Linton grad’s documentary to premiere on HBO

Former Schenectady resident Antonio Ferrera did much of the film work for “The Gates,” an 89-minute
Visitors stroll through the gates in the art installation at New York’s Central Park in February 2005.
Visitors stroll through the gates in the art installation at New York’s Central Park in February 2005.

When avant-garde artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude decorated New York City’s Central Park in bright saffron orange-yellow during the winter of 2005, visitors marveled at the color.

Former Schenectady resident Antonio Ferrera marveled at other things — the freedom and joy the artwork provoked and people coming together around the fabric “gates” that turned the park into a giant conversation piece.

“I think people feel happy when they’re together and enjoying something,” said Ferrera, who did much of the film work for “The Gates,” an 89-minute documentary about the unusual art project. The show will premiere for a national audience next Tuesday at 10 p.m. on cable television network Home Box Office and will air several more times this month and March.

The film was chiefly directed by Ferrera, 38, a 1987 graduate of Schenectady’s former Linton High School. He wasn’t even out of elementary school at the former St. Anthony’s School on Van Vranken Avenue when Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, first proposed the project in 1979. The team finally received permission to proceed in 2003, and began installation of 7,503 16-foot-tall gates in January 2005. The artwork waved in the breeze above 23 miles of park paths from Feb. 12 to 27.

Albert Maysles, the veteran filmmaker and cinematographer who gave cinema lovers documentaries such as “Gimme Shelter,” was the artists’ choice to film their project discussions with city officials and civic groups. By the time approval was secured 24 years later, Maysles was 78 years old, and Ferrera — who had been working with Maysles since 1997 — became a key participant in the documentary.

Major project

Ferrera said the project became a major task.

“It was hard because I had to take care of figuring out how to tell the story, how to produce the story, how to edit the story and in many ways shoot the film,” he said. “Albert’s much older now, he’s 81, he’s a camera man and he doesn’t do all this other stuff. I basically took on the responsibility of doing everything.”

The project was outrageous: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who in 1991 covered parts of Southern California and Japan with yellow and blue umbrellas, raised the $21 million cost for “The Gates” and didn’t charge New York City a penny. Fabrics hung from the top of each vinyl gate and ended about seven feet above the pavement to allow easy passage.

Ferrera photographed foreign tourists, elderly New York City residents, women rolling babies and strollers and schoolchildren as they discovered the golden draperies waving in the wind. He caught the artists as they joined the public, enjoying their work and talking with people as they passed under the deep orange.

Ferrera liked the togetherness factor, even if people were debating the value of the artwork. “For me, what I discovered was, it isn’t so much about how you interpret it or what you say about it or find meaning,” he said.

“It just felt good to be outside together with people. It created this great human chemistry. . . . I found immense pleasure in all the variety of color across the 16 days that the park became this huge sort of lantern amidst the gray and dark of February.”

Ferrera learned how to work with color, people and cameras when he was just a kid. He was born in Sora, Italy, southeast of Rome, but raised in Schenectady. He was only 3 years old when his father, Alfonso Ferrera, died. Paging through family scrapbooks became a way for him to reconnect with his father, and he began taking photographs of his own at around age 6; he wanted to bring pictures of his grandmother back from Italy.

During the early 1980s, Ferrera was working at his family’s business, the Appian Way cafe and restaurant on Van Vranken Avenue. His mother, Gina, and aunt, Anna Mandova, gave Antonio jobs like making espresso, and moving a kerosene heater around the place; there wasn’t much heat in the building.

Young videographer

Around this time, video recorders began showing up at weddings, picnics and graduations. Ferrera saved his money, bought a recorder and began chronicling family events on video.

The film world was calling, but Ferrera didn’t answer right away. He began collegiate studies at New York University, and left with a knowledge of English, fine arts and philosophy. He decided to study the art of filmmaking at Chicago’s Columbia College in 1992. Between 1995 and 1999, Ferrera and collaborator Ronit Bezelel produced the 30-minute documentary “Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing,” about the Chicago’s vanishing Cabrini-Green development.

He moved back to New York City in 1997, and began a working relationship with Maysles. And discovered digital video.

Ferrera has retained his original exuberance about the art form. And he is enjoying the attention “The Gates” has received. The documentary was the closing night film of the 2007 Tribeca International Film Festival; on Feb. 12, the film was shown to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and guests at Gracie Mansion. Ferrera was in Rochester last Friday, showing his work for an audience at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre.

“It’s not a boring documentary,” Ferrera said. “It’s a comedy, a New York comedy, without any voice-over or narrator, which is what I like doing, which also comes from the same tradition Albert likes doing, which is hard as hell because you’ve got to tell the story cinematically. I just showed this film at the Eastman House and the great comment, which was echoed in Rome when I showed it there, someone got up and said. ‘You know the incredible thing about this documentary is that it’s really a film and not a documentary.’”

Ambassador for city

He wants people to see the movie — a lot of people.

“My hope is that it’s a wonderful ambassador for New York and those beautiful, unbounding qualities where people come together to see each other in a beautiful light, irrespective of class, race and religion,” he said.

Ferrera has his favorite moments in “The Gates.”

“The day when the butterfly cocoons popped open, I was very moved,” he said. “You couldn’t help putting that in the film. Because the last time I saw people looking up, they were looking up in horror. It was 9/11.”

Ferrera said he spent two years editing 600 hours of material into the final product. He can appreciate the years Christo and Jeanne-Claude invested.

“I saw so much of my mom in them, because they have the same ethic, working 16, 17 hours a day,” Ferrera said. “You have your dream, your work is your joy. It was like watching my mom.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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