The eyes of the audience at its world premiere in the West Village were glued to the screen. The Iron Triangle (2017) managed to not only hold the attention of the audience but also to rouse applause and cheers only halfway through the film, an unusual time for ovation. After the film was over, the filmmakers received a handful of questions from their inquisitive viewers, but not all questions were given answers because the abundance of interesting inquiries surpassed the amount of time available. This is a testament to the success and timely arrival of this new documentary, which strives to do perhaps the noblest undertaking in documentary filmmaking: give a voice to those who don’t have one.
The Iron Triangle is a story about a group of working class people battling against bureaucrats who seek to gentrify their valued locale. The cameras of directors Prudence Katze and William Lehman follow the hard workers of immigrant-run auto repair shops in Willets Point, Queens, an unglamorous area in New York City known as the “Iron Triangle.” Sitting at the base of Citi Field, the area is known for its inexpensive yet quality auto repair shops services. Sergio, Jose, Luis, and Ivan, among others, persevered in their broken down work environment for decades despite a lack of much needed municipal infrastructure support. Instead of getting the help they need—necessities such as paved roads and sewers, and especially affordable housing, aid that their tax dollars entitle them to—they hear many rumors of redevelopment. But during the last year of the Bloomberg Administration, the government unabashedly threatens them with a lofty entertainment redevelopment plan—without finding the Willets Point community a place to relocate their businesses. The government, they say, has a strategy. A plan that essentially suggests “some have to die so that others may live.” And we are here to watch them fight their legal battle to preserve this industrial center, as it has existed for decades.
A portrait of a community perhaps not many of us are familiar with, The Iron Triangle seeks to let the Willets Point public show and tell what the place means to them and how much is at stake if they lose what is to them the heart of their hard working community. Showing everyone gathered together in solidarity, Katze and Lehman capture the heartfelt words of one of the speakers at the protest. “We have lived with dignity until today,” one man says in Spanish, “and I hope that all of us who have been here can continue to eat with dignity.” As he’s speaking, the camera shifts to the signs of the protesters, some reading, “All Talk; No Results. Where’s Our Relocation.” But what stands out the most is the inconspicuous woman standing there in the cold with drops of tears coming down her face. The directors are letting their subjects tell us their own story, a story that will be hard not to empathize with.
Conducting interviews, observing without ever showing themselves, and providing ample scenes with heated political arguments, Katze and Lehman’s film embodies at once the participatory, expository, and observational modes of documentary filmmaking. At various points in the film, however, one who is unfamiliar with the complexities of the municipal government of Queens, or indeed of the inner workings of government in general, might occasionally feel confused about the discourse. A few key scenes show city council hearings where elected representatives and building planners dive into the weeds on local policies. So perhaps ironically, at times it’s easier to understand the colloquialisms of the Willets Point community, the men and women who live and work in areas surrounding the repair shops, than the words of Julissa Ferreras, the New York City council member of district 21 in Queens. While Ferreras’ determination is clear, as is seen through her articulation of the pressing issues in city council meetings to apathetic colleagues, the voices and stories of those whose businesses would directly be impacted are more sincere, expressed with a sense of urgency and, indeed, pivotal to the winning over of our sympathy. “It’s not just me,” Jose, the mechanic for Chameleon Automotive says, “but all the families in the area who are looking for a relocation.” Yet the fact that the inhabitants of Willets Point can tell their story better than any other politician or urban expert in the film makes this documentary all the more powerful. When I asked Ms. Katze what their approach was for the making of the movie she responded enthusiastically: “I would say that it's just about showing up and letting reality unfold!” We can clearly see this method in the way that the film allows space to those who would be impacted by the changes proposed to Willets Point.
The Iron Triangle is the epitome of an empowering social issue documentary, and, in a perfect world, everyone in Queens would be able to watch it. The film premiered on November 11, 2017 at the IFC center in West Village, as part of the annual DOC NYC documentary film festival here in the city. Stay tuned to www.theirontrianglemovie.com for updates on future screenings.