Rachel Shuman: Love Letter to New York

Recently #DirectedbyWomen had the chance to talk with documentary filmmaker Rachel Shuman about her film One October, which will be part of the Maysles Cinema 10th anniversary celebration in May.

Owl Girl in One October

Recently #DirectedbyWomen had the chance to talk with documentary filmmaker Rachel Shuman about her film One October, which will be part of the Maysles Cinema 10th anniversary celebration in May.

DBW: Your documentary One October focuses on one month in 2008 right before the election that swept Barack Obama into the White House. You’ve described it as “a lyrical time capsule that captures the heart and spirit of New York.” Can you share about what inspired you to begin the project and reflect on what it feels like now—10 years later—as you bring the film home to NYC as part of the Maysles Cinema’s 10th anniversary celebration?

RS: On some essential level I wanted to make a love letter to New York. The format was inspired by Chris Marker’s film “Le Joli Mai,” which is a portrait of his native Paris in the month of May 1962, a moment when France had just signed its peace treaty with Algeria after 8 years of war and while a big push for urban renewal was spreading around Paris. In the film Marker notes how the streets of his beloved city were changing, “In ten years, these images will look stranger to us than today do the images of Paris in 1900.”

In the mid 2000s I felt like we were in a similar moment. We’d been at war in Iraq for several years and I began noticing the sweeping urban renewal that was happening in NYC, particularly the East Village and Lower East side where I was living. I decided that I wanted to make a film like “Le Joli Mai” about my city to create a kind of time capsule of what was happening, in part to be able to remember how the city looked at that moment in time and also as way of saying, “Do you see what’s happening here?” I also knew that I wanted to set the film during an election because it is a time when people are more open to discuss their concerns so I decided early on to set the film during the 2008 election, and as Obama’s campaign grew, all the themes in the film started to come together.

Now, ten years later, it amazes me how it seems like that moment was so much longer ago (as Marker predicted about his film). The hyper pace of development I was witnessing then only seems to have accelerated, so much so that it is now on the forefront of nearly every conversation about the city. And politically, it feels like we are in a different universe. But it is interesting to see how much the film foreshadows where we are today.

It is a special treat to show the film at Maysles as part of their 10th anniversary celebration. I have so much respect for the history of this institution and its contribution to the cultural fabric of the city, plus its Harlem location is meaningful because so much of the film was shot in Harlem and the film speaks to many issues that the neighborhood is currently facing.

Clay Pigeon in One October
Clay Pigeon

DBW: The documentary has so many levels… so many subjects… all mediated through the unique perspective of WFMU radio host Clay Pigeon. I’d love to hear about how you worked together with Pigeon to navigate the city, balancing the quite different needs of radio show creation and documentary filmmaking.

RS: When I was looking for an interviewer for the film, a friend of mine who used to have a show on WFMU suggested that I check out Clay Pigeon’s show and I fell in love with it instantly. An inherent part of Clay’s radio show is his interviews with strangers on the street, so I chose to follow him as he was doing his normal rounds and some of the interviews that are in the film were also broadcast on WFMU as part of his show.

He tends to talk about politics a lot, which I wanted, and I told him that I wanted him to ask everyone how they felt about New York, but other than that, I just wanted Clay to be Clay and engage with people as he normally does for the show. He’s interested in connecting with people on a personal and human level and that’s what I love about his interviews. Clay is also, in some way, just another “character” peppering the city streets in the film like so many others, only we get to spend a little more time with him and it is through him that we meet the citizens of New York.

Skyline in One October

DBW: I found the experience of watching the film very calming, even when it is exploring protests on Wall Street during the financial meltdown or grappling with homelessness, gentrification, and other serious issues. How did you work in the editing process to create a mood that honored the diversity of the stories featured in the film, while creating a cohesive feel for the film as a whole?

RS: I was very inspired by the concept of the “sidewalk dance” as urbanist and author Jane Jacobs describes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” I was looking at the whole film as being part of that spontaneous sidewalk dance while I was editing. I also wanted to create a sense of space for the viewer to watch, observe, and reflect on what was happening so I tried to leave a lot of room for people to come to his or her own conclusions. The music is a very important component to the atmosphere of the film and I was lucky to have worked closely with the supremely talented composer Paul Brill to create a mood that is at times foreboding, but also very often joyous. I was also inspired by the history of “City Symphony” films and wanted to use music as a way of expressing the feeling of the city. I have a lot of love for the people and the place and as director/editor I was trying to communicate that, and I think the film often sweeps the viewer up in that feeling.

Halloween in One October

DBW: From time to time as I was watching the film I found myself wondering whether you’ve considered making a sequel—Another October perhaps?—to explore the very different dynamics unfolding in New York, the US and the world at this time. The upheaval at this time has such a different feel. Do you have a project or projects you are working on now? What’s calling for your attention?

RS: I have definitely thought about doing a sequel. It makes me think of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of films in which he has followed the same group of British schoolchildren for more than fifty years, making a film every seven years about their lives at that moment. It would be fascinating, but there is another part of me that wanted to create a time capsule of a particular moment; I wanted to fix that moment in time so that we could then look back at it from any point in the future and see how it is changed or what still remains. So sometimes I feel like it would create a limit on the film to make a sequel. Right now I have been working on a couple of short films with my filmmaker husband David Sampliner who is the cinematographer of “One October.” I have a couple of ideas for features, but am not ready to put them out in the world yet. I make a living as an editor and love editing so I think I will probably edit for a while until the next idea really takes hold.

Rachel Shuman [Photo: Caroline Kaye]
Rachel Shuman [Photo: Caroline Kaye]
DBW: The #DirectedbyWomen initiative aims to help the world discover and relish the work of women filmmakers. Can you point us in the direction of a few women directors whose work you wish more film lovers knew about?

RS: One of my favorite filmmakers is Heddy Honigmann who is a Peruvian-born Dutch director. She certainly has a small following of devoted fans in the States, but I don’t think she is as widely known as she should be. Some of my favorite films of hers are “Metal and Melancholy,” “O Amor Natural” and “Forever.” I’ve also been greatly influenced by Agnes Varda, but hopefully she is a household name by now. Others include Maya Deren and Chantal Ackerman who were early pioneers in experimental film.

DBW: Anything else you’d love to share with us before we wrap up?

RS: Although the film is about New York specifically, it speaks to the broader trend of homogenization and corporatization that is happening in cities all over the world. It is my hope that the film resonates with viewers no matter where they live and inspires them to fight for the continued survival and preservation of what makes their cities unique.

Along with the run at Maysles, we are doing a theatrical tour around the country, including a screening at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts theater in Los Angeles on May 22, where I will be joining for a Q&A following the screening. A complete list of screenings can be found on our website oneoctoberfilm.com. The film will also be available nationally on video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, and GooglePlay starting May 11.

DBW: Thanks so much for taking time to communicate about your work. I hope the 10th anniversary celebration in Harlem is an opportunity for joyous appreciation for NYC and the people who live and work there. As a New York native I’ll be with you in spirit.

Week-long theatrical release starts May 11 at Maysles Cinema in New York.

Additional screenings nationwide:
Columbus, OH, Columbus Documentary Week, Gateway Film Center, April 26-May 6
Garrison, NY, The Depot Theatre, April 27
Ann Arbor, MI, Michigan Theater, May 8
Iowa City, IA, FilmScene, May 15
Paducah, KY, Maiden Alley Cinema, May 16
Jersey City, NJ, WFMU Monty Hall, May 18
Los Angeles, Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts, May 22
Chicago, IL, Beverly Arts Center, May 23
Bellingham, WA, Pickford Film Center, May 24
Baltimore, MD, The Parkway, June 8

One October poster

Follow Rachel Shuman and One October on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and on the One October website.