her subjects as well as Rockaway’s fragility, diversity, unique charm and spunky residents, who now have an elevated sense of community and know the value of a good neighbor. Built on a sandbar, a salient theme in the film is whether we should even be living year-round in the Rockaways, and if so, what resiliency planning should be in effect.

IFQ’s Briege McGarrity was delighted to learn more about the genesis of the Post-Sandy doc, the challenges and highlights. With a premiere on WNET and WLIW, a benefit screening at BAM on Nov 2nd and coverage in the New York Times, this doc is definitely making waves!

IFQ: This is an important film on many levels – what was your main objective? 

JC: Thank you very much. That is fantastic to hear. I had numerous objectives – to show not just the terrible damage inflicted by Sandy on one urban beach community, but to show as well what I saw as the astonishing vibrancy on Rockaway, a deep and creative attachment to land and place, in the first summer post-Sandy. I also wanted to make a film that’s as emotionally and aesthetically satisfying to the viewer as possible. I think Gordon (Chou), the cinematographer, really understood that goal. Finally, I hoped and hope that the film shows the power of individuals and small groups in one urban beach community whose actions merit attention and discussion.

Rockaway Beach Summer 2013: Photo credit: Gordon Chou

Rockaway Beach Summer 2013: Photo credit: Gordon Chou

IFQ: Rockaway is clearly a special place for you tell us more about your connection to it? And what has sparked your interest in housing, urbanism in relation to the Rockaways?

JC: I first went to Rockaway in summer 2003 as part of a special project that the New York Foundation had hired me to do. The foundation had provided the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association with some funds and we went out to talk to Richard George about the organization’s work on trying to obtain preservation status for the bungalows in Far Rockaway. I walked on Beach 24th Street and fell in love with the bungalows. They were so cute and just surprised me, bungalows in New York City! Until I walked on that street I had not understood how excellent they were. And the fact that sets of newer buildings, which seemed to me thoughtlessly bleak and haphazardly erected, were wedged next to what were to me winning and sandbar-appropriate bungalows registered in all kinds of ways. I couldn’t believe that bungalows existed in the city and I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a documentary about them. Their history seemed key. Thanks to the work, both academic and artistic, of a number of good friends, I’d been reading and thinking about buildings and people and cities for some years. In 2005, a good friend and writer/producer, Elizabeth Logan Harris, joined me into making what I thought would be a short film, maybe 20 minutes, and maybe take a year to make. It ended up taking five years and the final film covers a lot more history, including how the bungalows’ story intersected with Robert Moses’ urban planning, than I’d anticipated.

I don’t really know why exactly Rockaway is one of the places, of the places I know on this planet, that I love. Maybe because it always feels both familiar and new? The way urban and nature are so bizarrely tangled up? The airplanes that roar overhead? I don’t really know.

IFQ: What criteria did you have for picking your subjects?

JC: A mix of things: some continuity from The Bungalows of Rockaway; analysis of who was needed, for demographic representation; and intuition. The final cut, of course, does not include everyone interviewed.

IFQ: A talking heads piece can be risky are you pleased with the final cut?

JC: A talking heads piece can be risky, it’s true. Yes, I’m very pleased with the final cut. I feel very lucky that things worked out so that the editor Hélène Attali could build on the good work that we already had completed from a very rough edit. Hélène’s priority was in making the film feel fluid, which she accomplished really well, I think. We explored a number of different structures and in the end, she, Sarah Geller, the film’s other producer, and I agreed on this approach and cut.

IFQ: What were the challenges of making your doc?

JC: That is such an enormous question – it’s almost too big to answer! But, okay – one challenge was deciding to keep the film a portrait of a certain place at a certain time, and not to try to do something we couldn’t afford to do. Related to that is the edit – it really took time to get it right. A lot of material I loved ended up on the cutting floor, something that no other director has ever faced, I know.

A typically delicious lunch bought at Caracas, summer 2013. Photo credit: Jennifer Callahan

A typically delicious lunch bought at Caracas, summer 2013. Photo credit: Jennifer Callahan

IFQ: I totally agree that food choices definitely improved Post Sandy as well as an increase in tourism and many commenting on the “hipsterfication” of Rockaway! Was that one of your positive themes you wanted to explore from the get-go?

JC: No, the food theme was not in my mind from the beginning. But after a couple of days of shooting, it seemed, given all the delicious food choices on Rockaway and how food relates to land and how land itself was a pronounced subject all over Rockaway post-Sandy, the right theme to highlight. The commitment by so many small business owners/restaurateurs in Rockaway to re-open after the storm and to cook in a way that’s very locavore-minded expressed in a way that felt right the themes of land/sustainability/community.

IFQ: You managed to avoid reactivating my storm anxiety and reminded me of the power of Mother Nature – who contributed to the footage and archival photographs? 

JC: I’m so glad to hear that, about the film vis a vis anxiety, I mean. That is something that I thought about a lot, and which we discussed in the edit, how to show the wreckage and aftermath. In the Sandy section, as I think of it, Rose Thomson sings After You’ve Gone so gracefully – I like to think of that as consoling or something. A lot of the footage that shows Rockaway immediately post-Sandy, the boardwalk, for instance, then resembling Roman ruins I thought, was taken by Phillip Van, and some was by Leah Meyerhoff. Leah, who I knew from Film Fatales, which she founded, told me about their footage. Some stills were sent to us during production by people who knew I was working on this. Other footage and photographs Sarah and I researched by going to: the Sandy exhibition at the Museum of City of New York; the archives of The Wave; scouring Sandy-related Rockaways stories online. The storm footage is by Thomas Kerr, an artist and professor who lives on Rockaway. All the contributors’ photography is so powerful – I see something unflinching in all of it.

IFQ: Yes the soundtrack was excellent. How long did you spend shooting footage?

JC: I love the music too. It’s all by talented musicians in Babe the blue OX. Our first shoot was in July 2013 and our last in January 2014.

IFQ: Michael Oppenheimer, who weighed on Rockaway being built on a sandbar, was a great subject – how did you find him? 

JC: I’m so glad you think so! Sarah and I, but more Sarah, did an extensive search for local scientists who specialized on oceans and global warming. There are a number of distinguished scientists who are based locally. But, when we learned that Michael Oppenheimer had spent childhood summers in a Rockaway bungalow…

IFQ: Your film definitely raises the question of whether it was a good idea to make Rockaway and Breezy your permanent home as opposed to Summering – yet people want to be here. So what do you think is important for Rockaway residents to consider in terms of disaster resiliency? – It’s clear we all have to be activists just like one of your subjects who got grants to plant dunes. 

JC:  I guess what I’d say to Rockaway residents is what I’d say to myself and to anyone who will listen – we’re living in a time of climate change and we should all learn as much as we can as quickly as we can about that reality, and learn too how to take better care of this planet. Maybe there are new solutions to be found.

IFQ: Klaus Biesenbach made an interesting point that Rockaway is very urban and densely populated, I never thought of this peninsula in those terms

Have you uncovered other interesting perceptions not discussed in the film?

JC: I agree with you. I really like how Klaus talks about Rockaway. I don’t think I uncovered anything else interesting about Rockaway that’s not in the film. In my earlier film, someone, I think it’s Dan Tubridy, says something like, the forgotten stepchild of the city of New York is Rockaway beach.

IFQ: Sandy definitely strengthened the community and may even have broken down some barriers that exist. Was that something you wanted to explore? 

JC: I didn’t think of those things before – I wanted to stay alert to what I saw and heard and just in general observed, and for all that to guide the story. A sense of caring for one’s neighbors, wherever they lived, was palpable during all that time we spent shooting in Rockaway.

IFQ:I understand it is airing on Oct. 25 on WNET and WLIW just in time for the third anniversary of the storm! Do you have a plan for distributing to a wider audience? 

JC: We have this event at BAM Rose Cinemas on November 2nd that I’m really excited about. Both Rockaway docs will screen. In between the screenings music from the amazing musicians, Babe the blue OX, will perform. The hilarious Neil Goldberg, an artist, will emcee. Linda Villarosa, a very smart journalist and City College professor, will moderate. Profits from the evening will benefit a non-profit that supports Sandy recovery. I don’t have a plan yet for wider distributions, but I’m working on that!

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