It's never been a better time to be a Brooklyn filmmaker, and we wouldn't have it any other way. But it's also an unfortunate truth that most of the films shaping our borough's reputation tend to represent a relatively small, specific version of "Brooklyn," one that generally doesn't have a whole lot to do with East New York.
With Flex is Kings, local filmmakers Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols (who reside in Bed-Stuy and East Williamsburg, respectively), spent two years in the neighborhood shooting the dancers making a name for flexing, a dance style born in East New York that's now expanded throughout the country, and caught on in places as far flung as Russia. The movie'd be worth watching for the mesmerizing dance sequences alone, but Schoo and Nichols have also managed to put together an honest portrait of a part of Brooklyn most media outlets (including this one) don't get too all that often, as well as the dancers' successes and obstacles (one venue, for instance, tried to cancel their ongoing dance competition, Battlefest, at the last minute for trumped-up reasons about the name's "violent" implications, and a general objection to their use of any music that might qualify as hip-hop). Now, after a wildly popular Kickstarter campaign and a successful run on the festival circuit, Flex is Kings is finally starting to make the rounds at local theaters, and just screened at BAM last week. Ahead of their run at Village East Cinemas (April 4-10), we caught up with Schoo and Nichols about their time in one of Brooklyn's most misunderstood neighborhoods, the dancers' new gigs, and how the hell that trick with the bird came about (you can see it at the end of the trailer, below).
How did you first find out about flex?
DS: In late 2008, I was on an unrelated assignment for the Village Voice - photographing a variety show at St Nick's Pub in Harlem. A dancer named Storyboard took the stage and blew my mind. I followed Storyboard and he told me about flexing and Battlefest - an event organized by Kareem Baptiste in which flex dancers competed against one another for the title of King of the Streets. I did a bit of research and went to the next Battlefest. I've been going ever since.
The flexing community is obviously such a large and dynamic one. How did you decide which subjects to focus on for the movie?
MBN: It absolutely is. It all came down to who would give us access and who had something going on that would give the film a natural narrative trajectory. We contacted Flizzo first - he has such a huge personality and charisma, and that bird trick stuck with me - and then went from there. Flizzo ended up introducing us to Jay Donn by taking us to an event called "Flex Wars" in East New York. Jay's performance included: dancing with a prosthetic arm, pulling sneakers with invisible fishing line, doing a backflip off a ladder, spinning around on his head on the wheeled-part of the bottom of a mop bucket, and leaving the stage to scale a flight of stairs and flip off the one-story balcony back into the crowd. So we thought he should be in the film. Next came Reem, the organizer of Battlefest and one of the main people really responsible for organizing the movement and getting it into the limelight. There were a few dancers that we spent a great deal of time with but weren't able to work into the film for a variety of reasons, and we struggled with that. But we found that Flizzo and Jay really represented two of the trajectories we witnessed happening in the community. It felt like Flizzo was becoming a man and dealing with real life issues - he had a daughter during the course of the film, and moved in with his girlfriend - and was starting to question how dancing fit into that equation. Jay's career, meanwhile, kept expanding outside the flex scene, and he was starting to get opportunities to showcase his dancing internationally. These two stories felt like honest depictions of what so many in the flex scene go through.
Did the dancers teach you any moves over the course of shooting?
MBN: They tried to, but I didn't have health insurance.
What was the craziest move you saw any of the dancers pull off while filming?
DS: Flizzo's bird punchline never ceases to amaze. Pretty much anything Jay does shocks me every time. Havoc won the title of King of the Streets by jumping from the 2nd floor balcony then somersaulting into the battle ring - that was pretty awesome.
MBN: We asked Flizzo to perform his bird trick on top of a roof so we could get it on film. He did this whole routine as trained pigeons swirled above him. At the end, he placed the finch in his mouth, faced forward. He explained right before that when he opens his mouth he gives the bird a little flick with his tongue to urge it out. It was inside his mouth for about 3 seconds as he finished his routine, hit his mark, and then BOOM.
Had you spent much time in East New York prior to getting involved with the flex community? Was there anything that surprised you about the neighborhood?
DS: No, it was Flex that took me out to East New York. Bad stuff happens in ENY but the spirit is amazing. People are so nice. There is great energy in ENY.
MBN: None. I was surprised to witness the incredible sense of community that exists there. Dancers knew ten people on the way to the bodega. We'd be filming in the park and all these kids would come up to watch the dancers and hang out. In the film, when Flizzo says he's a king in East New York, it's absolutely verified by what we saw. There's a huge amount of support and love in the community for its artists.
The movie includes epilogue notes about what some of the main characters are up to. Have you heard anything new since wrapping?
DS: Yes! Flizzo now works full time teaching dance and mentoring kids at Boy's Club NY! Jay is designing clothing and working on music. Reem is continuing to grow Battlefest. All are doing really well.
MBN: Yes, a woman who works at the Boys and Girls Club up in Harlem came to one of the Tribeca screenings, saw Flizzo, and hired him to teach flex dancing as a class! He's been doing that for a year now. That right there makes the 3 years we spent working on the film completely worth it. The Boys and Girls Club even hosted the most recent Battlefest on March 23rd. Jay continues to tour and travel the world, and Reem's been killing it with Battlefest - he has an Iphone app for the league now.
Have you watched the film with its subjects or gotten any feedback from them about the finished product?
DS: Yes, we watched the film with the subjects before showing it publicly. They had a few moments where they squirmed but they're all such honest people who are interested in sharing their stories that they don't think twice about those moments now. And we're so lucky to have the subjects of the film in the same borough. We always have a great time at screenings and events. It's a love-fest. The Flex community is full of amazing people.
Flex is Kings screens April 4th-10th at Village East Cinemas. On April 4th and 5th after the 7pm screenings, the theater will host a Q&A with Schoo and Nichols, as well as featured dancers Jay Donn and Flizzo.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.