Reviews

'Gut Renovation': Jackhammers in Brooklyn

On one hand, Gut Renovation mourns the loss of a community. On the other, however, it asks how this or any community is defined, who makes and misses it, and how it might be remembered.


Gut Renovation

Director: Su Friedrich
Cast: Su Friedrich
Rated: NR
Studio: Outcast Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-03-05 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"For the entire summer of 2006, men tore down the bus garage with jackhammers." So begins the story of Gut Renovation, a story of demolition and loss and outrage too. For years, through 2012, the tearing down continues, and for years, Su Friedrich documents and describes what's happening outside her window in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She describes the men at work with jackhammers, the tenants losing their businesses and homes, the condo buildings erected in their place, and also the new condo owners, who come equipped with "a parade of designer dogs."

Friedrich takes a particular interest in the dogs, filming them on the sidewalk and from above, tiny and coated and leashed. Walking with faceless people, the dogs become emblems of the "destruction of the neighborhood," which is to say, an incursion, such that quaint, jaggedy blocks once occupied by artists of various sorts are now owned by a new class of neighbors, blithely rich and entitled.

To chart this change, Gut Renovation -- winner of the 2012 Brooklyn Film Festival Audience Award and screening at Film Forum -- marks passing time (each year is denoted by a brief glimpse of a Christmas ornament on a tree, under a snippet of "Auld Lang Syne," including versions by Guy Lombardo, Lou Rawls, and Girlschool), as well as shrinking space, in shots of a map where Friedrich colors in red the Williamsburg properties bought up and torn down, counting off the numbers, from one and two at the start to 173 at the end, an arbitrary stopping point chosen because, well, the "whole fucking neighborhood" is close to gone.

Such repetitions represent the incursion from Friedrich's perspective, her feelings of betrayal by a landlord whose original lease wasn't quite above board, allowing tenants to live for years in commercial spaces, as well as her sense of invasion by outsiders: "The wheels turned," she narrates, "Developers saw how much money there was to be made and the Bloomberg administration came in with its focus on high-end residential development and the area was rezoned." These turning wheels lead to material adjustments, in particular, long months and then years of noise and disruption, brick walls collapsing, bulldozers banging, and residents lamenting.

Some bits of destruction or construction appear in time-lapse imagery, some transitions are indicated by moving out parties and others by real estate open house parties. On occasion, Friedrich directs her indignation specifically (at one point, she tells you, her girlfriend suggests that "I should call this film 'I Hate Rich People'"). The film includes as well efforts to frame the changes, signage meaning to define the experience, for anyone who might read it. Some of these efforts are local, as when Friedrich points out her own handiwork, a scrawled notice on a blue tarp, "Artists used to live here," under which, she says in voiceover, tourists pose themselves for pictures. Other efforts are slickly professional: a developer's pitch for the coming "amenities" includes buzzy words like "tasty" and "perks" and "shop," as well as the promise of "a real neighborhood."

This is, of course, a sticking point, as the difference between what's real and what's not becomes a matter of... perspective or access or again, entitlement. Who gets to say what's real? The baker, auto mechanic, or zipper manufacturer who can no longer pay rent has a version, as does the neon-vested construction worker or the developer in a dark suit (Friedrich films a pack of them from her window, yelling after them that they're "ruining the neighborhood!"). When, one day in 2008, workers in a lot just across the street come upon a rock that is too large to move and, for a time, seemingly impervious to drills and jackhammers and some sort of explosive "goo," Friedrich films it, day by day, huge and still as men clamber atop it and poke and penetrate it. She asks the men when they might defeat the rock, and they scratch their heads and have no good answer. And for a few days, in scenes montaged under Vivaldi's "Concerto in C Major F. VII No. 6," the rock prevails.

As charming as her identification with the rock may be, Friedrich understands it is fleeting, as are attempts by tenants to stay the invasion, holding community meetings, writing letters of protest, organizing. At times, even the film is turned into an effort of its own, a documentation that will hold meaning, or maybe allow it. Friedrich films the dogs, she films the signs, she films the buildings. She also, sometimes, films people too. Some she knows (toasting as they part ways or complaining as they make their way along a now treacherous sidewalk) and some she doesn't.

At least one of these wonders what she's up to. "What are you filming?" asks a young woman who spots the camera. She wears huge sunglasses, she smiles, and she and her male companion carry shopping bags from A.I. Friedman and B&J Fabrics. "Rich new people who are moving into the neighborhood," says Friedrich from off-screen, her hand swishing across the frame. "You don’t know anything about me," the woman protests, as the camera tilts down to look at her feet and the curb. "It's just rude," she says, "to put your camera on me and follow me, that's all." As the scene cuts to yet another view of a new building, against a sunny blue sky, a title card notes, "And she had a point. I also hate to be filmed."

The moment, awkward and incomplete and not exactly apologetic, is typical of Gut Renovation. The woman is right: Friedrich can't know what's in the bag from Friedman's (an artists' supply store) and she can't assess the new neighbors' surface any more than they might judge hers. And yet, such righteousness shapes all views here, from those who think time and nostalgia have worth to those who think, as their culture insists, that money holds sway.

Even as the film keeps track of lots bought and residents moved (or evicted), local manufacturers shuttered and shiny new corporate offices opened, it notes limits as well, of power and time and understanding, of art and also, of money. As such, the film is of a piece with Friedrich's previous films, simultaneously personal essays and deeply, if unexpectedly, sociopolitical critiques, films that also tell stories of loss and frustration, yearning and upset, public spaces and personal experiences. For as Gut Renovation observes and decries the neighborhood's changes, it also offers a broader analysis, of the eroding value of art as such, the escalating costs of commercial existence. On one hand, the movie mourns the loss of a community. On the other, however, it asks how this or any community is defined, who makes and misses it, and how it might be remembered.

7

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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