‘Battle for Brooklyn’ short-listed for Oscar nomination

The accidental activist, Daniel Goldstein.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

The short list of 15 documentaries in Academy Award competition for Best Documentary will be winnowed down to five and announced on Jan. 24. Many are by accomplished directors Win Wenders “Pina” and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost 3” and “Project Nima” by Oscar winner James Marsh (“Man on the Wire”).

In competition is “Battle for Brooklyn” by Brooklyn-based directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley. This fast-paced film that takes place over seven years (2003-2010) is the story of a neighborhood in Prospect Heights, adjacent to Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, fighting big business interests while trying to save their homes.

The story focuses on Daniel Goldstein, the accidental activist, who perseveres through the years, becoming the last holdout to sell his home, fighting the development company Forest City Ratner and its claim to a project, known as Atlantic Yards, that will create jobs for the community. Neighborhood “community groups” are pitted against each other–one such group Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), has strong ties to the developers.

Eminent domain, the right of the state to seize property, plays prominently in this drama of neighborhood survival. Home, business owners and tenants lost their eminent domain lawsuits, first N.Y. Appellate Court (June 2009), then, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in November 2009.

Developer Bruce Ratner, who had bought the Nets–the building of the arena, the centerpiece of this project, subsequently sells 80 percent of the Nets (Jay-Z owns 1 percent also) and 45 percent of the arena to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who incidentally is now a candidate for President of Russia.

The issues, vast sums of money paired with real estate interests and sweet heart deals, and neighbors fighting these interests are knitted together in the personal dramas of the individual Goldstein. The viewer also follows his personal life, which includes a marriage called off, a connection with another activist leading to a very joyous wedding and a baby. Life goes on alongside the struggle.

This seven-year battle, in part, tilled the ground of Occupy Wall Street. While watching, the street demonstrations in Brooklyn one couldn’t help but think about how now, vast numbers would flood the streets (“whose streets, our streets!”)

In the film, Daniel Goldstein and supporters politely attend hearings at City Hall and later in Albany. At a December, Stranger Than Fiction screening in Manhattan, he said that now, people would be mic-checking (basically disrupting) during an unresponsive or worse –deal already done– official meeting. The current sentiments of Occupy Wall Street permeate this film.

At more than one rally, City Councilwoman Letitia James –District 35, an extremely vocal politician stumps on behalf of her constituents– tenants and neighbors against the real estate interests backed by Bloomberg and Borough President Marty Markowitz. She emerges in the struggle as one of the strongest and most articulate public figures in the battle for Brooklyn, a great calling card for her possible run–it is rumored–for Public Advocate.

In the end, the local people lost. Architect Frank Gehry is no longer with the project, altered since original approvals. Construction goes on for the arena scheduled to open in September, and last month, Forest City Ratner announced the design for what would be the world’s tallest prefabricated steel structure, a 32-story residential building in Brooklyn at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street.

This gripping film, instructive in back room machinations and street struggles, moves you through this very local drama. It took the filmmakers two years to edit this seven-year drama.

The film opened and won the Best Documentary and the Grand Chameleon Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival this past summer and played nationwide, the festival circuit.

Pitted against many other very worthy films, we cross our fingers that in this Occupy Wall Street atmosphere it makes the nomination cut. The Academy Awards winners will be announced on Feb. 26.

The next screening in the area is in Manhattan, Jan. 4, 2012 at 7:30 p.m., at the Exit Art Digimovies at 475 10th Ave. near 36th St. Tickets are available for purchase at the box office 30 minutes before screening. There will be a Q&A with the co-directors.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Michael Galinsky.
Photos by Tequila Minsky
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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