From the Outside In: How Christopher Allen Organized a Community-Based Documentary

In this post about Christopher Allen's recent lecture in our 2016-2017 Oral History Workshop Series, current OHMA student Christina Pae (2015) reflects on the importance of collaboration in oral history projects, particularly when an outsider aims to conduct a project within an insular community.

Who is Christopher Allen? Prior to meeting him, our assignment was to watch Los Sures, a documentary film about the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has historically been predominantly Puerto Rican. The film is directed by Diego Echeverria and tells the stories of five Latino residents struggling to make their lives in the gritty Los Sures neighborhood in the 1980s. 

What I couldn’t figure out was—how is this guy with the waspy name connected to this project? I couldn’t find his name anywhere in the trailer or the film. I searched the website and finally located it in tiny type at the bottom of the About page as the Executive Producer and Artistic Director of Living Los Sures.  A Google search then took me to his bio on the UnionDocs website, which is accompanied by a photo of a guy with boyish looks, floppy hair, and a pencil mustache who graduated from Columbia University. To be honest, he looked more like someone trying to channel John Waters or Clark Gable than a documentary artist working in the Southside.

My initial confusion and first impressions could not have been further from the truth. While Los Sures is an incredible documentary film on its own, Allen’s project, Living Los Sures, is a multifaceted multimedia project involving sixty artists that continues to be a work in progress six years along. All inspired by the original film, it includes forty short documentary films, an interactive portrait of one narrator from the film called 89 Steps that plays like a video game and a deconstructed version of the original film called Shot by Shot which includes commentary from the neighborhood’s residents on each of the film’s shots, making it a “cinematic people’s history.” The project takes the term “collaboration” to a whole new level. 

And on Thursday night, when he came to speak to our group, it was clear from the outset that he is a serious documentary artist and producer with a powerful vision and the boundless energy to put his ideas to work. Here, he talks about the founding of UnionDocs:

So, how and why did he get involved with Los Sures? Turns out that UnionDocs is located on the edge of the Los Sures neighborhood and, from its beginnings in the early 2000s, Allen was determined not only to be “an internationally focused organization that has a very broad mandate and interest in documentary,” but also to be very connected locally.

When his first attempts to attract the mostly Latino long-term residents into UnionDocs were unsuccessful—he describes the UnionDocs door as “a boundary that was difficult for us to convince people to cross”—the organization went out into the community and held events where people were already gathering, “places like church basements and bars and community spaces and public parks” and found partners in the community to work with. They also conducted interviews on the street, using a large poster with a question on it to drum up conversation.

Allen describes Living Los Sures as a project that was born out of those activities, and the project has created a “deep connection,” not only to the residents of the community who are familiar with and have participated in the project, but also with other organizations that have a strong presence in the neighborhood, which is how he got hold of the original film. These events invite the residents to experience the documentary work that UnionDocs is producing as well as to recount their own stories of life in the neighborhood.

UnionDocs seems to soak up the community into its very core. Its building (see image above or below) is covered in a mural and documentary comic strip painted on its façade of Cuso, a narrator from the film, created by a local artist.

The cooperation is arguably most visible in Shot by Shot, the part of the project, which is a “collaboration between an arts institution and its surrounding community to collect memories and share local culture,” which Allen describes as “definitely an oral history project.” Here he discusses how it was made:

Shot by Shot lets the voices of the community speak about the Southside, the people in it, the time period and even what the residents view to be inaccuracies in the film, in their own words. 

Listening to Christopher Allen talk about his experiences of working within the community reminded me so strongly of Winona Wheeler’s elegantly written piece on conducting oral histories with indigenous populations.[1] In it, she describes how interviewing methods must be tailored to the people being interviewed and how important it is to cultivate the proper “level of reciprocal trust and respect” between interviewer and narrator before attempting to capture their stories. 

Christopher Allen seems to have struggled with some of the same issues and has clearly succeeded not only in building an extraordinary collaboration between UnionDocs and the Southside, but also letting his narrators voices tell their stories in their own way. 

To learn more about UnionDocs, visit www.uniondocs.org. Check out Heather Michael's reflection on Christopher Allen's presentation here. The trailer for Los Sures and various projects within Living Los Sures can be viewed here.

To explore Christina's work recording stories with Korean-Americans born in the 1930s, visit Ki-ŏk: Memories of A Korean-American Generation.

[1] Wheeler, Winona. “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral History." In Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations, edited by David T. McNab, 189-214. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, Aboriginal Studies Series, 2005.