Images from the documentary 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986)
Martha Sanchez boiling water in order to give her son, Fernando, a bath.
Martha Sanchez bathing her son with water warmed by the stove. This scene demonstrates tenants’ survival tactics, developed to cope with an unresponsive landlord.
Angel Mercado with a rat recently caught in his apartment.
A medium close-up of the building superintendent, whose reaction registers both the presence of the tenants and the video camera on the scene.
A tenant signing a petition.
The tenants, led by Millie, enter the landlord’s building to present the petition and to demand that the more than ninety-five violations of New York City’s Building Code be addressed.
An over-the-shoulder shot of Millie confronting the landlord’s administrator.
Millie speaks for herself and for her neighbors as she reads the petition to the administrator.
The administrator reacts to the tenants’ demands and kicks them out of the office. A limit to the tenants’ activism is reached. However the indifference of the landlord’s representatives is registered on the video image.
The video appeasl to an expert, journalist Annette Fuentes, who places the tenants’ experiences within a broader context.
The video makes a reflexive turn as we see earlier scenes on the monitor screen.
The camera slowly zooms in closer onto the monitor rendering the video image both more detailed and more abstract.
The zoom ends as a brief clip of Millie and her father in the kitchen is seen on the video monitor. The reflexive narrative maneuver calls attention to both the video’s agency in eliciting commentary on housing problems and its limitations as a response to a socio-economic problem.
In this close-up of Fuentes, the journalist transitions from “expert” to “spectator” and presents a model of reception for subsequent viewers.
Featuring youth documentary production was, then, for EVC central to its social justice project. However, EVC found a way to balance this agenda with the vocational priorities of school curricula. Goodman notes that “by the early 1980s” — by the time the EVC was founded…
In video as taught in schools, then, a “handheld” paradigm of guerrilla filmmaking was displaced by a “tripod” paradigm of staid, pseudo-industrial production in the 80s. In this context, the tripod — upon which the camera becomes “locked down” — becomes, for Goodman, a metaphor for the restraint, containment, regulation and near imprisonment of minority youth in educational programs that prioritize the training or disciplining of the body over the strengthening and enhancement of the mind and self-expression. He insists that the handheld camera, conversely, services an opposite vision of free-wheeling unpredictability. Unstable images that signify the camera’s position on the shoulder of the videographer register subjectivity, a self that is implicated in the image and is simultaneously both in and out of control of the camera. Goodman posits a psychology and a whole aesthetic from handheld camerawork. A handheld camera bolsters an aesthetic of spontaneity that conveys the feeling of an improvisational and liberated self that counters the static character of predictable industrial conventions. Goodman’s characterization of the handheld camera rearticulates past discourses on the portability and participatory nature of video. For instance, David Cort, a founding member of Commediation and Videofreex, described his initial fascination with video in the late 60s as follows:
While the EVC program could accommodate the vocational needs of some schools, it could also synchronize with the “prevention language” that also permeated educational discourses of the 80s. Such language represented, for EVC staffers, the necessary “funding language” that needed to be appropriated. “Violence prevention, pregnancy prevention, drug prevention, dropout prevention” all complicated the vocational agenda by yielding a variety of narrowly articulated “social problem” concerns that at times lent themselves to EVC’s broader commitment to social justice. Goodman notes that the primary message of EVC to funders was that young people
In the process of making this case, the prevention language was at times aligned with EVC’s therapeutic discourse of self-improvement or identity transformation, even as educational institutions may have been less comfortable with other aspects of EVC’s critical stance (Goodman 2006).
Needless to say, this constellation of discourses around prevention, self-improvement, and critical literacy renders a highly contradictory media practice that is not easily summarized. Navigating the competing demands placed on EVC, given its institutional setting, falls onto the figure of the teacher who “needs to work on multiple levels simultaneously” and in the end “bears ultimate responsibility” (Goodman 2003, 56-7). The framework for young self-expressivity in documentary media presumes the student’s acquisition of an array of skills, which Goodman outlines as “research, interviewing, writing, technical arts, editing, and critical viewing” (Goodman 2003, 57). The “learner-centered methodology” that characterizes EVC’s pedagogy and production ethos is attenuated by the teacher’s responsibilities and effectiveness (Goodman 2003, 56). Given this context and the institutional pressures exerted, EVC’s practice couches its auto-ethnographic enterprise in a social problem-solving discourse that appeals to educators by prioritizing a racialized aesthetic of personal growth.
In the following textual analyses, I will look at two very different EVC videos produced twenty-two years apart. Both resonate with aspects of Goodman’s pedagogical ethos and as instances of EVC’s practice, both share formal characteristics as first-person documentaries. However, these two texts also suggest a range of possibilities within EVC’s mode of production by virtue of a clear contrast. The first video, 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story, presents a narrative in which its young subject is ensnared by appalling living conditions because her family and neighbors are victims of a delinquent landlord. The second video, Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue, follows three subjects — in three separate stories — as they consider the value of participating in the 2008 Presidential election. In the former, a desperate plea to address oppressive material conditions is foregrounded while in the latter, a narrative of personal growth trumps social change. These two videos should in no way be seen as indicative of EVC’s body of work as a whole, but — through this clear contrast — they give an indication of two contrasting aesthetic strategies within youth media.
2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986)
One of EVC’s earliest videos and best examples of how the center’s emphasis on young expressivity, social justice, and handheld camera becomes actualized is 2371 Second Avenue: An East Harlem Story (1986). This work centers on the living conditions of a young female, named Millie Reyes, and her family in East Harlem. Through first-person voiceover, interviews, and direct address to the camera, Reyes reviews for the audience the dilapidated state of her family’s apartment building, which consists of “broken windows, garbage, rats, and no hot water.” At one point she states explicitly that 2371 Second Avenue “is a documentary I made with other teenagers about my family, my neighbors, and how we struggle to survive under these conditions.” Early in the piece, Reyes introduces the audience to her family by combining both an in-frame direct address commentary with a voiceover on the soundtrack (Figure 9). In a handheld medium shot of Reyes and her family, Reyes with microphone in hand introduces her mother, father, and cousin, followed by a voiceover that explains: “My family came from Puerto Rico almost thirty years ago for a better life, but this is what they found.” Subsequently, the documentary adheres to the principle of evidentiary editing as close-ups of a hole in a wall (Figure 10) and a faulty pipe provide illustrations of the father’s description of how “rats have eaten [most of] the wall” (in Spanish as Reyes translates for the audience). Reyes and her camera crew continue to film her father as he turns on the bath faucet demonstrating that there is no hot water. Translating for her father, Reyes explains that there are more apartments like this in the building.
These early segments of 2371 Second Avenue illustrate many of the complexities of EVC’s project. It could be argued that, in spite of Goodman’s claim to prioritize the handheld paradigm over that of the tripod or studio paradigm, this documentary right away demonstrates a certain blending of the two. Of course, every shot thus far, and indeed for the rest of the piece, is handheld and registers the experience of venturing out into the “gritty” racialized reality of life in East Harlem. The mobility of the camera through the space of the Reyes’ home grants viewers access to the appalling domestic living conditions of a working class Puerto Rican family, who struggle with an indifferent and racist housing system. While this could be seen as a far cry from the industrial mimicry of high school vocational media programs set in studios, these early segments nevertheless synchronize with a commercial, “human interest” model of news in which a reporter takes an audience into a racialized experience centered on first person anecdotes. One of the critical differences here, however, is that the reporter is in fact a member of the family and is telling the audience not just a story of race and poverty, but rather her personal and familial experience of an indifferent landlord and housing authority. Here the self, the representation of Millie Reyes, is immediately situated within the larger context of not only her family, but of her film crew as well — the “other teenagers” of whom she spoke in her introductory voiceover. The self is speaking not only on behalf of her family, but also as an expression of the youthful collective that enables her to direct the action of the documentary live and in frame.
This situation of the self in the family is carried further as the family’s experiences with their retrograde living conditions is shown to be indicative of the community’s experience of the apartment building as a whole. In a voiceover commentary, Reyes explains that her cousin “Martha Sanchez lives upstairs in Apartment 11 with her one-year-old son, Fernando [and she] is one of the many in this building [lacking] hot water.” As a result, “in order to give her son a bath, she has to boil water” (Figure 12). This last line is juxtaposed with medium shots of Sanchez with her son in the bathtub (Figure 13). Continuing her voiceover, Reyes introduces the audience to Angel Mercado, “who lives in Apartment C with his mentally disabled daughter, Sylvia.” As Reyes translates Mercado’s comments from Spanish to English for the audience, Mercado explains how he and his family have had to deal with rats in their apartment and shows the camera crew, in close-up, a rat he recently caught (Figure 14). These testimonies accrue into a kind of critical mass that prompts a transition in the documentary’s mode of address to the audience. Moving from an illustration of a particular problem — poor housing conditions — the work shifts into the gear of action and intervention cited by Goodman as a key agenda item for the work of EVC as a whole. Accompanying a moving high-angle shot of Reyes and her neighbors walking down the stairs in the building, Reyes explains in voiceover: “Our video crew went with my neighbors to confront the super about the problems in the building.” This segues into a medium shot of a man we are to assume is the superintendent standing in the doorway to his apartment (Figure 15). The shot establishes an aesthetic of confrontation as the camera pans back and forth from the superintendent to a tenant. In Spanish, the superintendent admits the lack of hot water is a problem, but the “landlord doesn’t want to fix it.” “I call and call and call,” he exclaims, “[but the landlord] doesn’t supply me with materials…” This exchange is followed by a medium shot of Reyes knocking on a door as her voiceover states: “I went door to door getting my neighbors to sign a petition which we would then present to the landlord” (Figure 16).
The quote from Egan which opens this essay resonates most clearly with this moment. To reiterate, Egan traces the unique potential of autobiographical texts to – within limited parameters – prop up an oppositional subject who performs against the hegemonic conditions in which she is situated by supplying a voice where there is normally silence. Egan’s vanguard of the self is married to a vanguard of the camera in the above sequence of 2371 Second Avenue. A key implication is that Reyes and her crew confront the superintendent and collect signatures on a petition both because of Reyes’ personal experience and outrage and also because their presence as a camera crew publicly validates and legitimates their “marginalized voices.” The superintendent receives these complaints aware of the proximity of the camera to his person; thus he is aware of the presence of an imaginary audience and that audience’s perception of his handling of the tenants’ complaints. “If subjectivity and alterity can take turns within one text, with neither one disappearing as a subject,” writes Egan, “then dialogues between cultural and political margins and centers also become possible within the text” (13). This moment of confrontation between Reyes, the tenants, the superintendent, and the camera unsettles the quotidian experiences of all involved and – in doing so – initiates a series of “dialogues” that inches the activists and the video itself closer to an encounter with the dominant figure of the landlord.
After collecting enough signatures, the film depicts the exterior of an office building while Reyes explains in voice-over that “it was hard to track down the landlord, Simon R., since he worked out of an office that sells air conditioning, but we went in anyway.” A long shot of the tenants entering the building cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot of Reyes introducing herself to an administrator; the editing eventually settles into a pattern of shot-reaction shot cutting between individualized medium shots of each (Figures 17-20). After being informed that the landlord is “not in,” Reyes reads the petition aloud to the administrator, stating that “the tenants of 2371 Second Avenue have been living in rat-infested apartments without hot water and demand that these and ninety-five other violations be corrected immediately” and, if not addressed, the tenants would “withhold rent.” In response, the administrator informs the entire group that they have to leave the building immediately and Reyes notes in her voiceover that “after getting thrown out of the landlord’s office, we went to City Limits, a housing magazine to see what could be done to help the tenants in the building…We spoke to Annette Fuentes.” A medium shot of Fuentes cuts to a medium shot of a video monitor on her desk (Figure 21-22). As the camera zooms in onto the monitor, we revisit earlier scenes from the documentary including shots of Reyes’ apartment and the confrontational scene between Reyes and the administrator, but mediated through the television screen in the journalist’s office (Figures 23-25). In response to the footage, Fuentes responds by noting that “what we saw from Millie’s building is not uncommon…landlords are milking these buildings.”
As we can see, the confrontation with the superintendent is ratcheted up as Reyes leads the tenants beyond the space of the building and into a direct showdown with and entrance into the space of authority. Again, the rigidity of center-periphery hierarchies is called into question as Reyes leads the charge into the landlord’s office and speaking on behalf of her community warns of consequences for the figure of authority if the living conditions for the residents of 2371 Second Avenue are not improved and “violations” are not corrected. Nevertheless, while the corridors of the landlord’s authority are breached and the marginalized status of the tenants is unsettled, the video remarkably doesn’t leave us with any easy solutions as the administrator simply tells the group to leave and the City Limits journalist merely situates the tenants’ complaints within a broader context of landlord neglect in New York City.
The documentary seems to presume that the ultimate intervention is the text itself, the record of conditions, events, and expert characterization of the problem. The self-reflexive implications of electronic media are reinforced as the documentary’s earlier scenes return to us as agents in their own right, as more than frames within frames, but as real-time players that call forth testimony from the journalist just as Reyes called forth a reaction from the administrator. In this regard, it is significant that Reyes is minimally visible in the scene with the City Limits reporter. Instead, with the exception of our view of Reyes at the beginning of the scene and on the video monitor, she is only present in the scene through the journalist’s third person discussion of her family’s living conditions. To be clear, the primary purpose of this scene is to present a straightforward talking-head shot of Fuentes relating Reyes’ experiences to a more systemic and pervasive problem that will necessitate a broader outcry from the public in order for things to change. In many ways, Fuentes completes the video’s gradual socialization of Reyes into increasingly broader familial, communal, and social registers. In this regard, the video camera’s zoom onto the television monitor – and its correlative abstraction of Reyes on the screen within the screen – is a visual compliment to this theme of Reyes’ specificity giving way to something larger and harder to capture within the confines of 2371 Second Avenue.