The gentrification debate is like the philosophical question about the chicken and the egg. Does the neighborhood have something inherently great or by gentrifying it do artists and young professionals make it better? The Lower East Side Film Festival has galvanized the small neighborhood with lavish parties and film premieres. It seems like The Tribeca Film Festival’s younger, hipper cousin who went to NYU. But, despite delivering a really smart and enterprising product, tying itself to the Lower East Side leaves a hunger for an authentically Lower East Side experience.
Originally started out of a storefront as a BYOB film festival with only 30 seats, the LES Film Fest. It has evolved into a huge draw featuring 35 films at seven theaters, big parties and celebrity judges like Ilana Glazer and Marky Ramone. It features films starring Naya Rivera, Heather Matarazzo and “The Big Bang Theory” star Simon Helberg’s directorial debut. There’s free wine and snacks and some pretty large sponsors like Tongal, Dove Men Care, Squarespace and Popchips.
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You cannot deny that the festival creators are smart, savvy and building a product. Curated by its young founders, films are hand-selected to celebrate what filmmakers can do with small budgets. The events are insanely well integrated with sponsors. Free wine and Popchips and a pretty touching Father’s Day-themed short film created by Dove Men Care. Tongal and Squarespace are directly targeted to the tech-savvy independent film producers. Filmgoers are asked to vote for their favorite films with tweets. It seems like they have a firm handle on the new and emerging market of moviegoers.
The only thing lacking from the Lower East Side Film Festival is the Lower East Side. Sure, opening film “The Sturgeon Queens” documents the neighborhood’s longtime smoked fish restaurant Russ & Daughters, but it also helps that it features the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Mario Batali. It disturbingly makes no mention of the large Puerto Rican community which defined the look and feel of the area with bodegas, small churches and botanicas and graffiti art. The Nuyorican Poet’s Café is a staple of this small Manhattan neighborhood and still stands to this day. Albeit dated, “Rent” focused on a group of disenfranchised artists dancing around the Life Café singing about their bohemian lifestyles. It was located between avenues A and B until it closed down in 2012. A large majority of the films selected at the LES Film Festival are filmed in New York City and do celebrate the city, but they are a new take on New York City. They focus on hipsters and young professionals and don’t seem to have many ties to the LES.
The Tribeca Film Festival had the cursory goal of reinvigorating the up-and-coming neighborhood post-Sept. 11. But its main focus was bringing international films to New York City and establishing NYC as a major player in the film industry. The film festival helped define the neighborhood and raised housing prices.
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But why would this film festival tie itself to an area with such a defined personality as the Lower East Side? It’s difficult to reconcile the tech-savvy, young upstart film festival with the rich history of this former enclave of artists. By virtue of tying itself to the neighborhood, the festival is banking on the name and location to engender that spirit of independent artists bucking the system. But it’s also painting over those gratified walls with a fresh gloss of shiny paint with sponsors and a high-end feel. It seems not only to be a sign of the gentrifying changes to New York, but also a tool to inadvertently push that agenda.
The film festival is a great addition to the New York City film scene. It celebrates independent film and new artists, but trying to tie its brand to an area with its own identity feels like an active effort to white-wash it. Had it kept the name BYOB Film Festival, who would fault tweet-loving booze hounds and brand-savvy filmmakers? It would have defined its own identity and legitimized new artists rather than displacing the existing artist community with a completely different point of view.