Volume 19 • Issue 15 | August 25 - 31, 2006

Downtown Express photos by Elissa Bogos

Editing footage at DCTV, above. DCTV co-founder Jon Alpert.

Documentary filmmakers are keeping it real at DCTV

By Rania Richardson

The front portion of a real fire engine greets visitors who come to Downtown Community Television Center, the nonprofit media arts center located on Lafayette St. in Chinatown. The fire engine is a nod to the center’s home, a striking former firehouse built in 1895, now fully owned by DCTV.

The center is an independent producer of nonfiction programming that provides members of the community with tools to make their own documentaries. DCTV productions have aired on HBO, PBS and other television stations in the U.S. and abroad.

Founders Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno began by holding video production classes in their Canal St. loft in 1972, and over the years have steadily expanded their operation to the present-day hub, at 87 Lafayette St., one block south of Canal St. at White St.

Hands-on training with the latest technology, master classes and low-cost equipment rentals are available to the public, with initiatives for low-income and minority groups, including people with learning disabilities and inner-city youth.

In an increasingly corporate media environment, the center provides a boost to independent reporting by underrepresented groups. “Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story,” a short film on gun violence, was produced by the center’s free PRO-TV program for urban teenagers, and has received a number of awards, including a special jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

That film, along with dozens of others, is included in a slick catalog of social issue documentaries produced by DCTV, and are available for classroom and community screenings. Also available are programs directed by Alpert, such as the Emmy Award-winning “Baghdad ER,” that follows U.S. military and medical personnel in Iraq, and “The Last Cowboy,” revolving around the life of a rancher, filmed over a period of 24 years in South Dakota.

For absolute beginners and those who want to probe the genre, the center offers a class taught by managing director Sandy Spencer, called, “What Is a Doc? A Rough Guide to Documentary Styles.” Through an examination of issues, such as subjectivity, propaganda, exploitation, reenactments, serendipity and “truthiness,” an understanding of the topic emerges. Clips from key documentaries in film history from “Nanook of the North” to “Bowling for Columbine” help illustrate the points.

Folding chairs in a makeshift classroom make for a casual environment. Spacious but shabby, the whole center could benefit by a spruce up — and it will soon have one.

A recent capital award of $1.4 million from the city of New York, as well as a number of other local and municipal grants totaling $2.4 million, put the organization in a position to move to the next level, as New York’s only full-service independent media center. The center’s basement space will be converted into a 95-seat cinema, to be called Doc House, which will show “domestic and international documentaries past and present,” according to Spencer.

Set to open in September 2007, the theater will host nonfiction films in themed weeks, retrospectives and traveling festivals. Work by local filmmakers will be highlighted, and directors and other guests will be invited to speak. Chinese feature films will be screened as well for the local community whose last movie house, the Music Palace, closed a few years ago. All screenings will have reduced ticket prices to encourage attendance by the entire community.


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