Arts: Bright lights, big city

New York is home to a growing pack of British film-makers. Who don't talk to each other.
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The Independent Culture
Drawn to the New York of Scorsese, Cassavetes and Jarmusch, there's a group of young British film-makers forsaking home - and LA - for Manhattan. These documentarians, producers and editors are collectively marinating in Manhattan life, and also collectively avoiding each other.

The producer Sarah Teale's eyes glitter when describing the ravages of a notorious psychiatric hospital in lower Manhattan, called Bellevue. "Yesterday, we filmed a woman breaking a glass showcase, screaming, in order to steal a photo of Clinton," she says. The work, for the cable channel HBO, complements her other documentary projects for Channel 4 and the BBC.

"A quite beautiful ballet dancer was standing around and I asked him what he was doing. He said: `Stretching.' He had just gone totally mad in the past year. I've seen incredibly scary, horrible things at Bellevue. I like film-making when it scares me." There was a problem, though, with the gritty verite. It turned out that another British film-maker, Nicholas Barker, had already used one of the Bellevue patients under consideration for Teale's project. Before being institutionalised, the patient was one of the four protagonists in Barker's Unmade Beds. The fictional documentary is a cruel look at these singles, but it takes a darkly adoring view of its fifth protagonist - Manhattan.

But it's not just the call of the naked city, with its "freaks, fairies and bad people", that keeps the expatriates here. Most of the exiles see their decision to move to New York as an economic one. "You can survive on television documentaries here, whereas in Britain you can starve to death waiting for a phone call," says Susan Brand. She arrived in New York a year and a half ago from her life as a television producer and editor in London. She was escaping, she said, "decades of European melancholy". Soon, Brand recognised that her under-appreciated National Film School and BBC experience made her an excellent job candidate for US cable channels. "However unpleasant working at the BBC was for me and others, it's very prestigious, and the credentials helped me get work," she says.

Other immigrants work on feature film crews, such as an East End-born editor who in his off hours films his own science-fiction Western based on the Book of Revelation. Still others pick up odd jobs, such as managing buildings, or gardening, just so that they can survive and film in New York city.

David Evans worked as a producer while labouring for five years on a documentary about the Lower East Side's community gardens, tracing them through a year when many were being destroyed by the city to sell the sites or build housing. His film, Dirt, is a curious mixture of verite and immaculate, Peter Greenaway-esque formalism. Schoolchildren frolic with ladybirds; squatters dig at the concrete with pickaxes; a man fertilises his garden with his own faeces.

Evans screened his documentary in a Lower East Side storehouse of "alternative transportation" bicycle cabs. Though America's Green Party is still a mere seedling, it seemed alive and well here. Evans, who studied phenomenology at Oxford before writing his first American screenplay, "a sex romp featuring Queen Elizabeth's astronomer", gave the loamy crowd a slight sneer. "This is the great glory of America. Anyone who really wants to can make a film. I identified with these disenfranchised gardeners and I made a film about them. I see this film as marking a life change, as well. I've said goodbye to all the 18th-century malarkey I was encrusted with in England."

Teale also feels that working in New York has helped her career: "I'd never have started my own production company, as a woman, in London." She says she could not have got her latest film off the ground at home. "Legally, they would never let us film extensively in a mental hospital," she says. "If anyone sees this documentary in Britain, they'll never believe that's really how it is." Teale and others see New York as imbued with drama, but also as a "friendlier" place. "It took years for the man at the corner shop to say `Hello' in London. Here, the deli guy and I say `Hello' every day. People are far less ironic in New York," she marvels.

Brand is not oblivious to the difficulties facing American documentary film-makers who, she says, can seem "pretty bitter and twisted" from trying to scrape together funding from private foundations. Evans says that making his film has been an endless struggle of patching funding together.

Clearly, most British film immigrants try their best to avoid thefinancial woes of independent film-making: there are more in Los Angeles than in New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined. They choose to live as close as possible to the famous film actors, extremely well paid animators and leading directors. But those who move to New York are looking for a piece of the city's soiled authenticity - or a deal with HBO. One film- maker says he was obsessed with Taxi Driver, and knew that he wanted to stay in New York and work after he walked around the city's largest bus terminal and saw that it shared that Seventies masterpiece's "hallucinatory quality". "It was like a war zone," he says with delight. "Threatening and cinematic."

While these film-makers may be seeking deshabille, even violent, urban imagery, one thing they are certainly not looking for is each other. "I went to a film screening here full of Brits, an ex-pat old-school crowd calling each other `George'." winces Brand. "I almost threw up."

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