Filmmaker. Political artist.

Vagabond brings his lyrical vision of Coney Island Dreaming to Friday's Gala Night at the Strand, a fitting contribution to the palette of personal cinema examining place and placelessness: from student Nathan Winans' study of homelessness in Power, to the feature presentation of life in Red Hook, Brooklyn--Adam Kritzer's Good Funk.

Vagabond spoke with me and Nathan about the artistic and social importance of this place in his imagination, and in the imagination of the country.

Since the early twentieth century, Coney Island has held a special place in the visual and cinematic imagination--in early cinema, in Joseph Stella's visual idiom. What drew you?

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I love Coney Island… I was born in the People’s Republic Of Brooklyn… Coney Island has always been a wonderful and beautiful thing for me… It’s always been a place that’s been an honest unvarnished reflection of the people who go to Coney and the people who work there.

Coney Island in early cinema and modern art (1895-1914)

Coney Island in early cinema and modern art (1895-1914)

It has this indomitable spirit of claiming its right to happiness and joy in the face of poverty, in the face of struggle, in the face of everything gone wrong, in the face of everything broken and patched up… Socially and politically Coney Island is not a fantasy or a dream that is walled off and segregated from the harsh reality in the way that Disney is. It’s a defiant symbol of resistance that boldly claims a space to exist within and along side the struggle of everyday living.

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It’s not a place that speaks to escape in the same way that Disney does… Coney is a reward for having survived everything that’s designed to crush and kill you. It’s a reward that sits among everything that’s designed to crush and kill you… The poverty, the junkies, the homelessness, the housing projects, the cops, the trains, the buses, the garbage, the traffic exist side by side with the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s, William’s Candy Shop, El Dorado Bumper Cars, Cyclone Stadium, the lights, the games, the beach, the pier, and the Sideshow Circus.

I think my vision as an artist is to somehow portray this epic struggle.

So, that's why you chose it.

Illustration for J.L. Torres' Boricua Passport

Illustration for J.L. Torres' Boricua Passport

Che Guevara once said that “The guerrilla fighter wins by not losing”… That’s what Coney represents for me: a way to be victorious as you struggle, it’s a means of direct action through happiness and joy against and the depression and the misery of the mundane and soul sucking modern world… Coney is a rare thing, because there aren’t many places where your leisure can be a political statement… It’s a place where the rubber tires of American mythology meets the pot-holed road of reality and in that messy and broken place things find a way to work…  

Does it raise questions of nationhood?—as it did for Stella--or is this film working in a more lyrical, private way?

For as long as I have been going to Coney Island it’s always been a place for everyone… I don’t think Coney raises questions of nationality as much as it a space for true freedom… If there is a question of nationality that Coney Island brings up it’s one in which people can engage in being Americans in the sense in which it’s always been invoked as a nation of immigrants but never practiced… The Mermaid Parade, New Years Eve, New Years' Day with the Coney Island Polar Bears, the 4th Of July, and Halloween are all events that embrace the idealistic ethos of American inclusion…  

My film Coney Island Dreaming isn’t trying to be one thing, it’s trying to be many things, in the way that Coney Island is many things… It’s trying to be fun and colorful and upbeat and full of possibility but it’s also harsh and dark and sad… My hope is that Coney Island Dreaming would connect us with those we think have nothing in common with, and because each of us has a Coney Island Dream and each of us should be able to have that Coney Island Dream come true the fracture between us can be bound by Coney Island… In that sense isn’t Coney Island a kind of nation in and of itself…?

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Nathan Winans:

With the tremendous color palette of this film, what were some challenges during the shooting process regarding the color?  What does this kind of color convey for you?

We shot the film on a Red Epic in 4K… We wanted the widest color palette we could get since Coney Island is so colorful… What ended up happening is that we got some beautiful cooler blue tones while the sun was up and when it got dark almost all the lights were warm and so we let that dictate color… During the shooting of the fireworks scene we shot all natural light, her face is actually being lit only by the fireworks… I wanted the color to convey the beauty of Coney Island but also the darkness that falls on things as the night starts to wind down… The color and the way it change throughout the film helps to tell that story…

I also made a film about homelessness, about what goes unseen.  Your film has a great meaning behind it: did you start with the idea of making a film about children who are homeless? 

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When we first went out to shoot we had no idea what we were going to do…. I feel there is just too much pre-planning and pre-production in filmmaking so when we went out to shoot this film we had no story or script… My co-producer and the star of the film (his daughter) came up with the story of a girl coming to Coney Island and finding some money and having a good time… I added the idea that in the end find that she is homeless… The beginning of the film is sweet and innocent and full of possibilities and joy and that helped people identify with her character completely so that when you find out she’s homeless you’re not judging her but empathizing with her and the world could use less judgement and more empathy…