Saturday, June 04, 2011

BFF ’11: The Battle for Brooklyn

Though hardly kneejerk, The Moving Picture Institute has nurtured some of the most challenging free-market/right-of-center documentaries to sneak into theaters in recent years. Norman Siegel is a self-proclaimed civil liberties attorney so far to the left he has lost three democratic primaries in New York City to more moderate candidates. When they agree something is a problem, it must be awful. The issue in question is the abuse of the state government’s eminent domain powers. Indeed, both the MPI and Siegel were involved with Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky’s The Battle for Brooklyn (trailer here), the opening night film of the 2011 Brooklyn Film Festival. Formerly the Brooklyn International Film Fest, the BFF has dropped the “I” to emphasize its commitment to Brooklyn filmmakers, making Battle an espepcially apt selection to kick off the proceedings.

Bruce Ratner, a generous political donor (mainly to democrats), concocted a massive development project in Brooklyn anchored by a stadium that will supposedly house the relocated New Jersey Nets. Originally designed by Frank Gehry, it was billed as all things for all people, including scads of low income housing and open space. To build it, he only asked the state of New York to underwrite a substantial portion of it and to forcibly evict some residents and business owners through eminent domain. They happily complied. However, a group of upstart 718-ers would not go without a fight. Hawley & Galinsky focus one particularly quixotic protestor: Daniel Goldstein.

When the mega-stadium complex was first announced, Goldstein had just purchased an apartment within the zone of contention and was engaged to be married. By the end of the film, he had married a different woman with whom he had a healthy baby girl. Yes, this David-and-Goliath fight certainly altered the course of his life.

At each juncture, the fix is obviously in for the so-called “Atlantic Yards” project. State commissioners vote on the proposal despite having no familiarity with the actual details, while members of the city council cannot be bothered to hear out its critics during committee hearings. Indeed, besides Brooklyn city council member Letitia James, New York City’s politicians do not come out looking well in Battle. The arrogant standoffishness of Mayor Bloomberg is hardly surprising, but those who see Battle at national festivals will be dismayed by the clownishness of Brooklyn Borough President Marty “Party” Markowitz. (Unfortunately, New Yorkers can attest, what you see is typical of the three term incumbent.)

Over the course of Battle, viewers will pick up a heck of an education in New York state land use law, but not at the expense of the film’s central drama. At its core, this is a film about a man fighting for his home and a community struggling to stay intact. However, the policy implications of the Atlantic Yards boondoggle are obvious. Forget about property rights. Evidently, if New York’s state and local governments decide your home or business could be better utilized by someone else, they can flat-out take it. If they have to game the system with bogus declarations of “blight,” then so much the better. After all, it depresses the property values, which in turn means they can offer drastically less compensation.

New York might be one of the worst states for eminent domain law, but the concerns raised by Battle apply to jurisdictions across the country. Tightly edited by Hawley from four hundred hours of raw footage, each hair-pullingly frustrating step of the way is clearly presented and easy to follow. Granted, Goldstein gets a bit whiny at times as the central POV character, but he certainly has a right to be ticked. Years in the making at a cost of millions to New York State tax payers, Battle is an important case study of unchecked power at the state level. Important and compelling, anyone planning to vote for state legislators in 2012 should definitely see this film. It screens again during BFF Thursday (6/9) as part of and special co-presentation with Rooftop Films at Fort Greene Park and next Saturday (6/11) at IndieScreen, in advance of its June 17th theatrical opening at Cinema Village.