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Take Five: Director Michael Galinsky fights 'The Battle for Brooklyn'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2012 - The relocation of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets serves as the catalyst for "The Battle for Brooklyn." The documentary, directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, chronicles the fierce, struggle beginning in December 2003, between developers Forest City Ratner, an arm of the largest publicly traded development company in the United States, and the local community, led by activist Patti Hagan and resident graphic designer-turned-activist Daniel Goldstein.

Ratner unveils the Atlantic Yards Project, a whole new neighborhood, complete with a shiny new Frank Gehry-designed arena (for the relocating Nets) and an entertainment complex on 10 acres of land, some of which is still populated by residents and businesses, many of whom have been there for generations.

For eight years, the two sides lock horns in a bitter contest filled with the elements of a modern soap opera, including cultural clashes, racial tension, courtroom shenanigans, corporate greed, neighborhoods, and even a love story.

Director Michael Galinsky took time out to talk about his documentary, eminent domain and the role of filmmaker as activist. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Battle for Brooklyn come about?

Galinsky: We read an article about the Atlantic Yards project in the New York Times, and we were struck by how much it sounded like a press release. Our daughter went to day care two blocks from the site, and we were shocked at how inaccurate the article seemed. A few days later we saw a flier protesting the project. We called the number on the flier and were connected to Patti Hagan. The next day we were shooting.  We thought it would be a couple of years till we finished. Turned out to be eight.

What made you become interested in this issue?

Galinsky: We often make films about stories that are playing out in the media, from the point of view of those being affected. This one just made sense for us to follow. We weren't interested in eminent domain per se; it just ended up being the wedge issue for the project. We are also interested in issues that cross party lines; this wasn't a case of right vs. left. It was just wrong.

What can people in urban areas learn from your film?

Galinksy: A top-down government-business partnership that ignores the voices of communities affected by these projects is universal. Everywhere we go with the film, we meet people who are being impacted personally by (sports) arenas,  drastic zoning changes or huge tax giveaways to big business. The same playbook always gets used: promises of jobs, increased revenue, housing. None of it ever works out the way it's supposed to. We often work with local groups to be part of the Q and A [at the film screenings]. We have been a bit busy and haven't reached out to people in St. Louis.

The more that communities can discuss what to do about land issues before the developer and government makes closed-door deals the better. Having strong local community groups to guide policy is the best thing people can do.  However, money and power have a way of using money and power to ignore the people. If the people refuse to be ignored, things can change.

Do you think filmmakers have an obligation to work as activists?

Galinsky: No. We don't set out to make activist films. Instead we try to make the best film we can, following the most powerful story we can. In this case, the transgressions and dissembling are so egregious that it's just natural that the film would be used to shine a light on similar situations. We are glad that activists can use the film, but we think it's most useful because it isn't an activist film. It's fair and balanced, and it doesn't argue a point so much as illuminate a painful reality. At the end of the film, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says, "No one's gonna remember how long it took. They're just going to see that it was done." As people watch that scene, the narrative is taken back from the mayor and developer, and people do know how long it took and what it took to get there.

How has the film been doing?

Galinksy: We had a bit of a rough time getting attention for the film at first, but after the Occupy movement, people began to see it as an "Occupy" film and that really gave it legs. Getting short-listed for the Oscar also put it on people's radar. Currently, we are doing a big academic outreach, and we've gotten the film to over 40 universities now.