The Hot Seat: Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky


Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development, and the like. Introducing Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, husband and wife filmmaking team. Michael and Suki got lots of attention upon their release of the documentary Battle for Brooklyn, which chronicled the fight against Atlantic Yards. Now we talk to them after the fact. In May, Suki and Michael will screen a series of retrospectives of their first five feature films at Brooklyn Heights Cinema every Thursday of the month.

BS: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
MG & SH: We live in Clinton Hill now but started out in Brooklyn in a great apartment on Bedford Ave in Williamsburg (after a bunch of years on the Lower East Side). Within a couple of weeks of moving in, our really wonderful landlord started trying to get us to get married and buy a house. We thought he was kind of crazy, but this was in 1995 when everything in Brooklyn was about 500% cheaper than it is now. Eventually, we did get married (and the landlord, Robert Peguero, printed the invites in his print shop downstairs). We started to understand what he was talking about and in lieu of wedding presents we asked for help towards a down payment. We looked for a couple of years and found a home in Clinton Hill in 1999 (after a couple of snafus and missed opportunities).

BS: At this point, Battle for Brooklyn has already received a lot of attention and reached the masses of Brooklyn (and beyond). Did anything surprise you concerning the reception of the film? How has your outlook on the project changed after so many people have seen it?
MG & SH: We had lived in Clinton Hill for about five years when the project was announced. At that point we had a dog, a house, and a kid, and all three of those create more solid connections with community. When you buy a house there is certainly a more practical interest in putting down deeper roots. If you have a dog you start really to meet your neighbors with dogs (and others who stop to pet the dog). When you have a kid it takes it to the next level in terms of being involved locally. Still, after 15 years in the city and 5 years in Clinton Hill, we didn’t know who our city council person was and we didn’t know about community boards when we started the project. At the time our two-year old daughter was going to daycare a block from the project site and when we read about the project’s announcement, we were somewhat flabbergasted by the fact that the articles all sounded like a press release. Looking into what was really going on taught us a great deal about community, government, and power.

Not really surprisingly, those in power and those in government who wanted the project to happen have commented that they don’t need to see the film. However, it does feel like the community has welcomed it. The one major surprise for us was when we went on NY1’s Inside City on Hall with Errol Lewis. Errol was a major supporter of the project and we were nervous about that interview. However, to our great relief – his first comment was that the film was exceedingly fair. James Caldwell, the president of BUILD, also came to one of the first screenings of the film and participated in the Q&A session. He stated that he loved the film and thought that it was fair and we had a good discussion. He did want to make clear that BUILD did not get 5 million dollars from FCR. I don’t think the film makes the point that they did, but it does make the point that they expected to get all of their funding from the developer, which ties their hands in terms of having any real leverage and compromises their ability to represent the community.

In terms of our outlook on the project – we didn’t set out to make a film about the project itself – but instead how that project brought people together and how it divided people. Speaking as community members, and not filmmakers, we have lost a lot of faith in government from this process. We would have more easily classified ourselves as “very liberal” before starting the film. However, now that we have seen how government routinely abuses its power with great disregard for local communities in the service of some supposed “greater good,” we are both even more skeptical about things. It has been interesting to travel with the film and see this same process taking place in cities around the country. In the end, we believe the film has helped to inform people about the complexity of what took place and inspired a lot of important debate about the issues brought up both here in Brooklyn and in cities all over.

After the jump, Suki and Michael talk about screening the film with the arena now present, their hopes for the future of the community and AY development, and some exciting new projects to come!
BS: What is it like watching the film with the arena now physically present? Has your viewing experience, emotionally or otherwise, changed as this space becomes exactly what residents were fighting against?
MG & SH: We recently screened the film at Issue Project Room in Gowanus and at the Ethical Culture Society in Brooklyn. After both screenings, there was a palpable sense of the presence of the arena and how much it had changed the area. It was a very emotional experience for some people to see the film and then travel past the arena on their way home (we got several emails to that effect). The film condenses 7 years into 93 minutes. Over that time span, we see people age, mature, and move on. We see politicians and business leaders promise things that they know they cannot, and will not, deliver. We then see those promises undelivered. We see housing advocates and jobs advocates rally for the project due to those promises. It will be interesting to see how the new Environmental Impact hearings play out with all of the promises to these constituencies broken.

Near the end of the film, Mayor Bloomberg says, “No one’s gonna remember how long it took. They’re just gonna look and see that it was done.” However, as people see that scene, they realize they now know not only how long it took, but also what it took to get it done, and it’s not a pretty picture; and the Mayor and others who would like to erase that history will be unable to because of the film and other historical accounts – like Norman Oder’s in-progress epic work on the subject.

BS: The AY battle was a long one, and one that continues to this day. How did you make the decision of when to stop filming? Was it hard to put a narrative end to such a massive, complicated project that remains a huge part of residents’ lives, and will for a long time to come?
MG & SH: We knew from the beginning of the shoot that the end would come either with the end of the project or the groundbreaking. That was the narrative we were following. We didn’t know it was gonna take seven years to get there, though. The problem we faced the whole time was that it was such a complicated story, and one told through many public hearings – not what you would call riveting cinema.

Another complication was that the story was so over-simplified in the media and frequently on the blogs. We knew we had to focus on the personal story to reach the widest audience – and to deeply communicate what was at stake in a story so mired in public process and banal bureaucracy. One of the more difficult decisions was to really strip the film down and focus it on a few characters. There were so many people that played a big role, but in order to tell a coherent story, we had to tightly focus it. That took a long time to work out.

BS: What do you hope for the future concerning the relationship between surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods and the Atlantic Yards development?
MG & SH: With the courts delivering a huge rebuke to the Empire State Development Corporation and Forest City Ratner recently, there is the hope that some political will can be exerted to take some of the area back and actually develop it by truly involving a wider group of stakeholders. We don’t have a lot of faith in government, though, so we don’t really see that happening. However, it does seem political will has shifted a little. Perhaps the NY Times will start covering the story better. Colin Moynihan has done a good job covering the Occupy movement. Maybe they should put him on it.

BS: What’s next for you both, and the Battle for Brooklyn film?
MG & SH: We are very busy taking Battle around the country playing it at festivals and theaters. We will be announcing a TV/ Theatrical/ DVD deal soon.

Our big news is that we got a Guggenhiem Fellowship that will help us with our next major project dealing with parenting and the pain epidemic. It was actually two separate projects that we recently fused into one. One was Nature vs. Nurture- the other Physical vs. emotional…. It will be complicated to make it work as one film but we think it will be a lot more powerful.

In addition, we are doing a series of retrospectives of our first five feature films at Brooklyn Heights Cinema every Thursday in May. It kicks off with our first rock n’ roll film Half-Cocked (1994) and ends with Battle (2011).

Finally, last year we launched a Kickstarter campaign for a photo book of Michael’s mall photos from 1989. Not only was it a successful Kickstarter campaign – but it got the images into the hands of designer Peter Miles who will be publishing the book on his Miles/Stiedl imprint. Things are busy but going great.

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite Brooklyn film (not your own!), and favorite memory from shooting the BFB documentary.
SH: My favorite Brooklyn neighborhood is Clinton Hill but I love visiting Greenpoint.
MG: Neighborhood – happily it is our own Clinton Hill – but I like my memories of Williamsburg a lot. Honestly we are so busy with work and our kids and their school that we rarely leave the neighborhood (PS 11 Silent Auction on May 4th At Bija on Fulton- come drink and bid on some great prizes!!).

SH: Favorite Brooklyn film? That’s a tough one, I’ll say “The French Connection.”
MG: I really liked JL Aronson’s “Last Summer at Coney Island” which captures the fight to save the amusement area (I’m thinking of it because we just took our kids there for a birthday party on Saturday and I’m so glad it’s still there to some degree).

MG: Favorite memory – early on in 2004, in the first spring there was a rally on Pacific Street. That was an exciting and empowering event. I think my second favorite moment was meeting Sita Goldstein for the first time. That was lovely.