It’s one of the few Brooklyn neighborhoods where you can smell salt in the air and spot seagulls at the train station.

A unique ocean community in the heart of Brooklyn. But, somehow, one that seems to be often overlooked by the City, transport officials and even the media, as filmmakers Lesley Steele and Emily Packer explore in their new short By Way of Canarsie.

The short documentary film, a 14 minute portrait of Canarsie, began as a collaboration between Steele and Packer in 2018 through a fellowship with UnionDocs.

At the time, the pair were thinking about the theme of transport, and New York was abuzz with news the L train could be going down for 15 months.

While reports seemed to focus on how this might affect rental prices in Williamsburg, one community faced being isolated completely: Canarsie.

“We were like, hey, that’s the only train to go to Canarsie. What happens if this train goes out of commission and leaves hundreds of thousands of residents — mostly of Caribbean descent — out of mobility?” Steele said.

As the pair started to research — the two New Yorkers traveling to the end of the L line for the first time — they said they began to see the disparities in the the community and how the water impacts the way of life in Canarsie.

Still image from By Way of Canarsie. Photo: Supplied

They traveled to Canarsie sometimes daily to map the environment, meet with community members and research the isolated community’s history and hopes for the future.

“We were blown away by Canarise and the richness of the culture there and how alive it is, although we had never thought of going to the end of the L before,” Packer said.

“It was important to be present in the space and to not come in as outsiders, but to come in with a keen sense of being aware of the culture and all the ways transit is needed,” Steele added.

At the center of the film is the Canarsie Pier and its future.

Still image from By Way of Canarsie. Photo: Supplied

While some community members advocate for a commuter ferry, others fear it will disrupt the environment, and the pier where fishermen have been meeting for more than two decades to throw out their lines.

The neighborhood has a rich and sometimes challenging past, with Steele and Packer learning about the impact of Hurricane Sandy and flooding concerns for the future, a history of “white flight” from the area and Jamaica Bay’s relatively recent status as a dumping ground.

Through a series of vignettes shot on analog film, Steele and Packer capture tensions between past and present and touch on the issues of transport, gentrification, rising sea levels and race.

Still image from By Way of Canarsie. Photo: Supplied

In their research, they struggled to find archival footage or much mention of Canarsie as it was impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

“It’s really race and demographics,” Steele said. “It’s people who have been forgotten about — minorities and people of color, and also senior citizens, and a lot are homeowners.”

Packer added that one of the first thing that comes up in a Google search of Canarsie is gun violence.

“But the stories about what amazing environmentalists and cultural leaders live there… you need to really be a local to know about it.”

The pair said they are excited for the world to see the film, but equally excited for residents of Canarsie to see it.

“We’d love to organize a screening for the community,” Packer said, and the filmmakers have been trying to get the word out to their fisherman friends who are featured in the short.

“Our intention is not to portray the people in a way in which they aren’t a part of the story,” Steele added. “In the future we’re hoping to bridge some outreach… we’re exploring programs that can elevate the future of Canarsie and our knowledge of it.”

This film is included in Who Will Start Another Fire: A 9 Film Anthology by Emerging Filmmakers which premiered in select theaters nationwide June 11. It’s available to in virtual cinemas and on VOD.

The anthology is the inaugural collection from Dedza Films, a new initiative dedicated to distribution of films from underrepresented communities.

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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