A few months ago I started working on a new documentary film called “The Wisdom of New York” which is a work in progress about the sayings, proverbs, insults and jokes that people bring with them to New York City from their home country. I thought it might be great to share here some very, very rough edits of the interviews I’m doing as the project develops. What these people have to say is valuable and interesting even in rough form and so every month I’ll feature a different person from a different country. I hope you find this a new filter through which to view the city and our chaotic life here.
Although I began this as a simple, light piece, sometimes the sayings have much deeper meanings. These are everyday sayings people recite to console or encourage, or to affirm some beliefs about life, and provide a connection to their homes far away. Through these sayings we can get a glimpse into another culture. Without having grown up in the subject’s culture we may never really understand the true meanings, but we do get a fresh awareness of just how differently we all view the world and life.
Over 100, 000 new immigrants arrive here each year, making up more than a third of the population and approximately 45% of the New York City workforce. We often hear that the city is a melting pot, but to me it’s not really true. There is more assimilation with higher education and income of course but most new immigrants stay in their own enclaves. As you move through the streets it feels like a cacophony of misunderstanding as we talk past and around each other. Yet it all somehow works because everyone who comes here have the same goals: to make it, to have a home and a job, to find that melting pot and fit in. To many of those I interviewed, these sayings can be quite meaningful and helpful to the newly arrived immigrant in search of comfort for the soul as they fight their way up the food chain in the big city.
My emotional connection and inspiration for this is the convergence of my return to NYC five years ago and getting to know the city with fresh eyes with the memories of my wife arriving in NYC as an immigrant from Brazil in the 1970’s, learning English as she worked in a garment sweatshop, then babysitter, teacher and then assistant TV producer for O Globo. To this day she always has these sayings from the rural area of Brazil she came from that to me sound crazy– something is always lost in translation even though I speak passable Portuguese. In 2005 and 2006, I was commissioned by the Mayor’s office of Ecomonic Development to document the five boroughs. That put me back on the streets, meeting lots of new immigrants. So I’m combining a lot of those still images with the interviews in the final film.
A few weeks ago we shot Samuel from Ghana, see above video link, who had some great sayings and stories. One of my favorites of his is “If you think you are smarter than everybody, you’ll end up wishing a goat ‘Good Morning!'” Meaning, if you get too conceited or overconfident you’ll soon make a foolish mistake. Samuel’s life here as an immigrant has been difficult and he thinks he will be returning to Ghana soon. Business has been bad ever since 9/11 and the recession has made it only worse. Yet he was very positive and commented that he often bolsters the hopes of his fellow drivers and Ghanians with appropriate sayings from home to keep them going here.
Our shoot day was saved when by multitalented Ron Dawson who filled in as DP. He blogged about our day here: Shooting Doug and “The Wisdom of New York” – Blade Ronner: The Blog of Ron Dawson
Please enjoy and let me know your thoughts– that’s the point of sharing a work in progress!