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Photo via https://www.facebook.com/skillmanknights

Last weekend, my local bar turned from low-key hangout to the packed event space only seen once a year for St. Patrick’s Day.  The cause: the premiere of locally-sourced film The Black Knights of Skillman.  This film was shot entirely in my neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens (and takes its name from the Sunnyside-north’s main thoroughfare, Skillman Avenue) using all local talent (including yours truly) and shooting locations and directed by Tommy Turner, an experimental filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood.  Locals Terry Murphy and Dutch Edeburn also contributed their technical skills and artistry with editing and production, respectively, but what really interested me was the dozen-plus extras who performed and what happens to the community before and afterwards.

During the series of shoots around our local bar, cast members’ backyards, sidewalks,  streets, and railroad tracks, a diverse array of people joined in for short cameos or more developed parts.  The film has a loose narrative structure and an avant-garde style, so most cast-members actually had no idea what the film’s plot was or how their contribution would fit in.  What tied the participants together, loosely, was their connections to the local pub, Flynn’s Garden Inn.  In a way, the entire film’s creation revolved around this specific location and the interpersonal connections within it.  In the weeks leading up to the premiere, there was a tremendous amount of buzz on local and social media as well as constant topic of discussion around the bar for a good two months (topping the never-realized touch football block party buzz of 2011).

The month-long buzz surrounding the event as well as the highly-anticipated premiere reminded me of an earlier oft-forgotten form of American film in the first half of the twentieth-century, the itinerant film.  So-called “itinerant filmmakers” would travel to towns, often in southern or rural areas, and produce films using local sites and people to be screened to much fanfare to local audiences.  These films were often documentary or non-narrative in style, or sometimes had Hollywood-style narrative structures.  Viewers, however, were not looking for overly original or moving subject matter, however, but rather the thrill of recognizing various signifiers of “home” on the big screen.

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Itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker filming at unknown location, 1966. Photo via http://www.meltonbarker.org/resources/
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Strand Theater in Cobb County Georgia, date unknown. Photo via http://www.meltonbarker.org/resources/

While Black Knight‘s director and crew were by no means “itinerant,” but rather as locally based as the cast, the connections between the two remain in the relationship between cast and exhibition.  It would have been an entirely different thing to have made the same film and shared it on YouTube or Vimeo or screened it at an indie theater in Brooklyn.  Even though it would achieve at least the same, or probably more, viewers within the week, the act of transforming locals into stars on local screens made the entire experience more about community and achieving a sense of place within our neighborhood (despite the fact that the fictive spaces in the film’s narrative are hellish and violent).  The premier gave us a chance, as the Depression-era marquee in the image above claims, to “see your town, maybe yourself, in the movies.”  There was a collapse last Sunday night as actors, viewers, and characters were all present at the same time.  Similarly shooting location, screening venue, and production-team meeting room were simultaneously physically apparent.  Many cast members dressed up, and the production team even hired a limo driver to take “stars” from the pre-party around the block to the venue for their red carpet arrival.  Perfomativity was part of the production and exhibition of this community’s film

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Sunnysiders watch the premiere screening of The Black Knights of Skillman at Flynn’s Garden Inn, September 1, 2013. Photo via https://www.facebook.com/skillmanknights

To me, the event sparked new ideas about how to build or maintain community through artistic production.  Many current projects focus on feel-good community service, historical revisionism, or political activism.  While these are certainly great aims for making artworks collectively, we perhaps pigeon-hole ourselves by always making community-related work “mean something.”  This is where Black Knights succeeds.  Don’t get me wrong, Turner’s film is brilliant – it’s dark, it’s funny, it’s put together extremely well.  However its narrative, style, and subject matter are not interested in furthering community, but rather telling a vibrant, hallucinatory story.  “Community” in this sense comes, perhaps, not from content, but possibly from the physical processes of the cinema – working collaboratively to create and watch films on big screens.

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