Walk by 322 Union Avenue in Williamsburg and you might notice a whitewashed marquee, a relic of era when newsreels talked about heroes and movies were swell. The sign is at once a nod to the past and a signal of something new: UnionDocs, a multifaceted non-profit that hopes to change the way we make, see, and talk about non-fiction storytelling.
“There are a lot of places to put your opinions out there, but not that many places to speak publicly,” says Christopher Allen, UnionDocs’ founder. “I mean, you can go and say something snarky on a blog but can you say that in the room when you have to defend it?”
During the early ’00s, the organization grew organically as Allen and his friends coalesced into a group of like-minded people who regularly gathered to watch films and talk about non-fiction storytelling. In 2005, UnionDocs became an official non-profit dedicated to the exhibition, making and discussion of documentary arts from radio to photography and film.
“The end in that is to provide innovation in documentary,” Allen explains.
Then there is the newly minted UnionDocs Collaborative. UnionDocs accepts 12 up-and-coming documentarians of all backgrounds to a program meant to take their work to the next level. These dozen artists take master classes, have discussions, and produce work over the course of a year. And six of them live at 322 Union in an intensive residency.
The collaborative artists regularly attend screenings, and mix with audience members, documentary subjects, and other working artists. Bits of the collaborative’s intensive conversation surfaces in the film Q&As, and in turn the discussions appear in videos and essays by critical writing fellow Colin Beckett on UnionDocs’ website, rippling out to ever widening audiences.
It all sounds esoteric, and can be. But a night at UnionDocs is also somewhat like watching a movie with friends who just happen to be strangers.
On a recent frigid Saturday, drum beats and feedback emanated from the basement while a few people finished the day’s business on the first floor of UnionDocs, in the screening room that daylights as a meeting space, an office, and a gallery. The screen was lowered, the floor swept and homemade plywood benches with red cushions arranged to create a theater for 40. A small but appreciative crowd gathered to watch The Greening of Southie, the story of the first green building in Boston.
The post-film talk with filmmaker Curt Ellis and Caitlin Boyle of distribution company Film Sprout, both Brooklyn locals themselves, ranged from environmental issues to questions on interviewing styles and marketing independent documentaries.
“The conversations that happen here I think are very grounded in the film. There are a lot of intellectuals that come out, but I think that everyone feels comfortable because they’ve gone through and experienced the film together,” Allen says.
This weekend will feature Con Artist, a comic look at “business artist” Mark Kostabi, the Frankensteinish lovechild of Andy Warhol and QVC. Brooklyn-based director Michael Sládek of Pug Ugly Films will moderate the discussion of his film.
“It’s about making every screening an event, a place to come if you want an experience and discussion and dissect these films and have it resonate with your life,” said Steve Holmgren, the programmer for UnionDocs.
He works hard to get away from the “cinematic vegetables” that he says many documentaries have become, preferring programming that provokes thought through form, subject, or both.
UnionDocs pulls directors in the door, but also works with like-minded groups to put on events like its weekend of Orphan Films (January 23rd & 24th), a forerunner and accompaniment to an NYU Symposium on the same topic planned for April.
“It’s an idealistic space,” says Allen, with a smile and a shrug, “but sometimes, it happens.”
Text by Lisa Riordan Seville, sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of Lisa Riordan Seville, UnionDocs.