'Battle for Brooklyn' Debuts At Artisphere

A documentary exploring eminent domain abuse in Brooklyn, N.Y., debuts at Artisphere’s Dome Theater.
Patch.com. By Brooks Hays

Some critics may claim “Battle for Brooklyn” is a slanted or biased film, but those who do will have ignored a beautiful piece of cinema and a powerful piece of journalism…

Battle for Brooklyn,” which debuted at the Artisphere in Rosslyn on Friday and plays through the weekend, documents the epic journey of a handful of activists fighting to save their community and property from seizure by eminent domain in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In the documentary, hundreds of Brooklyn residents and their community face the threat of wrecking balls, bulldozers and the ambitious plans of real estate developer Bruce Ratner.

Ratner and his company Forest City’s $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards project is set to bring the New Jersey Nets to the borrough of Brooklyn, along with several massive residential towers and a mess of mixed-use buildings.

To accomplish this, Ratner wages an impeccable but ethically questionable PR campaign and — thanks to political favoritism and an array of dubious tactics — is able to comdemn an entire neighborhood, execute a hefty landgrab by way of eminent domain, and receive a sweetheart deal from the Mass Transit Authority as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer kickbacks and subsidies.

Although now a shell of its former self, the real estate mogul’s aggressive vision for redevelopment ultimately wins out. And Atlantic Yards’ construction remains active today.

While this story was never going to be an upset victory of Hollywood proportions, its narrative is both informative and uplifting — a testament to the power of family, human dignity and soul in the face of injustice and corporate interest.

There’s no question as to where filmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley place their emotional chips. They pledge their sympathies with the activists from the beginning, chief among them Daniel Goldstein, one of the most ardent and dedicated opposers of the project. Goldstein quickly becomes the heart and soul of the film.

An early clip of Goldstein cements his status as affable underdog and forthcoming citizen.

"I’m not much of a patriot, but it is un-American," Goldstein says of Ratner’s state-sponsored land grab. "Or maybe it is American," he adds. "You know what? It is American. What [Ratner is] doing seems to be the American way."

The soliloquy gets easy laughs in the theater.

The choice to follow the struggle from Goldstein’s perspective was an easy one, filmmaker Hawley said. “Dan was a fighter,” she said, “and he wasn’t going to stop until the end.”

While the film’s loyalty lies with Goldstein, this is unarguably an objective look at eminent domain abuse and its real-life effects on a community. The facts are not manipulated.

Corporate influence, politcal power brokering, as well as precisely purchased positive PR spin and community support are all levied by Ratner to skirt the democratic process and to avoid having any real dialogue with the community and their objections to his plans.

But “Battle for Brooklyn” is not only about eminent domain abuse and crony capitalism but also the failure of mainstream media. Throughout the film, it’s clear that Forest City/Ratner press releases routinely win out to any fair journalistic depiction of the struggle.

"It’s as much about media as it is about anything else," Galinsky said. "Many New Yorkers who’ve seen the film told us they felt like they slept through this whole ordeal." That’s because very few outlets were willing to tell this story in real time.

Hopefully, this film changes the historical narrative of Atlantic Yards, and injects a bit of accountability back into the media coverage of Ratner’s ongoing project.

At least in Arlington, new light has been shed on it and eyes have been opened. The film received a warm reception from theatergoers at Artisphere’s Dome Theater on Friday.

Stephenie Popp and Charlotte Ashford left the film feeling frustrated but fulfilled. Popp, whose mother took on a role similar to Goldstein’s in a 1950s eminent domain case in Los Angeles, feels especially connected to the film.

"I found it very interesting and compelling, especially after hearing similar stories from my mom," Popp said.

Her theater companion was equally impressed, but felt infuriated by the injustice she witnessed. “It was especially hard to watch when you know it’s not going to turn out well in the end,” Ashford said.

While the film can be blood boiling, it is ultimately a redemptive tale — and certainly one worthy of patronage.

Galinsky explains it best, likening the film’s arc to the ultimate clarity that George Bailey finds at the end of James Stewart’s ”It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"It pulls the idea and the value of community and family together and places it over top the idea of simply chasing money," Galinsky said.

Battle for Brooklyn will screen at 6 p.m. today at Artisphere’s Dome Theater. The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the directors, as well as a special guest appearance from protagonist Daniel Goldstein.

"The Tragedy of Urban Renewal” by director Jim Epstein will precede each screening.

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