If anything is known about Crown Heights - one of Brooklyn's most culturally diverse neighbourhoods with a large Hasidic Jewish population and a thriving West Indian community - it would probably be the three-day race riots that occurred over twenty years ago.
Catalysed by the accidental death of Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old black boy who was run over by a Hasidic Jewish driver, the already existing racial tensions between the predominantly West Indian and Hasidic communities became dangerously heightened, leading to chaos and violence. Although acceptance and tolerance of the past and each other came with time, a lingering tension still remains between the two communities to this day.
When 20-year-old Mendy Seldowitz, a Crown Heights native, won a chance to try out the innovative Google Glass technology, he, along with his good friends Hannah Roodman, Celso White and Ben Millstein, saw this as an opportunity to document and explore the culturally-diverse neighbourhood.
Recognising the potential of one of the most exciting devices to arrive on the fast-growing wearable technology scene, the group created Project 2x1; a double entendre to represent both the geographic size of Crown Heights and the mission statement of their film: "A story that helps to transform Crown Heights into a place where two distinct communities form one united neighborhood." One of the founders of Project 2x1, Hannah Roodman, spoke with The Genteel's Alexandra Sarabia to explain more.
Collage of multiple people wearing Google Glass
Alexandra Sarabia: Why did you choose Crown Heights as the subject of your Google Glass documentary?
Hannah Roodman: Mendy is from Crown Heights and I have been living there for a year, studying it recreationally as an outsider and insider. We realised that there is so much culture in this little condensed neighbourhood and there is an interesting reality where you have two very distinct communities living side by side. Beyond that, we wanted to explore what it meant to co-own a neighbourhood and what are our responsibilities in terms of awareness of each other's practices and respect for different communities and observances.
AS: How did you use Google Glass in the process of filming your documentary?
HR: So far, [the process] has been driven by the building blocks of our story - the rituals that create the layers of culture. We'll go to an event or place where we know there is a performance of a ritual, [such as] a wedding or even at a barber shop, [and] get to know the people we've already established connections with ahead of time to film.
Sometimes we just walk in and [say], "Hey, we're making a movie. Here is the camera; do you want to operate it?" We direct people only as far as to say, "Here is your frame;" we try to tell people to be conscious of it, but also forget about it at the same time. The [best] content that we capture is when people become less self-conscious. That's the beauty of a wearable camera - you just forget that there is something on your face.
AS: Have you experienced any dissent or skepticism from people whom you have asked to record, or have they been welcoming?
HR: Both. There are definitely people who are very skeptical. What's also very interesting about our project is that you're bringing one of the most first-world devices into a world that is not exactly your Williamsburg or Clinton Hill part of Brooklyn. You're talking about a lot of sectioned housing [and] social welfare in the community - it's a very stark contrast. There is skepticism about technology in general. [When we brought] our device to a park (as total strangers) where a lot of Rastafarian elder men hang out every Sunday, which is part of their ritual of spending time together and just appreciating their community, [...] there was definitely hostility. They were very sensitive about whether we were exploiting or objectifying them.
AS: Have there been any stand-out experiences in your recordings so far?
HR: One powerful thing for me personally is that I come from an observant Jewish background, [but] I was unfamiliar with church worship - I [have] never really been in that environment and it's not an easy thing to access. The day after Yom Kippur, we were at church and what was so powerful about that experience for me was that they were so warmly welcoming. When we asked the minister to wear Google Glass, [he tells] the community in his address, "Today we're letting these filmmakers here because we have nothing but pride about who we are and what we do and we're going to show them that." It was just a lovely experience that validated that sense of urgency for a storyteller.
AS: On your website you use the words 'neighborhood anonymity' to describe the Crown Heights community, and really, that is an epidemic everywhere.
HR: [There is a fact that an absurdly large percentage] of Americans don't know their neighbours' names. I think that if this project can have one positive effect, it's that people are inspired by or feel the courage to make an introduction or just ask "Who are you?" to someone that's different or someone that's new, inside and outside of their community. It's interesting how technology has driven this wedge.
AS: That's interesting because so many people nowadays say that technology is the reason why, even though it may seem we are all extremely interconnected, we are also as disconnected as ever. But in fact you are using technology to remedy that. It's an interesting paradox.
HR: It is definitely a paradox and I think the purpose of Google Glass' role is to be the device to bridge that. It's amazing because in documentary filmmaking the hardest challenge for any documentarian is access.
AS: How has the Crown Heights community, as a whole, responded to Project 2x1?
HR: One of the most exciting part of this [is] that it has kind of taken on its own grassroots kind of legs. Last week we had a collaborators' circle and invited people in the industry of film and marketing to help us work on the strategy; how we're packaging the content and how we're going to distribute it. We also had people in the community [...] give their two-cents on what we have already started to edit together.
Group photo of collaborators' circle
We just wanted to have a very honest conversation about how we're treating Google Glass, as well as real issues like "How is your film going to address gentrification?" or "What do we do about the fact that this community is angry about such and such?" I had no idea that when we embarked on this journey, that we could create a space for people to have these conversations. But that's the whole point.
AS: Do you think there is a viable future for filmmaking with Google Glass?
HR: I 100% do. I think that what we're seeing with technology is the democratisation of storytelling in general and wearable technology is the most advanced frontier of that. To a viewer, what difference does the point of view make? I think that it informs the process and the outcome because there is something so lovely about clearly distinguishing that this is a different point of view.
AS: What do you ultimately hope to achieve through Project 2x1?
HR: How the project lives is the most important thing. What we are trying to do is seed a movement where people are encouraged to document their neighbourhoods and to share stories. Right now, we're trying to figure out how to bring other people into the story even more, continuing the share-your-story kind of theme.
The Project 2x1 team will release their film in November and currently have a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.
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