Wednesday, April 20, 2016
"Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream," the documentary by East Village-based filmmaker Michael Levine, starts its week-long run today at the Film Forum.
The film follows the last family-owned matzo bakery in America during their final year in their factory on Rivington Street. The factory moved out of the city in 2015 after 90 years in that location. Condos are on the way.
The Los Angeles Times liked the film ...
Levine shared a few thoughts about the documentary, Streit's and the neighborhood with us on the eve of the film's NYC theatrical debut...
On the appeal of the Lower East Side and Streit's:
My family has had a presence on the Lower East Side in one form or another for around 100 years, and though I grew up in New Jersey, I felt compelled to come back to the neighborhood as soon as I could. I've have been here almost 16 years now — a short time in the scheme of things, I know, but long enough to have watched the systematic destruction of so many of the neighborhood institutions I knew from growing up, as well as the displacement of so many and much of the people and culture that drew me and so many others here in the first place.
When I came across Streit's, after passing by their factory on Rivington Street for years unaware of their presence, they were clearly one of the survivors: A fifth-generation manufacturing business operating with 90-year-old equipment in four tenement buildings — and I was drawn immediately to their story.
On the start of filming:
When I began filming there in 2013, it was chronicle the history, resilience and resistance of a family and their 60 union employees who had turned down millions to continue a nearly century-long legacy. They hadn't set out to the "last man standing" when it came to manufacturing in the neighborhood — they simply couldn't imagine doing anything else, anywhere else. This was their home.
But it was clear from the start that their presence their was, as one longtime worker puts in in the film, "in the balance." Despite owning the buildings since the 1930s, the factory had been losing money for several years, as the trifecta of aging, irreplaceable machinery, competition from more modern factories, and a lack of interest from the city as far as supporting manufacturing in the neighborhood finally came to a head.
During what was meant to be the last week of editing the film, the family at last made the announcement that they would be closing the factory and using proceeds from the sale of the buildings to build a new factory in Rockland County.
For another year, I continued filming as they slowly emptied the factory and began their transition to their new facility. I truly believe the Streit family has done as much as anyone could hope for, given the challenges they faced: they stuck it out as long as they could, and instead of simply pocketing the money from selling the buildings, they dove right into building a new factory, keeping it close enough to the city to be within commuting distance of many of their longtime employees, all of whom were offered jobs there.
On the factory's departure from the Lower East Side:
For the Lower East Side, though, the loss has less of a silver lining. In the next several weeks, the former factory buildings are slated to be demolished to make room for seven floors of luxury condos and retail, something that seemed unthinkable – though I suppose shouldn't have been — when I started this film three years ago.
I'm grateful that I had opportunity to start filming when I did, to experience the place as a still-vital piece of the community. And while the timing of the film coming out as its "main character" awaits the wrecking ball is somewhat ridiculous to consider, I hope the timing can perhaps offer a unique opportunity to appreciate a place like Streit's at the same moment it is being lost, and hopefully spark some conversation and action to protect the places like it, and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods, and remind people that the Lower East Side is still a neighborhood of resilience and resistance after all.
The film's official premiere is tonight at 8. Afterward, there's a premiere party of sorts upstairs at 2A (on Avenue A and Second Street) featuring food from Russ & Daughters. Members of the Streit family and workers from the factory will be there. The party is open to anyone, not just people coming from the Film Forum.
Meanwhile, across the street...the Streit's exhibit continues (through May 5) at Art on A Gallery. The gallery is open tonight until midnight. (You can read more about the exhibit here.)
At both the gallery and at 2A this evening, Levine says that people will be able to buy tickets to the film. (Buy a ticket and receive a film poster and box of matzos.)
Previously on EV Grieve:
A celebration of Streit's Matzo Factory starts tonight on Avenue A