FilmScene — Tuesday, May 15 at 6 p.m.
It’s 25 minutes in before anyone in the film One October uses the word gentrification. But every shot, every beat of the film is infused with the specter of that term. Rachel Shuman’s 2017 documentary, showing tonight at FilmScene (tickets $8-10.50; Skype Q&A with the director to follow) is a narrow snapshot of a changing city, on its surface. A little deeper down, it asks the question, “Who does New York really belong to?” But at its core, One October is a love letter — not just to New York City, but from the city to itself. It’s a laying bare of the vulnerable beauty of a place that outsiders often see as cold and hard.
The film is midwifed into this reality by its host, WFMU radio DJ Kacy Ross, known to his listeners as Clay Pigeon. For over a decade, Ross hosted “The Dusty Show,” where he would do exactly what he is shown in the film doing: visit with New Yorkers and record their conversations. In fact, all of the interviews in the film were aired on his show at the time they were recorded. Ross was brought on because Shuman was looking for someone with personality to interview people on the street; they were connected by a mutual friend, David Suisman, who knew Ross’ work at WFMU. But along the way, Ross went from facilitator to character.
“It all seemed very natural at the time … But I didn’t really realize, until I sat and watched the film for the first time with an audience … [that] instead of just being a collaborator on the film, I was an object of the film,” said Ross of the experience of seeing his work on screen. “It’s a very funny feeling to watch a movie with other people when they maybe aren’t aware that you’re in the theater, and you’re kind of vulnerable.”
Ross moved to New York in 2007, after a round-about route that took him through Florida, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, where he started “The Dusty Show,” remotely. He moved to New York to be with his wife, a fan of WFMU. But his journey began in Iowa. He grew up in Audubon, Iowa, and went to broadcasting school in Fort Dodge.
“I think conversation is the key to connecting with people,” Ross said, “and that’s something I learned in my small-town upbringing in western Iowa … Growing up there, everything was very conversational. You really had to talk to everyone on the street that you met … When I first moved here I would say hi to people on the street, and my wife said, ‘You can’t really do that here.'”
He used those techniques and skills, though, throughout “The Dusty Show” and in One October — and though he notes that people were more willing to speak with him when he was with a film crew than when it was just him and his audio recorder, the fact is that he’s able to tease out a side of New Yorkers that is OK with that conversation, that does allow the outside in and themselves out. It’s a New York that’s much more familiar to me, as someone who spent a lot of time there as a kid before taking something like the reverse of Ross’ journey (from New Jersey to Iowa, via Virginia and Oklahoma), than the typical movie depictions of the city, or certainly than the opinions brought back by tourists. Ross is able to cut through the hype and speak to the humanity in each individual.
“I have a deep, deep love for Iowa,” Ross told me. “I could not do what I do today if it weren’t for Iowa, and it just constantly informs my work … it’s in my heart immeasurably every day of my life. Even when I’m New York City, I’ll always be an Iowan in my soul.”
One October was filmed in 2008, and is suffused with the political relevance of its time. A decade past it, now, the concerns feel very different, politically — more centered and personal, questions of the changing demographic of the city not the changing character of the country — but the passion is palpable and familiar.
“The polarization that we experience today, it was already becoming entrenched at that time … Obama was a polarizing figure for a lot of Americans, for various reasons,” Ross said.
He did many political interviews on his show, but his goal was always one of breaching the divide, not exploiting it.
“I have to be really careful, because I’m one of those people who’s a bit addicted to political media. I find myself checking up on it all the time. And as a person with a bit of an addictive personality, I can also become addicted to the outrage of politics,” Ross said. “And I think that obviously these days it’s become even more toxic and polarizing. But I also think that then and even now, I have a great opportunity to break through that polarization. And I do it not by talking about politics, necessarily, but by trying to get at the humanity of people.”
That humanity is showcased beautifully in One October, both in his interviews and through David Sampliner’s lovely cinematography. In between soaring cityscape views of the New York everyone thinks they know are intimate shots of the subtler New York story.
“We’re always pretty optimistic despite our skepticism,” says one of the residents Ross interviews. “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”
This is accurate, I think, not just of the man who said it, or of the film, but of New Yorkers as a whole. In One October, Shuman deftly deploys Ross to explore and reveal that dichotomy.