Israeli filmmaker Shiri Paamony Eshel founded Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival

By Tsipi Inberg Ben-Haim

Shiri Paamony Eshel is one of these people that lights up the room with her warm big smile. For the film festival she just founded she didn’t only light up the room she filled it up with people from all walks of life that came to enjoy the first festival of stories about Hell’s Kitchen.

I sat down with Shiri, the founder, and Elizabeth, the producer, to interview them about their experience and hopes for the future.

  • Congratulations, Shiri, on a very successful Hell’s Kitchen film festival.

“Thanks, it’s actually Hell’s Kitchen Films NYC because it’s not only going to be a festival. It was created a few months ago in a bar located in Hell’s Kitchen and it came from a project that I started almost two years ago.”

  •  Tell me about yourself. How did it all start?

“I am a documentary filmmaker and a photographer – I have always had an interest in extinct cultures, because the world is changing very fast these days due to technology, political changes, and wealth changes. Everything has changed drastically in the last hundred years. I’ve lived in Africa for many years and I’ve seen how tribes are vanishing; they start to wear t-shirts and lose their traditions. I’ve also seen countries that start to lose their tradition and how that correlates to people becoming addicted to television due to globalization. Then I came to New York to complete my Masters in documentary films and I moved to Hell’s Kitchen.”

  •  So why did you decide on the area between 37th and 57th Streets and 8th and 12th Avenues? Called Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to create your first film festival?

“Hell’s Kitchen is like an example to me for everything that happens in New York City, in America, and in the world. Hell’s Kitchen is, for me, the first model to show how a neighborhood has changed because it still has the old tenements, the old culture, and the lower tenement buildings but it also has the new uprising buildings and the new people that are coming to the neighborhood. So there’s this mix between the people that engaged me.

“You can say the real New York City or New York City like it used to be 60 years ago because you still have, not a lot, but few shops from back during that era. For example, one shop has existed for 95 years, passed down from generation to generation, but there are also the new buildings that are replacing and surrounding the old tenements buildings or the building where the people who worked at the piers, near the boats, lived in. And apparently 100 years ago the neighborhood was filled with Irish and Italian people.”

L-R Elisabeth Moss, Patrick Hughes(owner of Lansdowne road bar) , Shiri Paamony Eshel

  •  So the Irish and Italians came on boats through the Hudson River, right there on 12th Avenue…?

“It was a large big port and they say they jumped ship -that is the term. They just jumped from the ship and they stayed. And it was the first place that they came across. Some of them stayed there forever and some of them, of course, left but some of them stayed there and watched the whole neighborhood change as there was an influx of Spanish people, and Hispanics and Latinos from Latin America.

“These diverse immigrant groups actually built the character of the neighborhood because it was called Hell’s Kitchen, it was West Midtown. This is how New York was New York: West Midtown, East Midtown, Upper West Side, Lower West Side, there were no names.”

  •  Why is it called Hell’s Kitchen?

“I always wanted to know why this place is called Hell’s Kitchen. It’s not a normal name; to call a place Hell’s Kitchen. There are many stories about why it’s called Hell’s Kitchen. I think one of the funny stories is that because Hell’s Kitchen was full of crime and gangsters, the cops called it the Hot Place -the place of Hell is the kitchen. That’s one of the stories. Because the kitchen is the hottest place at home, so Hell’s Kitchen was the hottest place in New York because of the crime and the police didn’t want to come in there.

“The other story, one of many, is that there was a bar that belonged to a family named Hyles and one day there was a fire in the kitchen. So everybody was saying, “Let’s go, let’s go! There’s a fire in Hyles kitchen!” (Laughter) There are so many stories and nobody really, really knows.”

  •   Are you living in Hell’s Kitchen?

“Yes, I live in Hell’s Kitchen.”

  •  Since when?

“Since 2015.”

  •  What brought you to Hell’s Kitchen area as opposed to other places in New York City?

“No particular reason other than that I just wanted a good bargain for an apartment. That’s it. And since I lived in Africa for many years, when I came here to New York to do my Masters in Documentary Films, I always have my eyes open to where I am. And at a certain point, I had an idea for a big project that I called ‘The Social DNA.’

“I wanted to create a map of the world, tell the stories of the people by connecting them with dots that link to their personality and story instead of race, skin color, or all the biological factors that we have in our DNA. I wanted to create this ‘Social DNA’ to show how we are all the same; we are human beings that have stories, that have wishes. We all have feelings that are sometimes bad, sometimes good, sometimes sad, and sometimes happy.”

“However, I thought the project was too extensive and I would never have the budget to complete it. So I thought let’s start with the street that I live on. The street that I live on has a horse stable – oh my god I live in New York City and I have a horse stable?

“On the other side, there is a Zen garden with a gate and key that people manage. So I was like wow, I’m not in New York! Then I thought how neighborhood that I live in is so interesting and changing so much, how buildings are coming down so fast! And there are these characters that stand in the middle of the street all day, old characters that just stand there and you can see that they saw everything. I have to capture the story of this place before it really disappears! Because it starting to disappear. Many people have started to come to 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue is being developed now. It’s really crazy. So I started to interview characters.”

L-R Susan Pazos, Mina Hatano-Kirsch, Elizabeth Moss, Shiri Paamony Eshel, The Committee

 

  •  With your camera? Is there anyone else with you during the process?

“With my camera. I did everything by myself. Interviewed, edited, then I started to ask people by telling them that I was doing this project. I was spreading the word in the local coffee shop when I met Elizabeth. She helped me find characters that she thought had an interesting story because she lives there for 25 years.

“One day we were sitting and talking at the local bar, which also has a history itself, and suddenly I said, “You know what? We need a Hell’s Kitchen film festival, we don’t have it!” Elizabeth is a cultural preservationist so she deals with cultural preservation but from an architectural perspective; the building preservation side. She immediately loved the ideas, she’s a producer by nature, yet you know, everybody was skeptic. It took time for everyone around me to understand that I was serious.”

  •  Why do you think they were skeptical? Where did it come from?

“I think that a lot of people tend to only talk and not do. So I think that everybody was suspicious of me in the beginning. Nobody opened up for me fast because they wanted to see that I was serious and that I wasn’t wasting their time.”

  •  Well, could it be also because they talk about their personal life? Personal inside? And people are very guarded these days of telling others about themselves?

“Yes, that too but maybe it’s the way that I’m doing it that makes people feel comfortable. In the beginning, I meet thing them without the camera. I am always showing them that I am really a filmmaker so I have never had this problem with people.

“Of course, not everybody opens up fast, but eventually, they all opened up because I promised something and I did. If I tell them that I am going to come tomorrow at 4, then I am coming tomorrow at 4. It’s very important for me to promise something and make it happen because I know that will build the trust needed.”

  •  So you’re Israeli?

“Yes.”

  •  Born and raised in Israel?

“Yes.”

  •  Tell me how an Israeli, Shiri Paamony Eshel, comes to New York and starts a social DNA Project? A grand goal. Does it have anything to do with your Israeli hutspa?

“Probably, but I’m not sure I think it’s a combination of experiences. I’ve lived in Angola for many years and all my experience outside of Israel helped my point of view or my perspective to pile up to something.”

What it means being you, in other words? When you are thinking about Shiri, coming from Israel, raised in Israel. You went to join the Army, then left to go to Africa, and now are living in New York City…

“I actually started in radio. I was a radio broadcaster for 15 years and then I started to manage a college radio station in 2000 in Israel. During that time, I started to broadcast only African music and I pushed the African culture into the Israeli culture.”

  • Why African music?

“I woke up from a dream I had in which I needed to broadcast African music on the radio and I just did. That’s it.”

  •  They let you in Israel?

“I managed the radio station.”

  •  Oh, you managed the radio station. (both Laughing) So you decided what was going to play on the radio?

“Not alone because I had a great partner but I said ok that’s it. I’m going to start broadcasting African music and I never had African music, so I started to gather, it became huge, I was a DJ after, I was involved with the African community. I became an activist and in 2010, I was sent to Africa to work in Angola.”

  •  Who did you work for?

“An Israeli company that had an art and culture foundation. By then I was already working in Israeli TV as a videographer, editor, and director. So that opened me to the world of visual art. I was always a visual person.”

L-R Suzy Darling Jr. owner of the Pocket Bar and Ruth Walker W42ST Editor

  •  The films that you did in Angola, do they deal with Social DNA? Coming back to your films at Hell’s Kitchen – did you start there?

“In a way because I was very interested in hearing people’s stories especially people that where there during the war and are still alive. I didn’t interview everyone but I was talking with a lot of people. I was interviewing the guy whose job was to cut the trees – he was 70 years old jumping on trees and cutting the branches! I interviewed him for two hours in Portuguese, which wasn’t easy.

“I opened a local newspaper for culture and then I looked for the tribes and started to search for them because they disappeared quickly from most of the country. They were only near the borders so it was hard for me to travel to the tribes. When I got to the tribes, I had a very short time with the Chiefs so I couldn’t really accomplish what I wanted to do but I have a few pieces. I haven’t edited anything because this material is very emotional for me.”

  • So it waits for the next festival?

“Yes, yes.”

  •  Did you get to interview any Africans for the Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival?

“No. Although, Hell’s Kitchen had an African store that, in the 60’s, all the diplomats came in to buy their stuff there but it doesn’t exist anymore.”

  •  So tell me about the characters that you met. Some were amazing characters and they came with their families…

“Yes, I enjoyed seeing them come with their mothers, brothers, friends, and neighbors.”

  •  Tell me the difference between the Social DNA project and the Hell’s Kitchen Film NYC?

“I have to separate between the film festival and the Social DNA project. The Social DNA project is my personal project where I’m filming people and I’m going to continue doing it. Hell’s Kitchen Film NYC is a separate project and it’s not only me – it’s a collaboration with people from the neighborhood and Elizabeth produced the festival. So, it’s something else.”

  •  Could we say that The Social DNA, your big idea, sort of hugs in it, the Hell’s Kitchen Festival, that will continue as Hell’s Kitchen Films’?

“Yes.”

Shiri Paamony Eshel

  •  You were the sole videographer?

“No, I wasn’t the only filmmaker. We had 9 or more filmmakers that participated and there was a mission statement that one of the neighbors helped us to write. We really had a lot of help from the neighborhood itself, which was amazing.”

  • Was it important for you to do it as a collaborative, social project in the community, for the community?

“Yes, and that’s the mission statement. So the mission statement is that it’s a community team of only filmmakers who live in Hell’s Kitchen, or filmmakers that have something to do with Hell’s Kitchen, who can participate in this film festival. In just a short time, we found 9 filmmakers, which was not easy because it was a very short time.

“Fortunately, we had the support of West 42nd magazine, Phil, and support from other people that brought us films however part of them we didn’t choose at the end because it didn’t fit the program. Since it was the first festival, we decided to make a short program; you want to see how people react. So it was around 9 filmmakers I think; and one hour and a half program with the Social DNA project woven in between.”

  •   So what are the characters that you chose, tell me about the characters.

“We have JD, he’s a screenplay writer, actor and longtime resident in the community. We have Lili Fable, the owner of Poseidon Bakery, founded by her family almost 100 years ago.

“We had Mike Follo who was born in Hell’s Kitchen and he still lives there and he’s 72 years old. His mother joined him to see the film. It’s amazing.

“And we had Corinne who is a pianist. She’s this genius pianist who came to the neighborhood in ‘81 from a different neighborhood; she lives in the piano factory, the old piano factory, which is amazing too. Each one of the characters is special by themselves.”

Mike Follo remembers everything – every building, every name, every street, every bar, everyone in the community. He has a phenomenal memory. He’s like a Hell’s Kitchen encyclopedia. It’s amazing and he lived in between 47 and 50th street, or 52nd street which was the part of Hell’s Kitchen that the gangsters hung out in.

Lili lived on 42nd and 44th street, which was not part of the gangster era so she never experienced the gangster thing and the crimes like he did, which is amazing as it’s only a few blocks away. She lived up to 42nd, they couldn’t cross 42nd by themselves, it was dangerous. Each one of them has their own world on the block. Which for me is amazing. It’s like going to church, going to school, going home but everything was in a small bubble. Which is amazing because I think it’s one of New York City’s characteristics when you grow up here. I think.

  •  What are your plans for the future, after this very successful film festival?

“To fantasize without thinking! I want it to become an archive of stories with a map that will portray areas, cities, the world itself. That’s a big dream. Even if a visitor center would come out of it for Hell’s Kitchen, which will be also a big achievement because people start to collect their old photos and people start to be aware of their important stories.

“If I am able to create a visitor center with movies, stories, history, and photos in the neighborhood it would be for people who come from outside that have no idea what is Hell’s Kitchen.”

Pat Hughes Owner of lansdowne road bar

  •  What is the next neighborhood that you would like to feature?

“There is still a lot to do in Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival and I can’t choose a neighborhood without living there first because it’s not only about being there and filming- it’s about feeling the neighborhood, the street, and be aware which characters are good for telling the story. So I would have to live in this place. I cannot just come and go… it’s more complex.”

  •  It looks like it took a village to actually create and produce the film festival. Who worked on it with you? Who did you bring into the special family?

“I worked with Elizabeth Moss who sat down with me when the idea first came up. She immediately became the producer, which she took to very naturally. And she has the character for it. However, it also took her some time to believe that I was serious. (laughter) Then we slowly began to interview people. There was a nice funny woman named Mina Hatano-Kirsch from 4thBin that designed everything for us because she was very excited.”

  •  What do you mean by designed?

Shiri: She designed the logo, the graphics, the t-shirt and everything else we needed for marketing the festival. She volunteered to do all of the designing and she was so excited to help us in this capacity. That was amazing!

  •  So everyone worked as volunteers? No one involved in the project was paid?

“Correct, no one was paid. Sue Pazos volunteered by watching all of the movie submissions we received. Eventually, she became an official part of the committee for selecting participating films. There were many people who came and left. They gave us an idea and helped to improve certain things we wanted to do. Of course, Pat Hughes, the owner of Lansdowne Road bar allowed us to use the space for free for the screening night. He so excited that he printed a huge banner outside of his bar: ‘Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival NYC’. These were the main supporters.

“Elizabeth and I were the only constant people functioning as a team. The others came and went but everyone was deeply involved because they believed that the mission would be accomplished.”

  •  How long did it take you to finish the project?

“I think 3 and a half months.”

Tsipi: Congratulations!

  •  Hello Elizabeth. To start off, you are not just a villager, you are one of the moving parts of the Hell’s Kitchen Films NYC, Shiri tells me. So what connected you to this project?

Elizabeth: “Well my background is historic preservation, and I’m very interested in cultural preservation. And I met Shiri a little more than a year ago in a coffee shop in Hell’s Kitchen, and she was looking for subjects for a project she was working on. The Social DNA Project, trying to interview and document some of the old-timers from Hell’s Kitchen.

“I think as a recent resident of Hell’s Kitchen, Shiri was immediately struck by how special and unique Hell’s Kitchen is, and wanted to explore more of it. And realizing that as the old-timers were dying off, their stories were dying with them. So I was drawn to her story. I thought it was a very interesting project, and I know some of the old-timers in the neighborhood so I made some introductions. One of the characters made it into the film festival, Mike Follo. And I just thought it was a great idea. As Shiri was exploring it more it turned it into “let’s make a film festival!”

  •  Shiri told me you’re a natural producer. So I understand you became the producer?

Elizabeth: Yes but one of the things that happened…Shiri wanted a film festival and I helped push her to realize that she wanted more than just a film festival. You want to create Hell’s Kitchen Films NYC because I thought a film festival was a little limited.

  •  It was just one chapter.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. A film festival is a one-off event but it’s really about celebrating the neighborhood…what’s unique about Hell’s Kitchen? It’s the sense of community! So let’s try to figure out how to interconnect the local talent. I mean, there’s a wealth of talent in Hell’s Kitchen and many of them work in the arts. But let’s figure out how to have them connect with one another and showcase their work and really help each other, the businesses, the neighbors, and the neighborhood. People seemed immediately drawn to the idea.

  • So what are the main talents of Hell’s Kitchen? How would you characterize them?

Elizabeth: “I think number one is its strong sense of community. It’s a community at risk of extinction and change. Historically, it’s a very poor neighborhood and people stayed there. The business model changed.

“In the ’50s, it was the longshoremen. There was a lot of money on the river. A lot of the women in the neighborhood worked in the theatres but that industry is also changing. And the economic and demographics are changing. There’s more money coming, there’s a more transient element of the neighborhood. So as a long term resident…not that long. I am a young resident there.”

  •  But you’ve been a resident longer than Shiri?

Elizabeth: Yeah but I was part of the first wave of gentrification in the 90’s and its happening again. Each time there’s a risk of erosion of the sense of community but as evidence, the event we put on, people want that sense of community so here’s an opportunity to connect people.

  •  And explore it…

Elizabeth: “Right. I’m not an artist, I just support the arts.” (Laughter)

  •  Every artist needs Elizabeth to produce it for them

Elizabeth: “Exactly, do your own work.” (laughter)

  • So yeah, keep the timeline going

Elizabeth: Exactly, as somebody who lived in the neighborhood longer than Shiri, I had some different connections than she did and–

  •  And different character than she does…

Elizabeth: “Exactly.”

  •  How was it to work with an Israeli full of Hutzpa and a beautiful smile, who may be extremely spontaneous?

Elizabeth: “Oh, it’s like with any artist you have to say, “Slow Down! Finish this first, and then do that.” (laughter)

  • But it seems like you still love each other and continue smiling through?

Elizabeth: “I’m very fond of her, yes we still love each other.” (laughter)

  •  So what is going to be the next project?

Elizabeth: “Well, I’m looking forward to the continuation of The Social DNA Project: Hell’s Kitchen that Shiri is working on. The first event there was a really overwhelming turnout. There were over 140 people that attended the event; which considering the call for submissions was only about a month long was frankly pretty impressive. All by donations and volunteering which shows that there’s a hunger for it in the neighborhood.”

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