Focused on Broad Channel

 Focused on Broad Channel

By Dan Guarino

Neither filmmaker Naeem Amarsy nor photographer Paula Guardián had heard of Broad Channel before, coming from afar, their experiences with this unique island community left its indelible impression.

“I was born and raised in Paris,” Amarsy said. “My family is originally from Gujarat, India. My parents were from Madagascar. After high school, “I went to study in London, history and international relations.”  Though he did some film work early on, in London, he worked as a business consultant and data analyst. “But I discovered I really wanted to do journalism, to write and produce films.”

Coming to New York, he enrolled at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, in a one-year Master’s Degree program.

Documentaries are “long form journalism. You really spend a lot of time with the people you are reporting on. You get to go more into depth, into…the personalities,” he said. “When you film, you directly have the voice of the people you are filming. When you write, you have a filter. You don’t see directly the people of the story. When you make a documentary, you see the faces, hear the voices.”

For his thesis project, a 20-minute film produced with student-partner Natalie Ruiz-Pérez, Amarsy started “doing waterways in New York. Someone told me about Jamaica Bay and the marshes. The first person I met was Don Riepe,” longtime Channel resident, former Littoral Society chapter head and NPS Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge manager. “He took me out on his boat,” he recalls. “I came to Broad Channel and said ‘Wow! This is such a beautiful place.’”

His focus soon turned from the place to the people, and the strong bond between both. “People in Broad Channel have been extremely welcoming and wanting to share,” Amarsy said. “Their openness and willingness to speak has been great. You can see when they speak, how they feel about this place.

“The nature aspect is strongly tied to the community and home themes. Broad Channel is unique also because it is an island, and the bay serves as its natural extension. There’s a distinct way of life here that is unique for NYC.

“In the spring and summer, the bay comes alive, and residents interact with it. This is a way for parents to pass down traditions to their children by teaching them how to fish, boat, and more generally interact with the bay.

“The overwhelming majority of people we have spoken to describe a place that is great to build a family, where kids can be close to nature, where neighbors watch over each other’s children, and where there’s a sense of neighborhood fellowship. The neighborhood is kind of an extended family.”

Amarsy describes how Channe­lites’ struggles, including through Hurricane Sandy, their fight to buy the land, and against Robert Moses’ plans to clear off the community, have not only highlighted their sense of unity, of family, but made it stronger.

A most memorable experience for him was being invited to one family’s Thanksgiving celebration, his first. “We don’t have that in France,” Amarsy said. “It was quite special, something I have not experienced before. It was this big family with so many generations-aunts, uncles, grandparents, children. They were fun. And the food was great!

“Broad Channel is a great illustration of what ‘home’ means. What I want people to see is that this is a beautiful place. That it is universally a sense of home, what it means to be home.”

When Paula Guardián left for New York, one thing her mother told her she would miss would be the ocean, just a five-minute walk from their home in Malaga, Spain. What she found was a surprisingly strong bond with a community surrounded by water.

“I’ve been studying at the International Center of Photography” (ICP) through a “one-year certificate program in visual journalism. I studied artistic photography in Spain,” and later worked for an artist magazine in Belgium.

“The real root” of becoming a photographer, she says, “has always been the feeling of being connected to others and to the world.”

For a class assignment “about what community means for us,” she looked up the Anabas Boat Club, thinking it might be a good starting place. Almost inadvertently, she found Broad Channel and began meeting people like Shad Creek Road’s Mike McGovern. “I fell in love with the place, with the people, with the water, so when we needed to decide to do a final project, I thought that it would be perfect,” Guardián said.

Through her images, she describes the “really close and really genuine…way that everyone cares about each other.” One of her favorite things about Broad Channel is “that it feels like a huge family living in a really special way.”

In turn, Broad Channel has taken Guardián in, with one resident offering her dry socks on a tide flooded day, others inviting her to an American Legion brunch, Monsignor Ahlemeyer announcing her project at St. Virgilius church, and even the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department gleefully giving her a ride in the Rockaway St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“I hope for this project to end up being a love letter to Broad Channel,” she said. “I can´t even explain how grateful I am for being able to go there every week and spend time with them, learning about their history, their daily life, about the water, their traditions. I feel fortunate, too, because everyone has been really generous and has helped me a lot throughout the process of taking the pictures, the interviews, letting me be inside of their houses, their lives.

“I would love to see this project turning into a book, mixing archive pictures of the families, the photos I took, text from the interviews, history, etc. I guess I´m trying to take a portrait of this special and unique community.”

“How can I not love a place that has been like a gift since the beginning?” Guardián said.

Naeem Amarsy’s documentary will be shown at Columbia’s student film festival in December. Email for questions/to get involved. Paula Guardián’s work will be exhibited at ICP through May through September. Check or @soyunagotita on Instagram.

Photos by Thalia Noboa Lamar and Dan Guarino.

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