documentary art, audiovisual scholarship, and public humanities
by Joshua Glick
Since its creation for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, the Unisphere has surfaced time and time again in the background of commercial film and television. The gigantic steel armillary located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens is used for establishing shots in works ranging from music videos (Cyndi Lauper’s Hey Now) to sitcoms (The King of Queens), Hollywood features (Men in Black), and advertisements for the U.S. Open. While the Unisphere has become synonymous with the borough, the way it has been depicted in popular culture habitually ignores its origins and symbolic identity. In filmmaker and audiovisual historian Seth Fein’s award-winning experimental documentary, Between Neighborhoods (2017), the Unisphere takes center stage, not simply as an aesthetic object to be admired for its impressive design and scale, but as a prism to explore the transnational history and contemporary social geography of Queens.  [open endnotes in new window]
I first met Fein as a graduate student at Yale University, where I audited his undergraduate seminar titled Film and History. We continued to keep in touch about our shared interests in media history and filmmaking, even as I later moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to teach Film & Media Studies courses at Hendrix College, and Fein began teaching in a Screen Studies program at Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema and founded the studio Seven Local Film. What began as a post-screening talk back for Between Neighborhoods at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival in June 2017, extended to a series of conversations about the documentary as well as his current projects.
We chatted in many of the locales that appear throughout Between Neighborhoods: the cafes and restaurants in Elmhurst and Fein’s home neighborhood of Jackson Heights, the bustling sidewalks that line the path of the elevated 7 Train, and the plaza that surrounds the Unisphere itself. Mobilizing a rich archive of newsreels, television programs, photographs, and recorded speeches from politicians and civic figures, Fein examines the ways through which authoritarian planner (and World’s Fair architect) Robert Moses attempted to make Queens the center for the New York City metropolitan region consisting of city, outerboroughs, and suburbs interlinked through highways and bridges. As imagined by Moses, the Unisphere constituted the focal point of both the Fair and the expanded urban-suburban territory. At the same time, Between Neighborhoods investigates the Unisphere’s connection to the federal government’s neoimperial mission, following the modernization theory of W.W. Rostow, to selectively “develop” the industrial economies, urban infrastructures, and technocratic governments of Third World nations for the benefit of the United States.
Between Neighborhoods’ diptych design creatively excavates a little known aspect of the borough’s past. It also juxtaposes scenes of Queens from the 1960s with the borough today in a new global age and the presidency of Donald Trump. And yet, Between Neighborhoods offers no drive-by tourist’s gaze, no quick snapshots of the “sights and sounds” of the street. Fein’s nonfiction practice resonates with how filmmakers Thom Andersen, Agnès Varda, and Bill Morrison investigate the deep history of cultural landscapes, probing the multifold relationships that exist between the lived present and remembered past of a place. In Between Neighborhoods, contemporary observational video captures the flurry of activity around the Unisphere, showing minority residents of Queens (many of who are immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East) laying claim to the area.
Scholar Dolores Hayden notes that urban landscapes are “storehouses” for “social memories” that can be activated to cultivate a more inclusive public culture. Between Neighborhoods portrays parts of Queens’ geography in similar terms, helping viewers understand the fraught origins of the Unisphere and how it has been reinterpreted as a monument to contemporary Queens and the immigrants who call the borough home. In recent decades, the plaza surrounding the Unisphere has functioned as a skate park, date spot, playground, and performance stage. More broadly, Between Neighborhoods examines the residential enclaves and commercial districts of Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, Corona, and Flushing as vibrant, mixed-class, multi-racial communities. They give individuals and families important structures of affiliation and belonging in the form of religious institutions, health care clinics, shopping centers, schools, and arts organizations. In the documentary, vernacular culture (parades in particular) and local demonstrations serve as forms of resistance against encroaching gentrification, the privatization of public space, and repressive immigration policies and discriminatory policing.
Between Neighborhoods has enjoyed a robust exhibition run. It has been screened at film festivals, such as the Queens World Film Festival where it won the Founders Choice award in 2017, as well as at universities in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Additionally, it was shown at community institutions such as the Latino immigrant rights organization Make the Road New York in Bushwick and has been installed for extended periods of time at CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan and at Queens College’s Art Center Gallery. College campuses have provided a fitting home for Between Neighborhoods as the project emerged out of Fein’s scholarship about audiovisual cultures in the Americas, especially film and television between Mexico and the U.S. between the Depression and the Cold War. As a professor of History, American Studies, Latin American Studies and Film at Yale his graduate and undergraduate teaching positioned audiovisual culture as central to the interdisciplinary analysis of transnationalism. As he wrote in his article “Culture Across Borders in the Americas” for History Compass (2003), “The cultural turn in international and transnational history has not abdicated the study of power but has intensified the scholar’s need to problematize and define what power and culture are.” In Fein’s Film and History seminar, we looked at both films made in the 1930s and how the decade has since been depicted on screen. Our case studies animated theoretical questions regarding historical representation as a process of selection and omission indelibly influenced by the sociopolitical forces of the present.
More recently, Fein’s move from interdisciplinary writing to documentary contributes to a larger movement in which cinema, communications, and media studies departments at universities around the U.S. are collapsing the boundaries between traditional scholarship and filmmaking. Special programs of various emphases and curricula at universities such as Duke, George Washington, and the University of California, Santa Cruz share an interest in critical studies, nonfiction production, and social engagement. They see documentary not simply as a means for creating “awareness” of a pressing issue, but as a form of artful analysis and advocacy. Fein talked about his documentary practice when he workshopped an early iteration of what became Between Neighborhoods (titled Outerspace Innerborough) with my Cinema and New York City summer seminar at Columbia University in 2014. Our conversation helped students to better understand the possibilities of documentary as an interpretive craft, in this case foregrounding the central role of audiovisual media in shaping Cold War New York, as well as the global identity of modern-day Queens.
Fein’s current project, Our Neighborhood, builds on, but is distinct from, Between Neighborhoods’ exploration of how the Cold War was waged through transnational culture. Our Neighborhood concentrates on the U.S. government’s TV propaganda in Latin America in the 1960s. Now in production, the documentary looks at the U.S. attempt to contain the Cuban Revolution by broadcasting liberal modernization as an alternative to socialist revolution. Towards this end, the government was invested in a wide spectrum of genres, ranging from telenovelas, dramatic series, news programs and educational talk shows. The film also includes original interviews with United States Information Agency and Latin American talent as well as dramatizations based on research drawn from documents obtained through Fein’s Freedom of Information Act request.