The 4th annual Red Hook Film and Video Festival is this weekend, with a lineup skewing to short, locally focused documentaries (and followed by Key Lime pie). Among the films screening is The Hole, a portrait of a forgotten, below-sea-level NYC neighborhood—where the Federation of Black Cowboys is based, and where the Mob is said to dump bodies—directed by Billy Feldman and Courney Sell, who answered some questions for us.
Where, exactly, is “The Hole”?
“‘The Hole” is a partially flooded five-block neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens where chickens run freely in the streets and taxi cab drivers go to catch a few minutes of sleep while on duty. It can be reached by taking the A/C to the Grant stop and walking a few blocks over.
You’re sort of presenting the neighborhood as a place out of time—from your time there, how connected would you say the neighborhood is to the life and politics of the city?
Being in The Hole, it’s easy to forget that you are even in New York City, or in the year 2010 for that matter. The Hole is nearly cut off from the rest of the city, and only fragments of New York life exist, as if it was a post-apocalyptic vision of the Big Apple. Abandoned homes and broken-down cars fill the empty lots, and piles of trash, tires, and old children’s toys slowly decay in the murky puddles of Ruby Sreett. Cowboys on horseback commonly roam through the flooded streets as well. The Hole seems to be disconnected with the politics of New York because it has been constantly surrounded by controversy and seemingly purposefully avoided at all costs. (That however, is just a personal observation and opinion.) It is essentially a ghost town, or becoming quite close to being one. While the area is more reminiscent of Ohio or even Texas, The Hole is a truly important piece of New York history” an area that still resides at the very edge of time, completely unaffected by the fast-paced life of New York and forgotten by the rest of the city. It is also one of the only neighborhoods in New York City, that I have seen, where ducks float down knee-deep puddles in the middle of the streets.
Who were the Mafia bodies supposedly dumped and excavated there?
There were bodies supposedly being discovered throughout the course of the 90s, and from many of the residents’ stories, the body count at one point was extremely high—however, the identitie of those corpses remain a mystery, nor are they important. The Hole is a neighborhood shrouded by mystery, and even as we worked to document and reveal their neighborhood as honestly as possible, we understood that the myth of The Hole is just as important as the facts themselves.
How’d you find out about the neighborhood?
Mainly from word-of-mouth; at one point it was being referred to as “The Lower Ninth Ward of New York.” At the time, I was a resident of New Orleans, and hearing this interested me very much. When Billy (the co-director) and I began talking about shooting the film, we had trouble finding information on the location. There were hardly any stories, documentaries, or news articles on The Hole, and when we would tell people about it, no one would believe us that such a place existed! A place in New York where cesspools are used instead of sewer systems and cowboys on horseback still patrol the streets. So we simply decided to go there, see if it really did exist; and once there, were so compelled by what we saw, we began shooting. We wanted explore and fully document the area in a way in which we would allow all things to happen naturally. The Hole is such a surreal environment anyway, that even if you are to shoot a conventional documentary, it would still turn out to be a surrealistic film!
How long were you there filming? How were you received? It occurs to me that “I think you and your neighborhood are fascinating and I’d like to make a movie about you” could be taken as either flattering or condescending…
Billy Feldman, Ashley Connor (our incredible cinematographer) and I spent an entire month in The Hole, shooting on a day-to-day basis and allowing the environment to speak for itself. At first, the area was intimidating simply because it is so unlike anything any of us had ever seen in the city before, and of course the rumors floating around the neighborhood didn’t tend to be to flattering. However, it turned out to be a positive and amazing experience. Most of the residents got used to seeing us after a while, and soon, we had made friends with many of the Individuals who work and live in The Hole. One thing that needs to be mentioned about the area is that one of the best sausage stands in all of New York City is down there, and cars line up all the way down the avenue just to get one. The idea of the documentary, like I had stated before, was to simply allow the neighborhood to speak for itself. We hoped to capture the feeling of the environment instead of hounding each resident with questions that really don’t matter in the first place. When we did interview them, we were more interested in hearing their stories of living down in an area so cut-off from the rest of the world. If anyone saw our documentation of being “condescending,” we never heard of it. I think they realize how special the location is and were probably happy to finally see their neighborhood be covered by interested filmmakers. Plus, we probably looked pretty funny anyways, so it would give them something to laugh about.