True to its name, the 20th edition of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) presented films hailing from such distant locales as South Korea, Denmark, Uganda, and Israel, during its run from October 8–11. Austrian Umat Dag’s “Kuma,” about the plight of a Turkish family living in Vienna, and Australian Cate Shortland’s “Lore,” set on the Baltic Coast during the end of World War II, tied for the festival’s Golden Starfish Narrative Feature Award. Best Documentary honors went to Swedish filmmaker Tora Mårtens for his “Colombianos,” whose protagonist travels between Stockholm and Medellin while struggling with substance abuse.
But one of the most highly anticipated films to appear at HIFF was set much closer to home. Neil Barsky’s “Koch” provides a sweeping yet personal cinematic portrait of the “quintessential New Yorker,” Edward I. Koch – from his modest beginnings as Jewish boy growing up in the Bronx and then in Newark; to his eight years as a liberal Democratic congressman representing New York’s 17th and 18th congressional districts; to the office that would make him a player on the world stage, the Mayor of New York City, which he held for three terms from 1978 to 1989. While candidates are already jockeying for the 2013 mayoral race, the public will have to wait until February for the film’s release.
First-time filmmaker Barsky is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News, as well as a life-long New Yorker. In making the documentary, Barsky and his production team mined archival footage of the 1977 Democratic primary, in which Koch, running on a “law and order” platform, defeated incumbent Abe Beame, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among others, following the summer of the city-wide blackout and rioting; and his unsuccessful 1982 bid for the governor’s office, hampered by his public comments about the “sterility” of the suburban and upstate New York lifestyle. Koch’s uneasy relationship with the city’s gay community is evoked through his approval of a landmark gay and lesbian rights ordnance, his Health Department’s decision to shutter the city’s gay bathhouses, and his lifelong refusal to acknowledge whether or not he himself is gay.
Beyond the history, Barsky also enjoyed unprecedented access to the personal aspects of Mayor Koch’s present life, following him to the Scarsdale home of his younger sister for a Yom Kippur break-fast, and to his Greenwich Village apartment, where he watches television, talks on the phone, and eats his meals — alone.
Koch, now walking with a cane and somewhat thinner then he has appeared in recent years, joined director Barksy and HIFF Director of Programming David Nugent immediately after the festival world premiere for a conversation before an adoring, sold-out crowd. When asked what brought him to this project, Barsky explained that he wanted to show that “so many of the seeds of what has happened to New York…were really planted” during the Koch administration; that Ed Koch is a “compelling character,” worthy of a leading role in a film; and that Barsky wanted to create a “love letter to New York that really was evocative of a time and place.” But he also acknowledged his personal conflicts in making an objective film about Koch, for example, his belief that Koch’s relationship with the city’s African-American community was “not his finest hour,” but that Koch helped blacks in New York by launching the rebuilding of the Bronx and Brooklyn, which continued for more than a decade after he left office.
For his part, Koch allowed — to surprise of no one — his basic feelings about New York City: “I love this city…it’s special. There’s no other city like it. And everybody knows that. Everybody who lives here knows they’re participating in something special.”
When asked what he misses most about being mayor, Koch was uncharacteristically brief: “Nothing.”
He explained that he never looks back and has no regrets. And he remarked incredulously that, although his last term ended in 1989, “most people think I was mayor a couple days ago.” He does not lament his failed attempt for a fourth term. Had he been successful, “it probably would have killed me.”
Reminiscing, respectful audience members asked Koch what his priority would be were he mayor today (“There is not even the need to discuss it. The priority is education. It is so sad that our children, your children, are not being adequately educated in the public school system”) and his feelings for President Obama in the wake of the first presidential debate.
Koch had a lot to say on that topic: “I like President Obama. He’s a very decent man. I lost many debates to Mario Cuomo, who was the greatest debater in America, and if people wanted to elect only the greatest debater, they’d get the best debater on the Harvard debating team. That’s not what’s going to decide the election. What’s going to decide the election is vision and intelligence and courage and the issues and positions that one has. And I believe that [Obama] will be re-elected basically because of the domestic issues…medicare, medicaid, social security, abortion, food stamps that [Romney and the Republicans] want to take away from the poor, taxing the rich which they don’t want to do. I have some issues with [Obama] on foreign affairs and I’m sure we’ll work them out. I’ve never had a perfect candidate. You won’t believe it, I was not a perfect candidate. But the fact is that when you contrast the two, [Obama] is far and away the best candidate.”
Mayor Koch did not have the opportunity during the Q&A to pose his famous question/campaign slogan – “How am I doing?” – but had he, the audience’s answer would likely have been a resounding “Great!”
Zeitgeist Films plans a February 2013 theatrical release of “Koch.”
Bob Feinberg is general counsel of WNET and co-founder/chairman of the Montclair Film Festival.