Sarnoff Film Takes Viewers on a Stroll Down ‘The Block’

 Sarnoff Film Takes Viewers on a Stroll Down ‘The Block’

By Katie McFadden

Do you know the people on your block? Well enough to know their pants size? Some of the neighbors on Beach 138th do. It’s one of those things you might find out when going through a natural disaster like a devastating hurricane together. Filmmaker Robert Sarnoff got to know his neighbors on the beach block of Beach 138th Street even better recently, making them the stars of his latest film, “The Block,” now available on Amazon Prime.

Sarnoff has been a resident of his block since 1972, so he’s had some time to get to know those around him, watch some come and go and see them come together during some of Rockaway’s toughest times, a claim many can say about their neighbors after Hurricane Sandy. But he recently spent time getting to know them on a deeper level, through interviews with most of them, for his latest film project.

As a retired teacher of art, painting, sculpture, and filmmaking to students at a Brooklyn high school, Sarnoff has often turned his passion for the subjects he taught, into personal projects, including films. He himself studied film at Columbia University and while teaching, he dabbled in script writing and pitching his projects. He has also worked as an art director for a program that dealt with the homeless population, which put him in a position to get to know many everyday people going through struggles. It’s those everyday people that Sarnoff has gone on to make the subjects of his personal film projects.

For instance, in “No Rooms Lobby,” his main subject was an SRO tenant named Charlie (played by John Baxter). “The Irish Ropes” tells the story of ten young Golden Gloves hopefuls based out of a gym on Burchell Avenue, who try to box their way out of poverty and into the big ring. “Dispatch” takes you on a ride along with a dispatcher at 3 a.m. “Green, The AmeriCAN Dream” follows a group of local bottle collectors trying to make a living. “The ROMEOWS (Retired Older Men Eating Out Wednesdays)” follows the story of a group of octogenarians who get together every Wednesday to break each other’s chops over dinner.

And his latest subjects are none other than some everyday people even closer to home—Sarnoff’s neighbors. At the end of 2021, Sarnoff held a film screening at the old Avoid the Day Bookstore for “No Rooms Lobby,” which has won “Best Docudrama Award” at the Barebones International Film Festival in 2006, and “Green: The AmeriCAN Dream,” which made it to the Queens World Film Festival in 2012. At the end of the screening, he announced that he’d like his next film to be about his block.

And so, he set forth with a film crew, interviewing his neighbors over the course of a few months, with questions ranging from thought provoking topics to provocative ones like driveway drama, to even religion, politics, and of course, Hurricane Sandy. And what he found was that despite how different everyone was, the block brings people together. “One couple said, ‘we’re part of a mosaic.’ There’s a lot of differences but we find a way to get together and understand one another and that’s not to say there aren’t problems that happen, but somehow it works,” Sarnoff said.

One big event that seemed to bring everyone together in some way was Hurricane Sandy. “There’s no way this could’ve been made on any block in the neighborhood without addressing Sandy,” Sarnoff said. “’The Block’ coalesces when the ravages of nature’s wrath, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, whirl into town.” Another big one was the crash of Flight 587, that impacted all of Rockaway, but one Beach 138th neighbor on a deeper level, as he almost lost his life when an engine came crashing down on Bulloch’s gas station on Beach 129th Street.

But it also brings about the smaller struggles, of neighbors helping each other with a water leak when they’re away and looking out for one another on a daily basis.

The interviews are intertwined with B-roll footage of familiar scenes, from crashing waves to kids playing in the street, the ice cream man rolling down the block, an ambulance pulling up, and people walking along sidewalks, showing the simple comings and goings of a residential block, that has seen bigger ones. “I say at the end, there is a constant ebb and flow. There have been birthdays, deaths, arguments, difficulties, it’s like every day you’re involved in is a chronicle and it’s an ongoing theme,” Sarnoff said. And it’s all tied together by a theme song he helped create with a former student.

Sarnoff says “The Block” could’ve been filmed on any block, as he remembers fondly his days growing up in Bensonhurst. “I grew up between two buildings and everything happened in that alleyway. We played stickball, punchball, every sport in that alleyway and it’s those experiences when you’re a kid that really shape your attitudes and teaches you important, life lessons. It’s formative,” he said.

But this film will especially resonate with those who’ve grown up on a block in Rockaway. “The way I see it, ‘The Block’ is a portrait of a Rockaway block. It encapsulates the essence of living in a community, coexisting even through there are differences among all of us, whether is philosophical, psychological, religious, political, but we all find ways to live in a community and manage to accept one another, understand one another and coexist with one another. As I say in the film, ‘it’s a crapshoot who lives next door to you.’ It’s like ringing the bell and chatting with the likes of Marge and Homer Simpson or the Goldbergs, Archie and Edith Bunker. Each neighbor is like a piece of work, everyone has their idiosyncrasies and their qualities that make them different.”

That cast of characters came together at The Wharf in December for the first official screening of “The Block,” which was met with laughs and reflections by the audience. But everyone can now find the 56-minute film available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime. Search “The Block Robert Sarnoff” on Prime Video.

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