Friday, November 24, 2006

Filming Expanded Horizons

Columbia Spectator
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Filming Expanded Horizons
By Jimmy Vielkind
Issue date: 11/22/06 Section: News

I first met Leah Yananton in the back corner of a crowded room.It was a chilly winter night in St. Mary's Church, a quaint neo-gothic structure that has stood along what is now 126th Street since 1823, the heart of the old village Manhattanville. The basilica, with its stained glass and time-worn pews, hosts the monthly meetings of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a neighborhood group opposed to Columbia's proposed campus expansion.

Back corners are good places because you can see everything going on in a room, but most people can't see you. It's a good spot to observe and document the unfolding world-me with my note pad, Leah with her video camera-for what's cliched as the first draft of history.

After three years of shooting (we met many times in many back corners), editing, interviewing, and researching, Leah has turned in her draft.

Over 40 people came the Friday before Election Day break to a screening of "Manhattanville: A Neighborhood Under Siege," a 30-minute documentary about the University's proposed expansion, produced in conjunction with former adjunct film professor Larry Engel. The duo is actively seeking more opportunities to screen the film, which was funded by city grants, and plan on entering it into the upcoming Harlem Film Festival.

"I started the film while a student at Columbia while living in the neighborhood," Yananton, GS, said. She told these pages in 2004 that she "wanted to make a time capsule."And she has. The film opens with the annual Christmas party in the lobby of 70 Tiemann Place-where Leah lived until last month-as people dance merengue, play the guira, and eat pollo guisado. They are juxtaposed with historical photographs of Manhattanville and a speech by University President Lee Bollinger to Community Board 9, where he presents details of the planned new campus.

The project reviews the neighborhood's rich past, often contentious present, and murky future. In doing so, Yananton interviews officials on both sides. Senior Columbia administrators outline their visions for a new campus and talk about the benefits it would bring to the neighborhood and the city, while local residents and business owners air their concerns and speak proudly of what they are achieving in the area.

"I thought I was going to be Michael Moore with this film and expose Columbia as a bad guy. But I'm not Michael Moore, and I realized it's not my job as a film maker to attack any one side. I just wanted to make and document the life of the neighborhood and the life I shared with the neighborhood," Yananton said.

The images range from the rhapsodically mundane-children playing on a sidewalk chalked with a political message-to active protests at Columbia's gates and a Tent City constructed in the spring of 2005. The film also features interviews with former Community Board 9 chair Maritta Dunn, Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary's Episcopal Church,, Columbia construction coordinator Warren Whitlock, and several business owners in the proposed expansion zone.

By presenting a mosaic of voices normally offered as a cacophony, Yananton is able to clearly articulate the big questions at hand: does Columbia's need to grow, and will the good works it will hopefully accomplish override the rights of people to live lives at their own pace in their own space? Should the two be mutually exclusive? If not, how can they live in harmony with each other? "I didn't want to provide an answer because I don't have an answer," Yananton said.

As Columbia begins to work through the required approval process and negotiations to ensure community benefits from expansion, this documentary is a cogent reminder of the need to respectfully listen to all sides before we stake out our own.

In doing so, hopefully those involved can remember that there is a middle ground. This film should be required viewing for everyone willing to go the extra mile to find it.

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