Tyrnauer addresses urbanism with “Citizen Jane”

Realscreen talks to the director about civil activist Jane Jacobs, who she was and why her struggle against Robert Moses in the '50s and '60s is still relevant today.
September 19, 2016

It’s fitting that the world premiere of director Matt Tyrnauer‘s latest documentary, which took place during Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, screened at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

The cinema sits in The Annex, the Toronto neighborhood where journalist, activist and author Jane Jacobs, protagonist of Tyrnhauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, lived for almost 40 years before she died in 2006. Jacobs saved The Annex from near destruction in 1971 thanks to her obstinate opposition to a proposed expressway that would have cut right through the neighborhood.

That’s not the main tale told in Tyrnhauer’s film, however. What Citizen Jane focuses on is Jacobs’ time in New York City, before she moved to Toronto in 1968, where she spent the ’50s and much of the ’60s honing theories around and developing a new understanding of how a healthy city functions. Over that period Jacobs battled the brutal, modernistic urban design schemes that had beset American cities post World War II, using progressive ideals including ecology and race consciousness. She offered up those ideals to New York in operatic opposition to those espoused by modernist powerbroker and “urban renewal” czar Robert Moses, the film’s villain, fighting him over destructive urban architectural projects, such as expressways in Lower Manhattan, the Bronx and an extension of Fifth Avenue that would have all but wiped out Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park.

Citizen Jane is a copro between Tyrnauer’s Altimeter Films and Robert Hammond, the executive director of Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit he co-founded in 1999 that led to the creation of the High Line, a one-and-a-half mile park built on an abandoned elevated rail line. It was also backed by The Ford, Rockefeller and Knight foundations, as well as The Blue Moon Fund.

An archival film, it is stylistically different to Tyrnauer’s last TIFF offering, 2008′s cinéma verité featured doc Valentino: The Last Emperor. It offers potential distribution partners a previously untold David versus Goliath story about a normal person going up against someone to whom no one had ever successfully said “no” before, Josh Braun, co-founder of Submarine Entertainment, which is handling sales for the film, told realscreen. He added that the Toronto connection only added to the film’s profile at TIFF.

As initially reported by Variety, the film has sold for distribution in a number of international markets since its debut at TIFF: Dogwoof has picked up U.K. distribution rights and the right to represent foreign rights in all other territories, excluding North America; Madman Entertainment has acquired the rights in Australia and New Zealand; and NonStop Entertainment has nabbed all rights in pan-Scandinavia, Baltics, Iceland and Benelux. An announcement regarding a domestic deal is expected shortly. Submarine had previously worked with Tyrnauer on Valentino, and is collaborating with the director on his next project, a doc called Scotty, about Scotty Bowers, and the secret history of sex in Hollywood in the pre-Stonewall era.

Next for Citizen Jane is Doc NYC in November where it will be the opening film. In advance of that, realscreen caught up with Tyrnauer to talk about his doc and how he came upon Jacobs’ story.

Why did you want to make a feature documentary about Jane Jacobs? 

Jane Jacobs was one of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time, and she’s also a badass. She was an incredible intellectual powerhouse who, with the power of her pen, the force of her personality and her genius of activism, changed the way we all look at the city, see the city and experience the city and the way we defend the city. When I explored her life and her biography and the really extraordinary activism that she participated in in mid-century, I thought this was one of the great unmade docs of the present time.

How would you describe your approach to telling this story?

This is very much an archival film, very much a film about a set of intellectual ideas, but one I wanted to make for a wide audience because I believe in making films as documentaries for as broad an audience as possible without, of course, dumbing the subject down. I’m also very interested in architecture, design, city planning. I’ve written a lot in my journalism career about architects, so all these things were fascinating to me, not only the form of the movie I was embarking on making, but also the content was of great interest. I wanted to try and bring a story about architecture design and cities and urbanism to the screen in a truly vivid way.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?

Obviously, Jane Jacobs passed away in the mid 2000s and Robert Moses died in the early 1980s, so we didn’t have an opportunity to have them as characters, but I wanted to bring them to life through archival footage. So, we worked really hard. This was unearthing the proverbial “dusty box” of old film reels, which every filmmaker dreams of and that was a big challenge. We really searched high and low, got a lot of “nos” and a lot of recalcitrance from local TV stations and networks and radio stations and universities saying, “these things just don’t exist, I’m sorry,” and we kept chipping away and we did find full film reels and some pathescopes and things like that that had never been transferred, some of it has never been seen before except by the people that probably watched the dailies when they got the film in in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. We found film of Jane Jacobs that has never been seen before which is the backbone interview that we have of her, and in Robert Moses’ own archives we found film that had never been seen.

Why is this film relevant now?

The surrounding issues of a Jane Jacobs/Robert Moses film are global. They involve cities today, urbanization today. The world is urbanizing at a breakneck pace. It will be almost 95% urbanized by the end of the century. It’s only 50% urbanized now. The beginning and the end of the movie relates to our present day so people can see that we still do have problems in cities and the story is not over and the story is never-ending at that.


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