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Film allows Buffalo to speak for itself


In the months leading up to the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, a trio of filmmakers visited Buffalo and turned their cameras on residents, giving them prompts like "Describe your city in one word."

That material premiers tonight at the Market Arcade, in Buffalo Unscripted.  It's an attempt by filmmakers to capture Buffalo's re-birth, in progress.

'A shade disreputable'

"Buffalo is to me like a favorite old uncle, perhaps a shade disreputable. But I'd never want to miss his presence in my life," an unidentified Buffalonian muses, over coffee, in the film. 

It's answers like that that drive the film, according to co-director Jason Clement.

"Everyone gets asked the same questions, and they don't ever change, and they're not leading, and they're done in such a way where people literally are given the opportunity to step on camera and tell it like it is," he says.

When the movie idea was first hatched, Clement admits his understanding of the city fit the predictable mold: bad weather, rusty abandoned factories, and the jokes that come along with those perceptions.

"So many people in this country misunderstand this city and only know the Johnny Carson 'Home Office of Winter'-type reputation this city has," he says.

To remedy that, and to make a film that honestly reflects the feelings of those that actually call Buffalo home, Clement's team hooked up with who they call "unofficial mayors" of Buffalo: the well-connected, who take pride in giving strangers a peek at their Rolodexes.

"We really had to go from 0 to 60 to learn this place, and when we came for our planning trip in May, we ended up in the back of a lot of cars, driving us all over the city, fingers were being pointed all over the place," Clement says.

'Sexy stuff'

"The editing and premiere, that's all the sexy stuff. That's what people like to hear about," says Julia Rocchi, Clement's co-director on the film. "What no one ever asks about is the humongous level of pre-production that goes into something like this."

Even before a single frame was shot for the movie, Rocchi says, the filmmakers felt a responsibility to immerse themselves in material beyond Buffalo's stereotypes. What they found, she says, is that Buffalo is hungry for a come back.

The "unofficial mayors" badly want this week's historical preservation conference, which has attractedthousands of visitors from around to world, to count for something.

"In Buffalo the red carpet has been rolling out for the past several years, simply because we were affiliated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation," Rocchi says.

The filmmakers say their research revealed a few common threads. Locals admire their city and defend it passionately, but they also want to make a new impression on the outside world.

To capture this feeling on camera, Clement asked questions like, "What historic places define your city?," "What should your city save?," "Do you have a hope for Buffalo's future?," "What does the term 'Rust Belt' mean to you?," and "Are you a preservationist?"

And after editing more than 40 hours of footage, the answers are revealing.

"It's kind of like a wrapped gift," remarks one young lady featured in the movie. "You don't know what it's going to be. You kind of want to shake it and project all these things on it."

But there also seems to be little mention of the city's struggles, like poverty, population loss, and the decay and demolition of many of itshistoric structures, like Central Terminal and the H.H. Richardson Complex, which are both in disrepair, closed to the public and barely used.

That was intentional, Clement says, because locals that the team interviewed focused on what can be done now.

"This is a city that's most comfortable when its sleeves are rolled up," he says. "It just has this incredible can-do feeling about it."

The film makes its debut Friday at the Market Arcade in downtown Buffalo. The particulars are at buffalounscripted.org.

Beyond the premiere, the filmmakers say they want the movie to have legs, and become a historical document in and of itself.

"We're not feeling proprietary about this footage at all," Rocchi says. "As far as we're concerned this footage belongs to Buffalo and we were just fortunate enough to capture it."

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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