A well-made documentary film, in ways fundamentally different from a well-written story or an excellent photograph, can illuminate new facets of a subject you thought you already knew.
Take John Paget’s gorgeously photographed video “Buffalo: America’s Best-Designed City,” now playing on all your friends’ Facebook pages, which zooms out far enough in time and space to serve as a powerful reminder about some of the city’s overlooked assets.
Though intended for an audience of urban designers and advocates, it also continues the important and unfinished work of reacquainting this region with the city at its center. It does this simply by showing the city to us from visual and historical vantage points that most of us don’t have access to on our own, blowing off decades of post-industrial soot to reveal a healthy infrastructure.
The same goes for a fine new documentary screening at 6 p.m. today in the Allendale Theatre as part of the Buffalo International Film Festival. Austin McLoughlin and Mary Beth Murray’s film “Long Live TOY: Defending Children’s Theatre in the Nickel City” tells the story of the 2010-11 Erie County cultural funding crises through the lens of one of the city’s most beloved and successful theater companies.
The film, a testament to the transformative power of children’s theater as well as the importance of culture to the vitality of a community, could hardly have been shot at a better time.
Its central villain is former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who shocked the arts community of Western New York into full political consciousness in 2010 when he eliminated public funding for all of Erie County’s two dozen theater companies. Its main hero is Meg Quinn, the tireless director of Theatre of Youth and one of the chief spokespeople for a new era of cultural awareness that began during the crisis.
Through interviews with politicians and arts supporters and videos of rallies and political speeches, the film effectively captures an extraordinary period of foment among members of the cultural community and their supporters. Though the film is on the long side and struggles to strike the right balance between local and national voices, it is an important document of a defining moment in Buffalo’s cultural reawakening.
The film makes the argument that the loud revolt of the cultural community against Collins’ cuts was responsible for the success of his opponent in the 2011 election, current Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. While there will never be definitive proof for that hypothesis, the film presents a compelling case.
McLoughlin and Murray smartly juxtapose interviews with local leaders such as Shakespeare in Delaware Park founder Saul Elkin and Irish Classical Theatre Company co-founder Vincent O’Neill with insights from successful exports from Buffalo’s cultural industry. These include Jesse L. Martin, a former TOY actor who has made a name for himself on Broadway, TV and film, and Tom Fontana, who credits Buffalo theater for his success as a screenwriter, producer and playwright.
“How are we supposed to understand the times we live in? We certainly can’t get it from politicians. They’re not going to tell us the truth about where we are,” Fontana said in the film. “What you need is the arts to say: This is who we are and this is who we have the potential of becoming. How that becomes a pain … to some politician or some school board person, I don’t know. I find it extraordinary the shortsightedness of the people who are the gatekeepers for our children who would shut these things down as a needless expense.”
What may speak louder than any of the wise words in the film, though, are the expressions of sheer delight and wonder on the faces of Theatre of Youth’s young audience members. In those faces, which reflect the glow of pink stage lights, you can instantly see what motivates people like Quinn, Elkin and others in this town to do what they do for amounts of money others would scoff at. They believe culture can fundamentally transform individuals, and that those individuals then fundamentally transform their communities.
As the cultural funding crisis continued, the words and images of dozens of arts supporters and detractors played out across all forms of local media. Two years later, McLoughlin and Murray’s elegant visual record zooms out far enough to create a new and enduring argument for the central role of culture in the Buffalo Niagara region.