BETTER LIVING

Filmmakers water an art desert, stop to see what grows

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It’s been two decades since Riverdale Cinema at West 259th Street and Riverdale Avenue closed its doors for good.

A generation of moviegoers and aspiring filmmakers were without a venue in this North Riverdale neighborhood, and without a source of art. They once again had to bow to the undisputed ruler of the East Coast art world — Lower Manhattan.

But filmmakers and film lovers — some of who still remember a theater’s shining lights at the tip of the Northwest Bronx — never left. They’ve been pining for the past.

But sometimes, what’s gone can return, albeit in a different way.

For five years, Aaron Simms has done his best to provide an outlet for filmmakers living in the Northwest Bronx and the most northern parts of Manhattan — all part of his role as executive producer of the Inwood Film Festival.

“You look at the neighborhood — Inwood, Washington Heights — you look around here and you find no art to speak of,” Simms said. “We try to alleviate that year-round. We’re from the community, and people know us. From the start, the door’s been open to that part of the Bronx.

“Imagine having a theater up there again, as well as a theater down here. We’re doing as much as we can to provide for both.”

The festival is funded through local businesses as well as Inwood Art Works, the non-profit organization executively produced by Simms. Since 2015, the seemingly artless neighborhood has expanded each year to become the only English and Spanish bilingual film festival in the city, according to Simms.

“As long as the story’s set here or you’re from here, you can submit,” Simms said. “We’re about bringing both communities together, rather than drawing lines in the sand between us. We’re culturally inclusive, and ecstatic about showing everyone the kinds of work that people in the area make. Simple as that.”

And the Northwest Bronx is not without its fair share of ambassadors. Riverdale resident Brian Mihok is an artist whose style and range is as widespread as the festival. A book designer, writer, self-taught filmmaker and founder of the online fiction magazine Matchbook, Mihok has endeavored to balance work as a videographer for Riverdale Country School and his passions.

“You can visually see that people like film down in Manhattan,” Mihok said. “It’s hard to be a filmmaker anywhere, but it is a bit of a challenge up here. There are no outlets, no venues, and no spaces. You have to balance some things and compromise. It’s hard to live in a community without a theater.”

Mihok’s “Three Trees (In Three Parts)” is a trilogy of short films based on the stories of flash fiction authors Kathy Fish, Amber Sparks and Amy Rossi. Featuring stories told in as few words as possible, the film premiered at last year’s Inwood Film Festival, winning the long shorts category. That came with a $5,000 grant to fund future projects.

“It’s great what Aaron and Arts Works are doing,” Mihok said. “I love the movie-going experience, but I would love to see a physical theater because it’s an automatic venue for local artists. The work the festival does to bring films to the whole community — even for a few days — is astonishing.”

Mihok isn’t alone. Vivian Rivas graduated from City College in 2018 studying documentary filmmaking. Her thesis film, “Ebb Tide” — the personal tale of Zee Pacifici, an elderly teacher searching for evidence of her old students — was chosen for special election at the 2019 Inwood festival. Since then, the film has been shown at 16 festivals worldwide, winning nine different awards. Yet, when the film premiered, Rivas was nowhere to be found.

“I couldn’t be there,” Rivas said, laughing. “I was already working on my new documentary.”

A proud New Yorker for the past 27 years, Rivas already lived a layered life beginning with her career as an architect in her native Guatemala. Now a script supervisor for commercial and film, Rivas finds the time not only to show “Ebb Tide” globally, but also to travel back to Guatemala several times a year to work on a new documentary covering the plight of women’s rights in the country.

“It’s about the criminalization of youth in Guatemala,” Rivas said. “It’s about something terrible that happened there, and looking at how a corrupt and violent government handled it.”

Rivas’ family was made of lawyers, people who wanted Rivas to have a practical profession. While she enjoyed and appreciated her career in architecture — something that eventually informed her later work — Rivas still felt the desire to make films. She reached New York in 1993 and eagerly learned the trade.

“A Guatemalan filmmaker lived here who invited me to help in his work,” Rivas said. “And I went. I was ecstatic. But when Sept. 11 happened, he had to close his production company. No one wanted to come here to film. They were scared. Producers were scared.

“But now there are festivals all around, and it’s just me with a camera and some close-knit helpers. It’s a very different world from back then.”

Production companies are no longer strictly necessary to bring the art of film to the masses. Theaters are desired. Venues are yearned for. But every year, right by Spuyten Duyvil Creek, there is a festival that hopes to see more from the Northwest Bronx, no matter the backing.

And it returns Friday, March 13 to Columbia University’s Campbell Sports Center near the corner of West 218th Street and Broadway. In fact, on Feb. 17, fresh filmmakers will have a chance to walk in the footsteps of Mihok and Rivas when Inwood Art Works announces the 2020 lineup.

“We actually do very well each season,” Simms said. “Every year we’re growing with hundreds of independent filmmakers, and every year there’s something from the Bronx that reflects the same kind of stuff people in Inwood are making.

“We are very proud of being able to show films by these wonderful creators every year, and have no intention of slowing down.”

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