In the early 1980s, Diego Echeverria entered one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in New York City with a 16mm-film camera and a mission: to document the lives and struggles of people living in South Williamsburg, a neighborhood known more commonly at the time as “Los Sures.” In the face of gang-related crime and the drug trade, the area’s predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican residents had created a close-knit, culturally rich community. Echeverria’s documentary—titled simply “Los Sures”—explored the untold stories of the neighborhood through the eyes of five of its residents.
Nearly 30 years later, South Williamsburg has transformed, gentrification sweeping away its earlier identity. Inspired by Echeverria’s original work, a team of documentarians working with UnionDocs—a Center for Documentary Art located in South Williamsburg—have created a new constellation of films about the neighborhood as it exists today. Last Tuesday at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Artists, the Film Study Center and metaLAB (at) Harvard presented “Experiments in Place and Collaborative Documentary: Looking at Los Sures,” a screening of Echeverria’s 1984 original and excerpts from these new films.
One contemporary documentary presented was “Couchsurferz,” a 12-part film collection created by Emma Brenner-Mail, Josh Solondz, and Stephanie Chang that follows their journey as they sleep on the couches of friends and strangers in the community. “We were tired of the same gentrification story,” said Chang, “so we went to 12 homes, sort of as an experiment and a way to document people’s lives.” The result is an intimate and emotional portrayal of the neighborhood from inside its bedrooms, dining rooms, and kitchens. Chang says the film was inspired by a particular scene in “Los Sures” in which a man discusses his life struggles while in bed with his family. “We loved that scene,” said Chang. “It was our favorite.”
Another presented excerpt was “Of Birds and Boundaries,” a film created by Annie Berman, Laura Mayer, and Matt Yoko that examines the traditions of South Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jewish community. Through a series of phone interviews conducted with a Hasidic man she found through Craigslist, Berman probes the romantic, religious, and professional conventions of this deeply private group.
Of the new films presented at the event, “Of Memory & Los Sures” by Laurie Sumiye and Andrew Parsons, is the one that draws most from Echeverria’s original. The work overlays interviews with people who once lived in the neighborhood with animation, photography, and archival recordings, creating a rich and nostalgic portrait of the neighborhood’s evolution. For the people interviewed, the rough days of food stamps and sombre midnight vigils have been romanticized by the passage of time. “Los Sures is tough,” says an unidentified woman’s voice in the documentary. “If you survive this you can survive anything. Los Sures is love.”
When asked what drew him to the project, Echeverria said, “There was a richness of experience. I was falling in love with a place that had a tremendous amount of energy and seeing the ways the community dealt with basic problems of survival.” Through extremely frank and personal interviews with his five central subjects, Echeverria was able to create a movie that was genuine and deeply emotional—and darker than Echeverria had originally imagined. “I would have liked to see aspects that were more optimistic,” he reflected. “It is a very sad film, and I do not think I intended for [it to be that way].” For the UnionDocs contemporary filmmakers, gaining the sort of access that Echeverria had to the community posed a daunting challenge. According to Berman, “we [the contemporary documentarians] always had a sense of ourselves as outsiders. It was intimidating [to] gain as much insight [as Echeverria had].” She added that “as a woman, there were so many barriers to entering [the Hasidic] community.”
Under the guidance of founder Christopher Allen and Programmer Steve Holmgren, UnionDocs will continue to explore the evolution of South Williamsburg for the next three years through a large-scale documentary project to be released on the 30th anniversary of the original movie. “We are trying to embrace the community, looking at people [not only as] subjects but also as collaborators to get a rich sense of what is happening,” says Holmgren. The organization plans to bring together journalists and experimental documentarians to create works that continue to push boundaries. Allen calls the group an “oasis of sincerity in that sea of irony,” in reference to the dominant culture of South Williamsburg as it undergoes gentrification. “I am really happy a new generation is looking into questions that I explored in the old Williamsburg,” concluded Echeverria. Though the original neighbors interviewed in “Los Sures” have moved on and the community’s future remains unclear, the release of these new documentaries suggests that the neighborhood will continue to be a source of collaboration and captivating personal stories.