Brooklyn is Burning Director A.F. Cortes on Heading Straight Into The Fire – AdHoc

Brooklyn is Burning Director A.F. Cortes on Heading Straight Into The Fire

AdHoc spoke with the director about how he hopes to capture the unity of the Brooklyn music scene at a time when the pandemic threatens to extinguish it for good.

If someone were to describe a documentary about a diverse New York City cultural scene being threatened by a pandemic that the government wasn’t taking seriously, your mind might first drift to the seminal documentary on 80s ball culture, Paris Is Burning. Thirty years after the release of Livingston’s film, another director, A.F. Cortes is working to capture a different New York scene set in eerily similar circumstances. Despite only having a teaser out, Brooklyn Is Burning will draw comparisons and critiques simply because of its setting and name. While both films depict New York’s cultural scenes at critical times—for Paris it was ball culture at the height of the AIDs crisis, and for Brooklyn it’s the borough’s music scene during the coronavirus pandemic—Cortes’ documentary is already departing from Livingston’s in important ways.

The project, which is currently on Kickstarter, aims to crowdfund $30,000 by October 3. As of publication, Brooklyn has raised more than two-thirds of its goal. The money from the Kickstarter will help fund the rest of production during and after the pandemic, with money set aside to pay people that appear in the documentary. The decision to compensate for appearances is perhaps a lesson from Paris, which has been mired in controversy over compensation since its release. 

For Cortes, compensation was just “common sense.” The pandemic has threatened the livelihoods of everyone within the music ecosystem, a reality Cortes is aware of as someone who has spent the five years embedded in the Brooklyn scene. Whereas bell hooks once described Livingston as a spectator, Cortes is a part of the community—the last hug that he received before the pandemic was from Fucked And Bound’s vocalist and former Daughters keyboardist Lisa Mungo. And while bell hooks decried Paris as “politically neutral,” Cortes has made it clear that his film is “a political film set in the universe of music and not the other way around.”

“My story is the story from 2016 to 2021 or 2022. It’s what happened when we elected somebody that decided to divide this country as president, how an art movement and a music scene reacted to that,” Cortes told AdHoc. “That to me is the call to action, to show our audience how we respond to that message of hate.”

With filming cut short, it remains to be seen how similar Paris and Brooklyn are. Paris Is Burning could be an important antecedent for Brooklyn, a warning against sensationalizing a scene that has its own issues. Beyond Paris, the titular “burning”—which Cortes describes as a metaphor for the vibrancy of the scene—has taken on a new meaning in the wake of the pandemic. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the government’s inaction threatens to destroy the very scene Cortes is trying to document. Cortes told AdHoc how the Kickstarter is an attempt to respond rapidly to the threat of the pandemic, making Brooklyn is Burning a race to capture a scene before the pandemic extinguishes it forever.

Ahead of the end of Brooklyn is Burning’s Kickstarter, AdHoc spoke with A.F. Cortes about the inspiration behind the documentary’s title, how the pandemic has changed the focus of the film, and how the Brooklyn scene is “an answer to what was happening politically here in the U.S.”

AdHoc: What made you decide to call the documentary Brooklyn is Burning?

A.F. Cortes: There are many reasons why I decided to call it Brooklyn is Burning. While I was documenting and taking pictures of bands for the past 10 years, my focus became the local scene in the past five years when something interesting happened in the local scene. I always remember the first time I saw Bambara at Union Pool with just five people, and then last year they sold out Rough Trade. In the past five years, the scene was kind of burning or happening in some ways.

It felt like a scene that was more inclusive, not divided like the previous iterations of the scene. Dreamcrusher was playing with bands that may belong to different parts of the record store, but in this scene, they were connected. I started to see members of the audience going to those same shows. It was a common thread and also an answer to what was happening politically here in the U.S. As we know we had the past four years of a government that has been very divisive and their motto is the politics of hate and division.

Reason number two, the “London’s Burning” famous Clash song was also a call to arms. The other, as a filmmaker, the film Paris Is Burning is a very interesting story because it is the beginning of a scene and movement as it is happening. The story is being told in real-time as it happens. I wanted to take the same approach with Brooklyn is Burning.

Did you intend to put your documentary in conversation with Paris Is Burning?

I think it might end up happening because there have been questions about the title. And I really want to get those questions answered in the documentary, on camera. When those questions arose, my answer was this is only a teaser. This is a small part of the story, let us tell the story, and then we can discuss afterward if it makes sense or doesn’t.

You said that you want Brooklyn is Burning to be a call to action. What is it you want people to leave your documentary thinking?

The call to action is the most important part of this film. I always say this is a political film set in the universe of music and not the other way around. I want to show the unity of a scene that is accepting different voices like mine. My voice is the voice of an immigrant, and that perspective is unique in some way. How do we see a scene that is united parallel to the current reality, which is about hate and division? That to me is the call to action, to show our audience how we respond to that message of hate. And as a country and as a society I think that’s how we need to be. We can’t forget about the bigger picture––it’s very important that we’re united against a common enemy –– hate and division. So for me, the unity in the local scene is a small example for other scenes or cities.

Why did you decide to compensate people for appearing in your film?

The pandemic happened and that’s when I realized that our main characters are musicians, not only musicians but also owners of venues, artists or painters or photographers. I think we need to compensate them much sooner rather than later, we need to compensate the person in front of the camera and treat them as our talent. They’re the story, without them there’s nothing. I just have pictures, I don’t have the stories. So for me, it was very important to give back to the community and give back to the artists that are in front of the camera. For me the reason is just common sense; I can’t make a film about artists without compensating artists.

Tell me a bit about how your previous work experience has prepared you for this one?

As a filmmaker, I’ve done two television series, one fiction which was an 80 episode drama about the life of an Afro-Colombian boxer [Kid Pambelé]. That project taught me resilience. It was a project that took 10 years from original idea to final production, so I had to be very stubborn to continue working on it. 

I was able to become a full-time writer on my television series [Manifesto!]. We were in São Paolo shooting like four different stories in one day. So you have to learn how to work [at a] really fast pace when you’re shooting those types of documentaries for television, especially when you have a very short two months production schedule to produce 13 episodes. That project taught me to work fast, in the craziest conditions ever.

You’ve been documenting the Brooklyn music scene for years before starting this documentary. Why not tell the story of the Brooklyn music scene through photography?

I would love to tell the story in both mediums. Part one of the rewards that we’re launching is a zine where we’re inviting a ton of writers to help us tell that story with photography. The reason I wanted to switch to a moving image with this project is that I really wanted it to have a greater reach. I think the moving image is where you can tell a more complete story, a more three-dimensional story about these characters. I have a million pictures of Dreamcrusher but when we sat down in the interview, those words were more powerful than any picture I could have taken.

Before the pandemic, what was the initial focus of the documentary?

As soon as the pandemic started I felt that this was the third act of the story. Before, I didn’t have an idea of how I was going to end the documentary. I still didn’t have a major drama besides the political climate. But when COVID happened that was when we started to see that the stories are happening right now. People are leaving New York and venues are going to start to close. This thing is not going to be the same in a year, so I can’t wait to go and pitch this project to Netflix or Hulu or whoever. If you lose your livelihood suddenly with this pandemic and there’s no kind of light at the end of the tunnel, that’s a major drama. So it radically changed the story and it changed our strategy as well. That’s the reason we decided to do the Kickstarter because we can’t wait until someone gives us a bag full of cash to do the project, we just have to do it ourselves.

Do you have an idea of how long filming may take?

We really want to finish in a year or so. There are two exits. One, this is our third act and this is the end of the local scene as we know it. I don’t want that to happen, but maybe this version of the scene won’t survive. I hope it will because it made me very happy and made me a part of a community. Hopefully, if the pandemic ends in one year, we will go back and shoot our final scene at a fantastic show. What’s going to happen after the pandemic that’s going to be another story. But my story is the story from 2016 to 2021 or 2022. It’s what happened when we elected somebody that decided to divide this country as president, how an art movement and a music scene reacted to that.

There’s no shortage of documentaries about New York City music scenes. How will you add on to this tradition?

I wanted the audience of this documentary to be different types of audiences. One, the people that love these bands and were a part of this or learned about these bands through social media. But the other audience that I really wanted to reach as well is the politically conscious audience that might not be exposed to music, but are very interested in how music affected and  reacted to a political situation. That’s where I want to live. I don’t want to make this a music film that only a very few can enjoy. I want to make the story relatable to someone that might not know the bands and maybe discovers them through this. That’s one of the reasons why I love music documentaries because when they talk about a scene they talk about things that you might not have been familiar with before.

I noticed that in the trailer gentrification was framed as threatening the music scene, but notably many of the artists featured aren’t from New York. How will you address the way the music scene isn’t just being gentrified, but also helped gentrify Brooklyn?

A lot of people are taking that as a trailer, and this is not a trailer it’s a teaser. Stuyedeyed, they’re from New York, are part of the story and there are many bands that are going to be a part of the story that are native to New York. I think what makes New York great is that we have the influences from the people that are born and raised here but also from people that come from other places. I feel that New York feeds our soul and our spirit and our creative work, but we feedback with the results of our work. That is what makes the city rich and ever-changing. There’s a whole chapter on gentrification that covers gentrification from those perspectives.

Your Kickstarter is ending very soon. What happens if you don’t reach it?

We’re going to do a project no matter what. I’m so invested in the story. We’ve got a lot of great support from the bands, the venues, and the audience. There are people that really want to help with this project because they want to see this project. So now I feel I have a responsibility to this story. But we’re really trying to see if this works because it will be an interesting way to tell the story about this community by involving the community in the story.

This story is being told by someone that feels passionate about this music, and by someone that is also a part of this story. The documentary needs to be at the service of the band when we do the live part of the documentary, and the idea is to try to immerse our audience into what it’s like to be at one of these shows. I have many friends that don’t have a visa to come to the U.S., meaning they’ll never see this in person, so I want them to experience it. 

What was the last show you saw before the pandemic?

Fucked and Bound in St. Vitus. My dear friend, Lisa Mungo is the singer of the band. She used to play keyboards in Daughters and that’s her solo project. But it was an empty show, everyone was already kind of freaking out because of the pandemic. I remember when we saw each other I was like, should we hug each other or not. It was the last hug that I gave to anyone, that was my last show and last hug.