Unlike the exquisite Italian scenery of “Gigi La Legge,” “The Stroll” depicts a dismal view of bleak circumstances and, somehow, smiling faces. The painful stories of New York’s Meatpacking district, specifically West 14th Street, which was known by residents as the Stroll, come together to illuminate a community built through shared oppression and abuse.
Co-director Kristen Lovell, who made the film with Zackary Drucker, is a trans woman and former sex worker who worked the Stroll for several years. The conditions of the Meatpacking district at a different phase of Manhattan’s ongoing gentrification are described through interviews with other surviving sex workers. Throughout these early days on the Stroll, trans women bonded and protected one another from danger. Lovell adds layers of humanity to the film through humor and a familiarity with her subjects. Their personalities come through vibrantly in the form of intensely vulnerable stories of turning to prostitution, of the destitution of homelessness, and the danger of soliciting johns in a heavily stigmatized society. But their struggles in the Meatpacking district pale in comparison to the effects of then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s hypervigilant police force, which cracked down on loitering with intent to commit prostitution, specifically for transgender women.
In the film, Tabytha Gonzalez recounts her arrest for soliciting prostitution, revealing that she was given a sentence of five years but served fourteen in the harrowing conditions of Rikers Island. She came home to find most of her friends from the Stroll had died, and the Meatpacking district was no longer accessible to her.
“I can’t believe how many times I had to go to jail for this Highline Park to be built,” Lovell remarks as she and fellow former sex worker Cashmere walk through the sanitized, unrecognizable modern West 14th Street. Lovell portrays stigmatized members of society as sacrificial lambs all but slaughtered in the name of gentrification. The images of the Meatpacking district today are polished and highly sophisticated, contrasting sharply with the raw archival footage of the same neighborhood 30 years ago. “The Stroll” serves as a reflection of the life that Lovell had in a place where powerful people worked hard to crush her; it’s also a moving tribute to the sex workers who didn’t survive.
Across multiple theatres, audiences over the first weekend in March at the True/False Festival experienced a collection of bold documentaries that made them feel, applaud, and appreciate the art and versatility of non-fiction cinema. My favorites were “Time Bomb Y2K,” Brian Becker and Marley McDonald’s eye-opening documentary about the Y2K panic, and “Anhell69,” Theo Montoya’s hypnotic deconstruction of death in which fiction overlaps with reality.
A world premiere made up entirely of archival footage, “Time Bomb Y2K” made audiences consider how easily dynamics can shift when a freak wave of hysteria washes over us. Since I was born in 2000, the Y2K panic eluded me; these past few years in America, however, have shown me that hysteria, regardless of origin, can bring out the very worst (and very best) in people.