New Brooklyn, Old Brooklyn, and the Art of Brooklyn

Art of Brooklyn Film Festival cofounder Anthony DeVito
Art of Brooklyn Film Festival cofounder Anthony DeVito in Al Safa. Photo by Michael Gaffey.

As the first screenings of the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival approach, I got a chance to sit down with actor/writer/comedian Anthony DeVito, Bay Ridge resident and cofounder of the festival, which is the only one in the world that’s all about Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-based and Brooklyn-centric independent film. The premiere of its Brooklyn Comedy Block will take place in Bay Ridge on Friday, May 15.

I first heard of The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival a few years back from a friend of mine, a North Brooklynite, and was surprised to find that some of the screenings were happening down our way in Bay Ridge. Can you tell me about the aims of this organization and how you conceived of this project?
We started the festival in 2011. It was created by guys born and raised here out of a conversation about the state of Brooklyn in terms of what gets the arts press, what people are seeing as Brooklyn now vs. how we saw it; it’s a very different place sharing the same name. I was born and raised here, in Bergen Beach. As an actor myself I felt like I had a foot in both worlds, “old school” and new Brooklyn of the past 10 years, [North Brooklyn], where all the press and media is. That area was overshadowing the rest of Brooklyn in terms of creativity, and the rest of us were seen as an inconvenience. I don’t know if that was true, but I feel that it was valid, so we started the festival to focus specifically on Brooklyn artists, not just a festival that was in BK—which there are a lot of. Most of them are neighborhood focused…We decided to make it about the whole borough and to educate the public that there are artists working in Brooklyn outside of North Brooklyn.

What did it mean to you to be an aspiring actor/filmmaker growing up in “Deep South” Brooklyn? Were there any advantages/disadvantages?
For me personally, I didn’t see an advantage or disadvantage. When I was younger it was either Manhattan or everywhere else…“This Brooklyn” or “That Brooklyn” wasn’t present; that’s a recent phenomenon. I always went to “The City” with my dad; we called Manhattan “The City”. I felt less connected to the new Brooklyn wave because I felt that people like me weren’t included, and it was defined in a specific way by a specific type of person in a very specific area, and I don’t think those people are worse than me or better than me. You don’t get to define Brooklyn in any specific way. No one specific group gets to define it. It’s different based on who you are, how you grew up, how much money you have, what ethnic background you are. There’s a million different experiences.

I feel like the disconnect started happen when Williamsburg took off as a concept as much as a place. When I was younger the people who were rich lived in the Heights, and then in the 80s Park Slope blew up with the brownstones and fancy restaurants. And Bay Ridge was fancy too! I grew up near Kings Plaza so we thought that Third Ave. in Bay Ridge was the place to be. It’s really all relative. What is the aspirational place to be based on where you are from? The Williamsburg era felt like a seismic shift much more drastic than anything coming before in my life, and I felt like New Jersey became the butt of the jokes that Brooklyn used to be. It shifted west, and the jokes about Brooklyn were jokes that I never saw coming—about organic and artisanal blah, blah, blah. That’s what Brooklyn is now? How does that coexist with everything else that is still here and isn’t going anywhere? That was The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival’s question: how do we not exclude anyone and have people mix from all these worlds and take inspiration from each other instead of keeping each other at arm’s length because what they’ve decided these different communities are about?

This is a milestone year for The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival—its fifth. How has the organization changed?
We now have to work less hard to explain what our mission is, why we are unique. Because when you start something new in New York City the first question people ask is, “Why you are so special?” We knew that by starting from zero we needed a unique proposition that we could defend and use to explain ourselves instantly. People now know about us and understand what we are doing, and they love the idea. Because there are so many filmmakers in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, we’ve noticed that young filmmakers are very excited that there is a film festival about them. Whether they are from Williamsburg or Canarsie or East New York or wherever, the Brooklyn-ness resonates to them knowing that we appreciate their thing and have built something around it.

You have some work of your own coming to a screen near us all, right?
I will be guest-starring in The Mysteries of Laura on NBC, May 13!

Follow Hey Ridge on Twitter @heyridgebk

Art of Brooklyn Film Festival cofounder Anthony DeVito
Photo by Michael Gaffey