March 28, 2018

Environmental Film Festival Has a Broader Focus This Year

FENDING OFF GENTRIFICATION: The owners of auto repair shops in Willets Point, Queens, just across from Citi Field, were followed by a film crew as they fought the city of New York over plans to close them down and build a mall. “The Iron Triangle” is among the features to be screened at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival starting Sunday.

By Anne Levin

At this year’s Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF) presented by Princeton Public Library, expect to see features on such topics as the destruction of forests, the changing climate, saving the Great Swamp, and what happens to plastics when we throw them away. But this year’s festival, which opens Sunday, April 8 and runs through April 15, goes a step further.

Films such as The Iron Triangle, which focuses on the fight to stave off gentrification in an industrial area of Queens, New York; and Dolores, about the 87-year-old co-founder of the first farm workers’ unions, tell a larger story.

“This year we considered ‘work’ as our theme to connect the films with a larger social context about how people identify and express themselves through their work, what sacrifices they have made in pursuit of their work, how their work impacts society and the planet, and how their work inspired and motivated others,” said Susan Conlon, the festival’s founder/director and the library’s head of youth services. Now in its 12th year, the festival is also about “how the workplace and our changing roles in it, and the very nature of work itself, are undergoing a great shift with local and global implications,” she added.

Conlon is especially enthused about The Iron Triangle, which follows the struggles of the hundreds of small auto repair shops that sit across from Citi Field in the Willets Point section of Queens. The owners, most of whom are immigrants, fought the efforts of the city to raze the area and build a huge mall in its place. Many issues are at work in this story, from the city’s shocking neglect of the blighted area marked for lucrative redevelopment to the fate of the dislocated workers who depend on the shops for their livelihood.

“I think the film speaks to the social justice issues that are intertwined in reimagining and redeveloping our cities,” said Conlon. “These issues are playing out across our cities, from Willets Point to San Francisco, and changing our urban environments where people want to live and work.”

For filmmakers Will Lehman and Prudence Katze, initial inspiration came from The Assassination of New York, a book by Robert Fitch about the history of gentrification and the disappearing working class in Manhattan. Lehman, who is a film editor originally from Chicago, and Katze, who studied art and has a degree in urban planning, had been living in New York since the early 2000s.

“We saw how much the city had changed since 9/11,” said Katze. “We were interested in this idea of what happens with gentrification. We started by doing a Ken Burns-like sprawling history, but soon realized it was getting too long. We learned about the Willets Point project and started to focus on that.”

The partners read about a rally and press conference that the workers at Willets Point were having. “We showed up at the tail end and introduced ourselves and they immediately said come meet us at Marco’s restaurant to talk,” said Lehman of two key figures in the effort. “We filmed our first interview on the spot that day. I think they felt like their story wasn’t being told in the wider media. They were eager that we were there because they were used to seeing the same few news channels show up.”

Katze added, “There seemed to be a lot of interest in this among the hyper-local press. There are reporters that have followed this through the years. But what was happening to these workers did not make it into the larger news cycle until it was too late. It just wasn’t interesting enough for the New York Times to do an exposé.”

The filmmakers filmed on a regular basis for six to eight months. The $3 billion project, originally designed to build a mall and parking lot, resulted in hundreds of immigrants losing their jobs as bulldozers plowed over their shops. The project stalled and appeared dead in 2015, but is now back on track. No mall is in the current plan, but affordable housing, retail, a school, and open space are included.

This would seem to be good news, but the filmmakers have some reservations about the fact that the original developers — Related Companies and Fred Wilpon and Saul B. Katz, who own the New York Mets — are still behind the deal.

“This is a new mayor [de Blasio], who ran on a platform of a tale of two cities,” said Katze. “There was this idea that he’d look out for the little guy. They were hopeful that somehow he would intercede and at least help the workers find a new place, but that didn’t really happen. While the development plans lay dormant, I think they were trying to cook up a new plan. I’m disappointed that the same developers are involved. I think it should start over. They should put out a new RFP [request for proposal] for the plan.”

The Iron Triangle will be screened Wednesday, April 11, 7 p.m. at the Friend Center 101, Princeton University. Katze will be on hand following the presentation to answer questions. Screenings of the films in the festival are at Princeton Public Library, the Princeton Garden Theatre, the Hopewell Theater, and at locations on the University campus. Visit for a full listing of events.

“PEFF is a powerful way for the community to connect more deeply, both to the natural and built environment and to each other,” said Conlon. “Very often, people are profoundly affected and moved to personal action by what they learn from these films. And in that way, the festival has real community impact.”