Have you ever experienced an entire film in verse, in which five New York City performers wax poetic, and recite poetry instead of reading from a script?
One of Queens’ most diverse neighborhoods became the real-life setting for a new boundary-crushing film by director Lynne Sachs. You can see Elmhurst’s bustling Asian food market, called HK Food Court, filled with vendors serving up mouth-watering eats, and located across the street is another popular spot, where locals and their kids like to hang out: Moore Homestead Playground. Both are featured in the filmmaker’s newest cinematic offering, titled “Swerve,” which was inspired by Queens’ former Poet Laureate (2010–2014) Paolo Javier’s “Original Brown Boy” poems.
This indie short — which has its world premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Sunday, June 26, at 1:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A — was shot entirely in Elmhurst, in local parks streets, and the HK Food Court. Tickets are on sale now on BAM’s website.
“‘Swerve’ engages with language in a distinctly poetic way. While the setting of the food market in Elmhurst is as real as can be, the words that my performers speak emerge from the work of Paolo Javier,” Sachs noted. “Each performer memorized one of Paolo’s sonnets from his new book “OBB/ Original Brown Boy” (Nightbook, 2021). Then they spoke the poems to one another as if they were communicating in verse.”
Sachs explained that her film embraces Paolo’s poetry by “tugging his language away from its book form” and into daily life.
“This all happens in an extraordinarily dynamic and diverse part of NYC, where a plethora of languages dance and swim around us. The ‘swerve’ in language is the acceptance of difference in the face of routine and formula,” she said.
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker previously noted that she views life through the creative lens of a painter/poet. That winning combo has given rise to a series of experimental and avant-garde works exploring her own family life, as well as histories of personal, social and political trauma, marginalized communities and a variety of other intriguing topics.
Last January, the director’s film about her enigmatic dad’s life and loves, titled “Film About a Father Who,” was highlighted in the Museum of the Moving Image’s Virtual Cinema in Astoria as part of a 20-film online retrospective of the artist’s celebrated body of work, which spans more than three decades.
“The first time I read Javier’s sonnets from his new 2021 book, I started to hear them in my head, cinematically. In my imagination, each of his 14-line poems became the vernacular expressions of people walking through a food market full of distinct restaurant stalls,” Sachs recalled, adding that she had re-watched Wong Kar-wai’s controversial film “Happy Together,” a favorite of hers and Javier’s, and immediately thought of that food court in Elmhurst, a gathering spot for immigrant and working-class people from the neighborhood.
“As we all know, restaurant owners and workers experienced enormous economic hardship during New York City’s pandemic. Nevertheless, the market and the playground become vital locations for the shooting of this film, inspired by Javier’s exhilarating writing.”
Together, they invited local performers and artists Emmy Catedral and ray ferreira from Queens, NYC-based creatives Jeff Preiss and Inney Prakash, as well as Brooklynite Juliana Sass to participate in a challenging yet playful endeavor. In the film, each performer devours Paolo’s sonnets, along with a meal from one of the market vendors.
“Wearing the tell-tale masks of our daunting now, they speak his words as both dialogue and monologue,” Sachs continued. “Like Lucretius’s ancient poem ‘De rerum natura/On the Nature of Things,’ they move through the market as Epicureans, searching for something to eat and knowing that finding the right morsel might very well deliver a new sensation.”
The camera records it all.
“‘Swerve’ then becomes an ars poetica/cinematica, a seven-minute meditation on writing and making images in the liminal space between a global pandemic and what might come next,” Sachs added.
The film took one day to shoot in HD video and Super 8mm film — in August 2021 — during the first few days of the delta variant.
“It was only a few days before our scheduled shooting day that NYC returned to wearing masks indoors. Still, our determination and commitment persisted, and we simply integrated the tell-tale masks of our moment into the fabric of the film,” Sachs noted. “It had to be that way!”
“Shot in Elmhurst, a richly diverse immigrant space that saw its residents endure our country’s ground zero phase of COVID-19, ‘Swerve’ brings tremendous visibility to an Asian food court and workers, otherwise invisible and ignored by the city,” Javier said. “Together, we all honor the resiliency of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, underscoring the vitality of poetry and cinema in these fraught times.”
Performer Emmy Catedral, a native of the Philippines and a Queens-raised artist and curator, chose to recite one of Javier’s poems, called “Sun and Moon Chilis.”
“Lynne’s film is in response to Paolo’s work, which is absolutely singular and expansive,” she noted. “Paolo is also one of my closest friends and collaborators, so I had to say ‘yes’ to being a part of this. It’s a collaboration among friends. I was excited to be among this fantastic cast that included ray ferreira; she grew up in Corona.”
What does “Swerve” mean to you?
“The film celebrates the possibilities of language through Paolo’s beautiful book. It’s impossible for me to not think about language in the context of Elmhurst — the countless ones spoken here, the language justice work people have been doing and the emergency of translation that wasn’t coming quickly enough from the government; the mutual aid translation that people did for each other as the pandemic was unfolding,” Catedral continued.
“I cannot say enough about this neighborhood because it’s my environment, and I feel the neighborhood itself. I feel its grief. I grew up here. My friends and I loitered in the playground after junior high. The HK Food Court holds memories of being with my family. I went to HK for spicy fish soup laced with chilis, and other side flavor bombs. In the ’90s, across the street on Broadway, I’d get haircuts at a salon called Rosa’s with my mother and sisters.”
Talking about the current status of HK Food Court, Catedral told QNS that she recently passed by and it remains open. Many of the vendors — in fact, all of the featured businesses in the film — are no longer in operation, but it seems there are new tenants keeping the food market open, with a slightly different configuration, according to the performer.
Jeff Preiss, another “Swerve” performer, said that he never felt he was playing a character or a role.
“I projected a fantasized meaning onto the circumstance we inhabited, where Paolo’s and Lynne’s poetics were routine commonplace frameworks,” he explained.
“I am a director and a filmmaker, but to take part in another filmmaker’s project, among friends, produces a kind of effervescent joy. It was through the production that I met Paolo and was introduced to his work. Important events, to say the least! Being allowed a personal ownership of his text was beautiful … getting to where I felt I could imprint myself into his writing, was of itself a swerving journey.”
“It’s an intoxicating, vertiginous title … like a swooping course to avoid catastrophe, unscathed,” Preiss added. “And by the way, Queens is exactly what I dream New York should be.”