The Downtown Community Television Center’s new cinema in Lower Manhattan had its official groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning, at which New York City government officials Kate Levin, Scott Stringer, Margaret Chin, and Gale Brewer met with renowned documentarians Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”), Matthew O’Neill and Morgan Spurlock (“Supersize Me”) to sing the praises of the art of the non-fiction feature.
Spearheaded by filmmaking partners Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, the building’s operations will facilitate theatrical runs to Academy Award nominee hopefuls in the documentary category, as well as provide student workshops, equipment and other resources.
The theater, designed by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, will be built on the ground floor of the beautiful 1896 firehouse that DCTV has called home since 1979. It will boast a state-of-the-art 3D and 4K Digital Cinema projection system, and the ability to share live events with millions of people around the world via the Internet. It is expected to open in early 2015.
During tuesday’s ceremony DCTV announced their forming of an advisory council founded by: Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Matthew O’Neil, Brooke Adams, James Gandolfini, Emmy nominated producer Daniel J. Chalfen, Abigal Disney, Emmy-winning Ellen Goosenberg, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, Caitrin McKiernan, HBO Doc’s President Sheila Nevins, Academy Award Nominee Sam Pollard and Oscar-winners Alan and Susan Raymond.
The launch was a festive affair; while Spurlock playfully challenged the hegemony of non-fiction’s major box-office competition like “the Iron Mans and the Hobbits of the world” in his remarks, Moore evoked New York’s cinematic roots with an allusion to the films of Thomas Edison. Cultural Affairs Commissioner Levin noted her remarks came “on behalf of Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” but Bloomberg, who was previously scheduled to endorse the groundbreaking ceremony personally, was nowhere to be found.
And so it seems, the opening of the DCTV Cinema signifies the staying power of two cultural fixtures, good and bad; that is, documentary film’s tradition of speaking truth to power, and the prudence of those in power when faced with even the simplest of routine mayoral tasks. Bloomberg, whose convictions on preventative measures against gun violence were made clear on the cover of Time Magazine’s january issue (with the bold headline “The Gunfighters”), passed on an opportunity to speak with the same DCTV members who founded a National Anti-gun-violence Campaign in fall of 2009.
I would stop myself from veering into potentially over-editorializing here, so as to give this vital new cultural staple its moment in the sun, but let’s face it: the great tradition of documentary film has and will always be about representing reality. And the reality I faced prior to this otherwise jovial and well-organized event was, while not surprising, somewhat mystifying.
Only moments before I learned of Mayor Bloomberg’s withdrawal, a photographer in attendance expressed his bitter cynicism over the U.S. Senate’s recent decision to ignore the cries of their constituents when blocking the movement of a bi-partisan bill to expand background checks for gun sales and purchases in mid-April. Now, apparently, Mayor Bloomberg and his camp believe it wise to shy away from a mere geographical association with Michael Moore, whose documentary “Bowling for Columbine” expounds upon so many of the social ills Bloomberg proclaims to be pushing back against.
Did they fear that Moore, who self-deprecatingly quipped that Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” “was a huge inspiration to me,” would also rib Bloomberg for his mandate on sugary drinks?
It’s hard to tell what guides the psyche of a politician who consciously opts to run away an important day for filmic truth-seeking, while claiming to run toward the issues that truth-seeking brings to the fore. After all, the DCTV Cinema is a beautiful location, teeming with promise.
In the event’s press notes, I’m told that “DCTV serves over 13,000 New York City media artists, disadvantaged youth, and residents each year,” and that “DCTV’s PRO-TV is the most honored youth media arts program in the country.”
By choosing to remove himself from this event, Bloomberg has effectively made his absence more political than his presence ever could have been made out to be.
But most of all, that absence, given the circumstances, feels like a call to action. In order to properly cover the opening of an institution that will teach young filmmakers to hold public leaders accountable in their work, it is crucial to note that that institution’s opening carried with it a moral failure from one of those leaders. Perhaps one of the many bright and talented students of documentary filmmaking engaged in DCTV’s extensive curriculum will make a film about the groundbreaking ceremony.
My suggestion for a title: Here’s Mike, But Where’s Mike?