Rooftop Films recently returned from a tremendously successful series of screenings in Toronto, partnering with the largest documentary festival in North America, Hot Docs for three shows on a roof May 6-8. Six Rooftop staffers made the drive up to Canada on May 4. It was me, Dan Nuxoll, Will Chu and Chantel Elassaad in a borrowed minivan, and Aaron Wistar and Chris O’Brien in Rooftop’s packed-to-the-gills equipment truck. The minivan did it’s best to kill us—a wild eel of windshield wiper attacked, the fender fell off and was reattached with crazy glue and zip ties, and at one point there was a severed head (or something) dangling from the axel. For a busted up van (sorry, Benny), we were remarkable well-connected though, as laptops and cell phones were in constant use (getting ready for those shows and all our NYC events), and classic hip hop and soul music, plus some contemporary indie stars headed for Rooftop this summer, kept our spirits high. Our quick stop at a combined Subway Sandwich / Computer Repair / Head Shop helped, too. In the Rooftop van, Aaron and Chris had a detailed manifest of all our gear, with serial numbers and receipts, a letter from the Ontario government, etc., preparing for a paranoid border crossing, but they were waved through without much notice. Go figure.
We arrived in Toronto just in time to catch the Sheffield Doc Fest party, and caught up with old friends like Hussain Currimbhoy (Sheffield), Ingrid Kopp (Shooting People), Pamela Cohn (Still in Motion), Esther Robinson and Cameron Yates (Canal Street Madam), Basil Tsiokos (Sundance and many others), Philipp Engelhorn (Cinereach), and many others, plus the Hot Docs senior staff members, Sean Farnell and Brett Hindie. There was a ton of buzz about the Rooftop screenings, a lot of good local press, and all three shows were already sold-out. Hot Docs, Hot Damn!
Wednesday we scoped the roof, and were thrilled to discover that our van would in fact be able to drive to the top of the parking lot, so we wouldn’t have to carry the gear up and down four stories each night. Toronto native Chantel caught up with some old friends, and the rest of us caught a couple of screenings. I was particularly impressed by The Peddler, a wonderful documentary about a man who travels around small towns in rural Argentina making ultra-low-budget films with locals. He shows up, meets the mayor, explains that he wants to make a film with the townsfolk in exchange for a month’s worth of housing and food, and then off-handedly asks, “Do you know anyone with a camera?” At first you think he might be a con man, or at best an incompetent lunatic, but the end result is a remarkably fun mini-adventure film, and everyone has a truly inspired and enjoyable time participating. The film really captures that oft-remarked-upon magic of cinema.
Wednesday night, another festival party, more catching up with old friends, including a handful of Rooftop alums: Toronto natives Jessica Duffin Wolfe (Berlin) and Jessica Edwards (Seltzer Works), plus New Yorkers Gregory King and David Teague, in Toronto for the World Premiere of their feature Our House, a fascinating and lovely film about illegal squatter / anarchist radical / devout Christians, living in a house in Brooklyn.
Thursday I had dim sum with former Rooftop filmmaker / artist Jennifer Matotek, who made some of the classics of mid-era Rooftop (remember Cats and Pants? We showed it about 50 times.) She’s taken a few years off from filmmaking while pursuing a masters degree, but is ready to dive back in. It’s good to keep in touch with great people like this, lest her new films not make it our way.
Meanwhile, the tech staff spent the afternoon setting up and dealing with chilly temperatures and high winds. The Hot Docs staff were tremendously helpful, and our crew was heroic. All of them were wind-chapped and stiff by the time the show began, but they did an amazing job getting the screening off without a hitch. It looked incredible. We set up 450 chairs and filled them all plus standing room. The crowd absolutely loved Meghan Eckman’s Parking Lot Movie, the perfect film to screen on the roof of a parking lot.
Friday and Saturday, however, hit us with some insane Canadian weather. At night it got down to 28 degrees (yes, Fahrenheit), with snow flurries. Everyone at Hot Docs was saying that this was atypical for Toronto in May, but so long as the hockey playoffs were still on, the weather can’t surprise me in Canada. So we spent our days getting soaked exploring the different neighborhoods of Toronto, and hanging out with friends and watching some movies (Feathered Cocaine was another curiousity, and the tech crew loved a film I’d seen at SXSW, Thunder Soul). Aaron, Chris and I had brunch with Rooftop all-around everyman (filmmaker/programmer/novelist/game-designer/DIY promoter) Jim Munroe of No Media Kings. Jim is completing a new omnibus low-fi sci-fi film, just released a new graphic novel, and hooked me up with a few local film people with access to rooftops, where we might expand to in future years. I went off and met with one of them immediately, a guy named Stacey P. Case who runs a joint screenprinting press/16mm B-Movie Screening Series/Pillow Fighting League. Makes sense to me. He’s in the basement of an old canning factory, just like Rooftop in Brooklyn, and might be a good partner for us up north.
Saturday I met with Wanda Vanderstoop of V Tape, one of the world’s leading distributors of experimental and art cinema. We’ve shown a number of V Tape films, but had never met face to face, so it was great to spend a few hours with Wanda, talking about programming and filmmakers’ rights and supporting independent cinema and surviving as a small arts non-profit. I look forward to working with V Tape more in the future, now that we’ve had some time to learn about each other’s organization. They too could be a great partner for future Rooftop expansion.
Later I had lunch with Robin Hessman (My Perestroika) and Sarah Goodman (When We Were Boys), two incredibly talented and insightful filmmakers, and then had dinner with Ben Steinbauer, the director of Winnebago Man, which was a big hit at Rooftop in 2009. Such a hit, in fact, that Kino International saw it there and is distributing it theatrically—the film opens on July 9 at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street in NYC. A documentary about the legendary YouTube sensation Jack Rebney, The World’s Angriest Winnebago Salesman, we think the movie has the chance to be a real documentary hit. Ben and I spent the meal talking about ways we can promote the film in theaters—showing trailers at Rooftop, renting a Winnebago, allowing people who bring your WM ticket stub to Rooftop to get in free, etc. We’ll be pulling hard for this film, and hope everyone goes to see it.
Next we headed to the Hot Docs Closing Night party, where in particular I was glad to catch up with Michael Schmidt, co-founder of the Rural Route Film Festival and former Kino employee. Mike moved to TO with his wife a couple years ago, and is doing some of his own filmmaking again, which is great.
On Sunday, I rented a bicycle and went for a long ride. Back in the mid-80s, my dad (Philip Rosenberg), worked on a TV show in Toronto. It was a cop show called Night Heat which ran on CBS in the states and CTV in Canada. (Someone has built an amazing website for the show!) A lot of the Toronto folks I talked to fondly remembered the show, but no one knew where the production headquarters and sets were. I only knew it was along the lake, west of the Exhibition center, based in the former campus of a mental hospital. My dad couldn’t remember where it was, but with a little google-mapping, and 30 miles of bike-exploring, I tracked it down. It was a ramshackle place 30 years ago, so I was surprised that it still existed at all, but fortunately it’s been taken over by a college and renovated and saved. A thousand old production anecdotes flooded back to me, even though production had ceased by the time I was 14 years old. It was pretty emotional for me to return to this place where I’d spent so much time in my childhood, one of the key places that formed my early love of cinema.
I raced back into the city to return the bike and make it to our show, and happened upon an incredibly serendipitous classic Toronto event: a free concert by Broken Social Scene. If that scene was tacked into a movie of my day, no one would believe it.
Finally, the rain cleared and we were able to run our final, combined program. We showed a few shorts from Saturday’s show, plus Friday’s intended feature, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol. Again, the show was packed, with about 300 people in the attendance. People really loved the film, as evidenced by the fact that when we did a giveaway of the subject’s book there was a mad rush for it. Also, temperatures hovered just above freezing, but astonishingly no one left. I guess if you decide to go to an outdoor screening when it’s 38 degrees out you know what you’re getting into, but for sure these Canadians are tough, and love the documentaries.
Overall, Rooftop’s first expansion in years into another city was a huge success. Liz Radshaw, Sydney Levitt and the entire Hot Docs staff did an incredible job, and the trip really proved that there’s a huge audience waiting outside of New York for Rooftop to come their way. Be on the lookout for Rooftop in your city soon!