Director Marc Levin (SCHMATTA: RAGS TO RICHES TO RAGS, HIFF ’09, and HARD TIMES: LOST ON LONG ISLAND, Audience Award, HIFF ’11) presents CLASS DIVIDE, a look into the modern effects of gentrification in West Chelsea, New York, as seen through the eyes of students from both sides of the street—one avenue and worlds apart. On one side of the intersection of 10th Avenue and 26th Street sits Avenues, a world-class private school with a $50,000 per year price tag; on the other side sits the Elliott-Chelsea public housing projects, home to thousands of low-income and underemployed residents. In the face of rising inequality, stagnant class mobility, gentrification and much more, the kids from both sides of the street grapple with their relationship to each other amid the stark transformation.
As a New Yorker, why did you choose this particular neighborhood for CLASS DIVIDE? Did you set out make a film about issues of gentrification and inequality, or did the story present itself to you?
Marc Levin: I have seen the neighborhood transform in front of my eyes, especially the last 10 years. I have often thought of making a film about it, but it wasn’t until we visited a number of other cities looking for stories about income inequality and gentrification and then returned to New York, sitting on the High Line with the producer Daphne Pinkerson, watching tourists taking photos in front of the empty frame looking out to 26th Street and 10th Avenue, that it crystallized. The story’s all right here in our backyard. Right on this corner.
In working with the kids in the film, what surprised you most about their attitudes?
Marc Levin: What surprised me most about kids from both sides of the street was how articulate and insightful they were. What was also surprising is that both the privileged and the low-income kids shared a common concern—neither were secure about where they fit in the future. The kids from Avenues knew they were competing with kids from China, India, Russia and Korea. They felt the pressure of the global competition, and were concerned it would be tougher for them to do as well as their parents. The low-income kids were well aware of the dismantling of the social safety net. They know that Section 8 housing, welfare, and job training programs are all on the chopping block, so they are worried about their opportunities and what is going to happen to their families.
Since you’ve been working on the film, have you seen any progress in policies that would rectify the growing inequality in both in New York and around the country? Is there any basis for hope?
Marc Levin: The hyper development and displacement in West Chelsea is a microcosm of what’s happening in cities all over the country, and for that matter, the world. The Pope spoke about it when he was here last week, and Bernie Sanders spoke about it to a crowd of 20,000 last evening. But if you listen to the Republican Presidential debates, it’s a frightening prescription for gilded and gated cities and even more onerous inequality.
There is always reason to hope. These kids embody that hope. Along with climate change, economic justice and inequality will be their generation’s great challenge. Change is inevitable, but it can be managed and mediated in ways that preserve what makes New York City so unique and special—the mix of all kinds of humanity.
As a seasoned director, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Marc Levin: I just attended the memorial for the great documentary filmmaker, Albert Maysles. I started with the Maysles as a teenage editing apprentice on GIMME SHELTER. I would simply pass on what I learned: first, approach filmmaking as a romantic adventure with a sense of wonder and an open mind and heart. Second, don’t be afraid to take risks. Third, follow the footage, for it can lead you to encounter and reveal unexpected mysteries. Finally, put the “real” back into reality, for truth can certainly be stranger than fiction.
Marc Levin is an award-winning independent filmmaker who brings narrative and vérité techniques together in his feature films, television series and documentaries. Among the many honors for his work, he has won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Camera D’Or at Cannes, a Peabody, three Emmys and four duPont-Columbia Awards.