The Brooklyn 100: Christopher Allen, Founder and Executive Artistic Director, UnionDocs

The work of Allen and others resists easy classification, but UnionDocs offers public programming in the form of nonfiction film screenings, multimedia performances and video lectures; workshops in everything from filmmaking to site-specific sound installations; and collaborative projects, like their multi-platform “Living Los Sures” project, using film, online media, and live events to document their own changing neighborhood. It’s an esoteric, experimental, community-focused space—and it’s working to keep Williamsburg that way, as well.
What are some films you’ve watched that you can point to and say, “That’s my New York”—films where what’s on-screen (visually, culturally, thematically) resonates with your experience of life in the city?
I’ve always been attracted to NYC’s unlikely overlaps and endless discovery. I don’t get too excited about films that are close to my personal lived experience and knowledge.Not that I crave the exotic, it’s more about being up for the challenge of this complex place. So, these come to mind: Lynne Sachs’s Your Day Is My Night, Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas, Fredrick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, Jennifer Dworkin’s Love and Diane. Those are feature docs, but there are probably dozens more relevant short films, like Brett Story’s Clear and No Screws, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Stop, or Annie Berman’s Street Views, not to mention a whole collection of shorts which have actually been made at UnionDocs.
In what ways is living in Brooklyn a benefit to a career in and around the arts? In what ways is it a drawback?
I guess it is pretty close to Manhattan, so that’s good. No, really… you can met amazing people here, see incredible things, do great stuff. Just don’t get completely distracted.
Do you feel like UnionDocs has any particular, I dunno, “responsibility” to the neighborhood around it? How, in general, do you think about the relationship between UnionDocs and Southside Williamsburg?
We’ve always been interested to engage international documentary art, but simultaneously have been committed to working locally, on our block, in our neighborhood. Living Los Sures, the project about the Southside of Williamsburg that we’ve produced for the past five years, has been the main way we’ve done that. But I wouldn’t characterize the effort in terms of duty or morality. There are pretty basic benefits for UnionDocs in making friends with close-by individuals, being part of communities, and partnering with other organizations in the neighborhood. You support each other, learn things and find opportunities for growth and exchange. Arts organizations that have a more narrow idea of their audience could be missing out.
Do you have ambitions for UnionDocs that you feel haven’t been fulfilled yet?
The work we show often provokes a lot of questions and the conversations that occur in our space can be pretty remarkable. That’s partly due to the intimacy of the venue, which seats around 65. Our next effort, is to bring what’s special about these events to a wider audience through a podcast called UNDOING. It will be a collaboration with our guests—some of the best voices in documentary art—to share stories and ideas that are in and adjacent to their work. While we’ve published hundreds of Q&As and interviews before, we are now aiming at narratives that are more crafted and dramatic. I have brought together a team of great artists including James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Daniel Hui, and Mathilde Walker-Billaud to work towards this goal. I’m really excited about this approach to the programming.


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