As a light snow settled over a quiet Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Sunday evening, Mister Rogers — a former West Indian shark restaurant turned flexible arts space by two sons of Hasidic rabbis — filled to likely fire-code defying limits with a young crowd as diverse as the neighborhood. The group had gathered for the premiere of Project 2X1, a 30-minute film documenting the cultures of the Hasidic and West Indian communities that inhabit the 2 mile by 1 mile area of Crown Heights. Silhouettes of the iconic black hats of the Hasidim stood out against a white projection screen. West Indian accents could be heard over the steel drum music coming through the speakers. And the other primary demographic of the neighborhood, mostly white 20- and 30-year olds, were also well represented. That this group went unmentioned in the film — particularly given that most of the filmmakers, although representative of a variety of races and faiths, could be considered part of it — certainly deserves further attention.
The serve-yourself pot of soup, piles of bread, and hummus for the taking spoke to the sense of community the film aims to create. As the name of the project suggests, the documentary is primarily concerned with the intersection and juxtaposition of the two communities which are, in some regards, rightfully considered to be starkly separated by culture, belief, and lived experience. The coexistence of these two groups in the neighborhood — though not always, historically, peaceful — is after all one of the great illustrations of the diversity of New York City, however challenging it may be.
This intersection came through on occasion: the yarmulke-wearing boy snatching a football from the sidewalk as his black playmates make sure he doesn’t make away with it, and Freddy Harris III, a self-proclaimed top-five steel drum player in the world, discussing financial investment by Hasidim in the steel drum bands of the neighborhood. Such instances of interaction and common experience is what the project hopes to catalyze.
The primary catalyst is juxtaposition. Two of the most curious, and for me the most powerful, moments in the film were the result of deft editing. The proprietor of a wig shop for Hasidic women explain why they cover their natural hair following marriage. Immediately following, the owner of a Rastafarian supply store discusses why she covers her dreads. In another instance, scenes from the vibrant spectacle of the West Indian American Day Parade on Eastern Parkway are paired with a Hasidic street festival, and the music of each is set to the dancing scenes of the other. These scenes drive home commonalities in the distinct communities and productively form a basis for understanding and interchange.
The project’s team makes much of the fact that they used Google Glass to shoot parts of the film, aggressively defining the work as a “Google Glass documentary.” While the use of this tool does lead to some interesting shots in which the audience literally sees the world from the perspective of another — a Hasidic man entering the subway and opening a religious book; a West Indian preacher at the pulpit speaking to his congregation — it’s a disservice to the quality of the film to define it as such. The Glass shots make up only a small part of the footage, and far more important and compelling than how it was shot are the stories captured therein, the insight into the daily life of a group that may otherwise be considered a foreign “other.”
Contrary to the clichéd notion that deep down we are all the same, which predominated in the largely self-congratulatory Q&A following the screening, the film shows that, in addition to this shared humanity, we as people and communities are unique and often contradictory. It remarks on how such difference can be understood in the context of our own cultures and embraced as a powerful element of stronger community. Here is where the project can further elaborate as it works on future iterations of the documentary and releases other short portraits of the neighborhood: the film still tends to clump West Indians into one group where many distinct cultures exist, and it leaves out other elements of the neighborhood — namely the millenials that made the film and packed the screening (and apparently review it) — that must figure into a less divided Crown Heights.
The very act of bringing the group in attendance together is a testament to the possibility of the documentary — and storytelling more generally — to move toward that. As the Q&A wound to a close, a yarmulked man set off into the crowd in search of a microphone for a black woman hoping to ask a question. In the lobby area, a Hasidic man engaged the Rastafarian shop owner from the film in conversation. These are simple acts, but ones that bode well for future conversations. These, however, also must be informed by an acknowledgement of the changing demographics of the neighborhood and include an exploration of all communities that create it.
For more on the film and to follow the release of additional content, check out project2x1.com.
All photographs courtesy of Project 2X1.