By Ian MacFarland
The muddy, gritty streets of the industrial Iron Triangle and the city’s plans for their future serve as the metaphorically charged backdrop for a tale of deception, deal-making, urban life and domestic strife in “Willets Point,” the debut feature by independent filmmaker T.J. Collins, which opened last week for a limited engagement at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema.
The film tells the story of a struggling young Queens couple, Guillo and Doris, and their 9-year-old daugher Sophia, whose fortunes alternately rise and fall with the tide of gentrification in the borough. The neighborhood, a slice of land adjacent to Citi Field lined with dank, unpaved streets and full of auto repair shops, junkyards, industrial sites and warehouses, is such a poignant counterpoint to this domestic tale because of the shock of its unique and very real squalor, said Collins, a Long Islander who wrote and directed the film.
“I think it would be challenging to find anywhere else in New York that looks like Willets Point,” Collins said. “The area looks like a Third World country right in our backyard.”
Guillo (Alfredo Suarez) is a mechanic at a small garage in Willets Point, where the threat of unemployment looms as the city scoops up parcel after parcel of land and threatens the entire area with eminent domain in an effort to enact a sweeping redevelopment plan that would transform the hardscrabble area into a glitzy destination in the shadow of the Mets’ Citi Field. As the prevailing winds of change diminish the neighborhood’s business in cut-rate auto repair, Guillo’s income drops.
Doris (Lorraine Rodriguez), meanwhile, benefits from the same forces that pull Guillo down. Better educated and more ambitious, she is a wine saleswoman picking up more business in the neighborhoods near Willets Point as the population becomes more affluent. Their relationship sours as she becomes the family’s primary earner, Guillo spends more and more time hanging around a neighborhood bar and flirting with the bartender and their landlord threatens to evict them after they fall behind on rent.
But the real bombshell is dropped when an increasingly hot-tempered Doris accidentally burns herself and the doctor who treats her diagnoses her with Huntington’s Disease, a rare, hereditary and fatal brain-wasting illness that is the root cause of her frequent outbursts and changing personality. The diagnosis touches off a series of revelations that she has long kept secret from her husband, endangering their marriage and the health of their daughter.
The film is equal parts domestic melodrama and socio-economic study, as the breakdown of the characters’ home life mirrors the disintegration of the Iron Triangle’s working-class milieu. The picturesquely dilapidated neighborhood functions almost like a character in its own right, its gritty ruin serving as a constant foil to the characters’ aspirations and driving the story
“You see how the mechanics have adapted to the environment and made the most of it,” Collins said. “That makes it all the more appealing because you’re not just filming a bunch of metal shacks and roads in disrepair, but you’re documenting a way of life.”
In fact, Collins said, the entire Willets Point portion of the story was inspired by his real-life experiences in the neighborhood. In 2005 and 2006, he said, he regularly visited an auto repair shop there and would strike up conversations with his mechanic, an Afghan immigrant named Azimi. “He was similar to many of the other Willets Point mechanics who have the entrepreneurial spirit and want to live the American dream,” Collins said.
When news began to circulate about the city’s plans to raze and redevelop the neighborhood, he began to fear for Azimi’s future.
“I asked him what he will do if they shut him down,” Collins said. “His reply: ‘I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen. I don’t know what I would do.’ That’s when I put on my filmmaking hat and get to work. Someone should tell their story.”
Collins filmed scenes in Azimi’s shop as well as on the streets near the train stations in the neighborhood, and said the experience has turned him on to the allure of Queens as a location.
“I’m planning to shoot my next feature film in Jamaica, Queens, next year. There is something about Queens … that attracts me.”
“Willets Point” opened Friday at Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., and was scheduled to run through Thursday. For advance ticket sales call 777-FILM #636 or purchase online at movietickets.com.