A Night at the Lower East Side Film Festival

Still from "A Maine Movie," Directed by Matt Nelsen, Story by Matt Nelson & Marty Schousboe.

Still from “A Maine Movie,” Directed by Matt Nelsen, Story by Matt Nelson & Marty Schousboe.

This article was written by Lo-Down contributor, Christopher Maher.

Walking into Village East Cinema for the Lower East Side Film Festival I was directed downstairs where a small group of people crowded around a concession stand featuring metal tubs filled with ice and beer – plastic cups of red and white wine sat between them. Everybody grabbed  refreshments and we were quickly routed into the theater to begin our evening of entertainment.

2018 is the 8th anniversary of the festival, which has seen continued growth over the years and has in the last year launched its podcast, Below The Line, highlighting its many independent filmmakers.

Shannon Walker, one of the festival directors, and Josh Greenwood, programming director, greeted us with verve and drew attention to the festival’s partnership with year with Rock The Vote, encouraging audience members to get registered. After that the lights dimmed, we were transported back out onto the NYC streets for the New York Filmmaker Shorts Showcase.

In “A New York Bagel” (dir. Me & Mike) we watched a bagel tumble through traffic and try to negotiate a hostile city filled with pigeons. “The World’s Greatest Storyteller” (dir. Horatio Baltz) focused on T-Berry, a street performer who spit his stories rapid fire on sidewalks late at night in the Lower East Side, “American Dream” (dir. Alexia Oldini) focused on a difficult night in Chinatown, and “Hoity Toity” (dir. Courtney Loo & David Karp) finished the hour off with a colorful music video.

Particularly well received was “Slave One: The Kung Fu Judge Story” (dir. Juan Leguizamón), which took a look at the history and corruption surrounding the Slave One Theater of Brooklyn and the eventual corruption that took it down. (The film would go on to win Best Documentary Short Film of the Festival.)

By focusing on a man hoping to improve his neighborhood and his life while battling against institutional or societal challenges it incidentally became emblematic of the films surrounding it. While the stories and direction were eclectic, each film drew attention to the difficulty of surviving and thriving in a city that can at times seem hostile to our best hopes and dreams.

“American Dream,” “World’s Greatest Storyteller”, and even “A New York Bagel” evoked an unsympathetic city, highlighting different challenges perceived outsiders face. The audience itself was more supportive. In the short Q&A following the films the crowd was unanimously encouraging. Alexia Oldini, while summoning the courage to answer an audience question, admitted a fear of public speaking and was immediately cheered by nearly everyone in attendance.

In the hour between the shorts and A Maine Movie, the audience, this time joined by the filmmakers, stood in the lobby drinking beers and mingling freely. The directors happily answered questions. A number of participants congratulated Leguizamón on both his riveting film as well as his relatively newborn child, who sat in a carrying crib at his feet.

A Maine Movie (dir. Matt Nelsen) focuses on a group of old friends at different stages of their romantic and professional lives. (The film went on to win the festival’s Audience Award.) They rent an AirBnB on the coast of Maine and, as might be expected, old and new tensions raise and ebb. The crowd cheered throughout, especially for scenes including our earlier Q&A moderator, Josh Greenwood, who plays a possibly homeless bartender the group befriends entirely by accident.

The film was followed by another Q&A with the entire cast and crew who discussed the quick bonding and many challenges of making an improvised movie in just seven days. The tight production schedule helped explain both the messy and a bit loose-ended feel of the movie, as well as the freewheeling fun that messiness induced.

The cast was more than game to poke fun at each other, though much more amicably than their filmic counterparts. The film’s message, summed up, is that friendships are worth the messiness, and seeing the friends who had made the film together, even if only brought together by the circumstances of making the movie, did a lot to reinforce the idea.

Most often when we go to the movies we’re hoping to have a good time, and that energy is true at festivals too. But it feels good, in a totally different way, to know that the theater you’re in is filled with the people responsible for the films on screen. Instead of just enjoying the films the audience is actively rooting for them, and it feels good. The festival’s goal of creating a special experience had been achieved. As I wandered back to the subway after the screening I kept my eyes peeled for T-Berry.