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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: September 11, 2017

Film in progress captures Portland in transition

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Image courtesy of the filmmakers of "Portland: City at a Crossroads."

Image courtesy of the filmmakers of “Portland: City at a Crossroads.”

“We love this city. Portland is a remarkable place. Our film is an act of love for the city. It’s us hoping that the city continues to be beautiful.”

That’s Portland resident and filmmaker Reggie Groff, talking about the upcoming documentary “Portland: City at a Crossroads” that he’s in the process of completing with director and writer Bob Guiliana and editor Mercedes Mehling. Of course, with that title, the trio’s film is not intended to be a puff piece about Old Port lobster rolls, but instead, a long, searching look at how Portland’s current development growth spurt both echoes those of other major cities (and Portland’s own past) and pits various Portlanders against each other as they debate just what kind of city they want Portland to be.

The project’s  fundraising page  includes the “City at a Crossroads” trailer.

Image courtesy of the filmmakers of "Portland: City at a Crossroads."

Image courtesy of the filmmakers of “Portland: City at a Crossroads.”

I spoke with Groff (also the film’s producer and cameraman), Guiliana and Mehling about their film (and the fundraising campaign to finish it), the nature of community and gentrification and how their own view of this challenging civic issue has evolved as filming has gone on.

How do you approach making a documentary about an issue that seems so insoluble as development versus community?

Reggie Groff: We started by interviewing people willing to talk to us over six months. This is a passion project for us, something we stay focused on between other projects. Every conversation leads to another thought, another idea of someone we want to speak with. We spent those last six months figuring out what the story is, and our ideas changed the more people we spoke to. There’s a tendency to throw your hands up and say there are too many moving parts. What we hope to do is make the issues clear and understandable.

Bob Guiliana: I’ve been in Portland for 30 years, but I’ve gotten to know the city even better since I’ve been involved with the film, getting to know who the power people are, where the power centers are. What grabbed me initially were the dramatic changes happening on the peninsula. There’s exciting new development, but there are also threats and concerns, something that most major cities around the country have to deal with.

So, what are the main issues facing Portland moving forward?

Groff: There are three real power centers. There are the developers who are here to make money. They’re not bad people, that’s what they do. There’s the citizenry, concerned about communities not being destroyed, and about things staying affordable. You see in places like Munjoy Hill where I live, it’s being destroyed, which is not good. Then there’s the referee, the city — does it have skin in the game? The city needs money, to improve schools, fix sewers, tend the harbor. These forces are always in tension.

Giuliana: What we hope our film will do is to give all kinds of people a better understanding of what’s going on. The bottom line is for people to get involved. Take Frank Turek, who’s a mild-mannered guy who, years ago, saw a sign saying that the city was giving Congress Square Park to the Eastland Hotel. He pulled together a whole team and they fought it, and now it’s been redeveloped into a beautiful space. People like that are real local heroes, and we want to feature that as a part of this. Not saying which way the city should go, but stressing to people that you’re in charge of your city.

How did your vision of this debate change while making the film?

Groff: In the 1970s, my dad self-published a newspaper called Community News, dedicated to lampooning city counselors and people developing Portland, so there were echoes of the past for me. And, honestly, I started out with a more negative approach. But, looking back, Portland was not a pretty city in the ’70s and ’80s. It had a lot of character, but that period doesn’t hold a lot of nostalgia, in certain ways. Talking to people on all sides of the issue, we started asking: Is this bad? Is it good? Gradually, we’re legitimately trying to answer that from a very pure perspective.

Mercedes Mehling: This is a national issue — rents rising, development out of control, business owners not allowed to expand, and if you look back a couple of decades, you see history repeating itself. But we don’t want the film to be one-sided. We want it to be a powerful conversation-starter that gives voices to all sides of the issue.

Giuliana: It’s not just a David against the Goliath of the city problem. In the film, we talk to activists from groups like Fair Rent Portland, as well as local government and developers. As we have, the film’s evolved.

With such a big issue to tackle, what do you hope people with take away from the film?

Groff: That individual fights matter. Knowing that change can be good, but to watch and to decide which battles are worth fighting. Not to be afraid of change, but that we can all make a difference. A lot of little battles will make the most difference.

Giuliana: We want to provide an interesting perspective on change, power, money and what a city can be. If you look at the changes in Portland over the years, you can see that some were not great. Things can be done better with a better historical perspective if you educate and empower yourself and get involved.

“Portland: City at a Crossroads,” which the filmmakers estimate will be completed next year, is currently raising completion funds through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Those looking to help them complete this uniquely Portland film, or who want to learn more about the issues involved (the site contains the film’s crisply compelling trailer), should check out the fundraising site gofundme.com/cityatacrossroads or facebook.com/cityatacrossroads.

Image courtesy of the filmmakers of "Portland: City at a Crossroads."

Image courtesy of the filmmakers of “Portland: City at a Crossroads.”

 
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Nickelodeon Cinema
Friday: “Beach Rats.” Director Eliza Hittman’s indie coming-of-age tale tells the story of a closeted young gay man (newcomer Harris Dickinson) trying to reconcile his sexuality with his rootless existence among his rambunctious Coney Island friends.

Space Gallery
Monday and Wednesday, Sept. 18 & 20: “Whose Streets?” When the Black Lives Matter movement was born in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown, filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis were there. Now, Folayan is here in Portland presenting two screenings of the resulting documentary about police violence in America.

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