Claudia Prat discusses Studio 20’s interactive documentary, New York Tenants Project, on tenant rights, landlord harassment, and community organizing…
Clàudia Prat is an MA candidate in the Studio 20 program at NYU’s Journalism department and the Project Producer for the New York Tenants Project (NYTP.) The rest of the Studio 20 Team producing the NYTP is Jasmine Lee, Dmitry Melamed, Jacqui Devaney, Travis Mannon, Kasia Pilat, Madeline Welsh, and Eric French, under the supervision of Multimedia Reporting Professor Jason Maloney.
How did you get into your research?
The first assignment I did here at NYU in the class “Multimedia Repording” was covering a case of alleged landlord harassment on the Lower East Side. We went to cover that and I was surprised because where I come from [Barcelona] there have been many cases of landlord harassment in the city center because of the pressure of having tourists there. So when I saw that there were landlord harassment cases here I wanted to investigate that. At the same time I have experience in documentary filmmaking. Because I knew how to do many of the things in the syllabus I talked to my professor, Jason Maloney, and asked if I could experiment with another format or do something else instead of doing the typical assignments for this class and he said yes. So I started investigating cases of landlord harassment and working with community organizations.
What was the assignment supposed to be?
The regular assignment was to write an article or do a short video. And well, writing is difficult for me in English but to make videos is quite easy for me so I proposed to do an interactive documentary, which is something I really wanted to try. So here at Studio 20 they have software called Klynt that allows you to do the interactive model that you see on the website. You can create menus and link videos between videos and I was more interested in trying this than just shooting and editing the video itself but creating this design.
How did you determine where you would go?
The first case I covered with other two students was here in the Lower East Side with the Cooper Square Committee and so then I talked with them. I talked with another friend of mine and they gave me names of a few other organizations so I started emailing them, making phone calls. In the beginning it was a bit hard for me to get interviews or time from the tenant organizers because they are a bit tired of having students reporting on gentrification. But little by little when they saw that I was going to the meetings, that I was going there and speaking to them and was contacting many organizations in many different parts of the city—like Cooper Square Committee here, CASA in the Bronx, Make the Road in Bushwick, CAAAV in Chinatown—they saw that that I wanted to do something that was useful. It was interesting for me to experiment with the format, cool for my classmates because they’ve participated in this collective documentary, but also useful for the organizations that were kind of collaborating because they gave their time and their knowledge.
Did the tenants’ rights groups give you the names of people to interview?
Some of them. Others I met at tenants’ conferences and started speaking with them. With one woman, I found a video on Vimeo of her talking about her case so I wrote her and I went to visit her. So it’s a mix of tenants that come from tenants’ organizations and people who organize by themselves, which is also interesting because it’s not just people who are in formal organizations.
How long did it take?
I started all of this in the middle of October. There was one month of researching and a little bit of shooting, taking some pictures, looking at cases. Then my professor said this project is very cool; I want all your classmates to participate with you. Then I started organizing the filming for my classmates. So we, eight people, split into three teams: one group did the history, how did we get here; another group did the tour in three neighborhoods; and the other group focused on the fight and the struggle that will occur in June when the rent regulation law will expire. So I designed it like that.
Do you feel gentrification is inevitable?
Gentrification is change so I guess it’s inevitable. It’s a matter of how you combine development and making neighborhoods where people want to live without displacement of people who are living there. And now it’s interesting because new tenants and old tenants are realizing they’re in similar situations. All people want good neighborhoods. People want to go to the park with their children and they want to be secure and nice and have public transportation, but how do you mitigate change so the people who made the community great don’t leave? And I think this happens all over the world—in Paris, in Barcelona, in New York, at different scales and in different cases.
At the Visualizing Tenant Activism event you mentioned what was going on in Spain around tenants’ rights. What are similarities between what is happening in Barcelona and New York?
Years ago in Barcelona there were many cases of landlord harassment because of rent regulation. Basically old people were being aggressively harassed. It was very sad that they were facing harassment like this at the end of their lives. What’s occurring now in Spain, which relates to what’s starting to happen in New York, is this thing where corporations are buying buildings and thousands of houses. It’s different, not like a single landlord that buys a building and maybe ends up harassing you. It’s bigger. So in the presentation we were talking about Blackstone. Blackstone, because of the economic crisis, bought many thousands of buildings containing rent-regulated apartments in Spain and all over the world and also in New York. So I think it’s interesting if we start building these bridges of knowledge of what’s happening to tenants in Spain and here facing the same corporations and practices; how people fight them back; how people network to protect themselves; or to think what kind of city we want in the end, and housing as a human right.
Do you think the goal of the video is to educate people about an imminent threat of property speculation or to make people think about what kind of world we want to live in as a society?
I think the goal of the New York Tenants Project was more like a first step even for me because I’m new in New York, but it is for whoever wants to learn about landlord harassment. The newspapers are talking a lot about it but I was seeing that there was a lack of images. We didn’t see the faces, the houses of the people, the personal stories in a graphic, visual way. And also we didn’t understand the origin of rent regulation, so for me the goal is to listen a little bit to different communities living with gentrification, how some people feel harassed by landlords even if it’s not always proved in a court because that’s very hard. I think the good think about journalism is that it makes things visible as a minimum stage.
What was one of the stories that stuck with you the most?
Yeah, one of the last cases that I went to shoot by myself [was very powerful.] I organized everything, but the gallery of tenants, a section of the final project, shows cases that I videotaped myself. And in that gallery of tenants there is a case, also in the Lower East Side, Chinatown. I went to a press conference about this case and then I went to visit the family’s apartment. They had been harassed by Michel Pimienta’s company, Misidor. The attorney general months before had said that this company Misidor was behaving illegally because it was harassing tenants. And for me it was something that I had read in the newspapers but didn’t know a case first hand. But talking to them I realized that they had suffered harassment from this company. Sometimes you read something in the newspaper, but you don’t see the context, you don’t see what it means. That was one of the cases where the pieces started to come together because I had read about it and then I had found these tenants. The tenants had the support of Cooper Square Committee and CAAAV and appeared in the demonstration, so now they have this network. At the press conference someone was filming them and it’s one of those things because harassment is difficult to prove but it’s all these layers of different pressures that you suffer.
Was it difficult to get people to open up to you?
No, not really. I think it is a process for tenants but I think you start telling your story or nobody will know it. Sometimes it’s difficult if you have to go to court or talk with journalists, but in this case it has been very easy for me to find this access.
Do you want to continue with this project?
I think I would really want to keep investigating these companies or other steps but at the same time experiment with different, new formats on the web and filmmaking.
With a traditional documentary you are ultimately in control of the narrative you present to viewers. Were you ever worried about the interactive nature of the documentary interfering with the message you wanted to get across? Or were you just excited about the freeness of it?
I was excited with this freeness. So it’s open for people to explore and follow their curiosity, maybe they want to hear more about tenants’ stories or maybe they want to hear more about history. And in this case I’m not worried if people don’t see everything or they see it in parts. It’s welcome and they’re free to explore whatever they want to explore.
What have your other documentaries been about?
Social issues. I did a small story on the issue of gentrification, but my work is more on women’s issues or immigration rights in Spain.
Did you approach those documentaries differently in any sort of way?
I approached this differently. When I was in Spain, when I was doing filmmaking I felt like you did your 30 minute documentary and it would go on TV or to festivals or you organize some screenings and that was it. I was feeling that the audience was feeling depressed. So I wanted to build something more constructive. That’s why I want to mix filmmaking and other practices. We can weave the narratives together, it’s not the journalist doing all the narrative. It’s a common realization of things. If in Chinatown they are telling me that people are buying up buildings and other people are telling me the same and we start realizing that yeah, this is happening we build the narrative together. We piece together answers to what we want and debate just like democracy should be.
Was the viewpoint a matter of who you chose to talk to or who chose to talk to you?
We researched a lot on the tenants’ side, that’s true. I would like that we had more interviews from other people, we have some academics and experts, but we could have done more of the other side. But for me it’s not an issue of one side or another, for me it’s more about transparency. We are not trying to hide information or go in one direction. It’s very clear we are filming tenant organizers and tenants. That’s our story. Maybe one day we’ll do another story and we’ll try to take a more global approach and get many points of view but this is like putting the thermometer to one spot and measuring the heat there. Also, for me it’s a picture of New York today, 2015. There is an artist in the gallery of tenants who said that New York is like Venice in the Renaissance. It’s truly a picture of New York.
— Melissa Bean