Sunday, August 21, 2011

The NY Pizza Confessions

By Yael Schick

Over the years, many have attempted to capture the vibrant pulse of New York City-- its diversity, its eccentricity, its beauty, its loneliness, its wonderful randomness. However, few have succeeded as well as Finbarr Wilbrink, who’s new documentary The New York Pizza Confessions has discovered an important truth to the understanding of New York. The way to this city’s heart? It’s through its pizza.  

After all, New York and its pizza are inexplicably linked. “I think pizza, taxis, mafiosos, baseball, the Empire State Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge are all that many people really know of the city. Pizza is a point of pride for many native New Yorkers” says Jeremy Wallace-Segall, a New Yorker who participated in the film as one of Wilbrink’s pizza confessors. “Walking down the street with a slice is something everyone has to do when they visit the city”

Pizza is hardly a food claimed solely by New Yorkers (“in a way you can say it’s our gift to the world,” says Leonardo Stagliano, an Italian screenwriter also featured in the film), but it is undeniable that a New York Slice has an entirely unique meaning. Jason Feirman, the founder of and the organizer of New York’s annual Pizza Run explains why: “Pizza is so universal because of its simplicity and adaptability. At its core, pizza only consists of a few basic ingredients. While you can throw some caviar and truffle oil on top and sell it for a hefty price, it can also be eaten for just a few cents. And New York, which is a melting pot for so many different cultures, does it best.”

The New York melting pot may produce some great pizza, but it is the people and cultures in the melting pot that drives The New York Pizza Confessions. "Pizza is a way of getting into the deeper issues" Wilbrink explains to Dan Kitrosser, a participant in the documentary who initially scoffs as the concept of a Dutch film about New York pizza. And so it is. While Wilbrink is interested in asking New Yorkers what makes a great piece of pizza (peppers, olives, garlic sauce, anchovies, mushrooms, broccoli, everything, chicken, thin crust, thick crust, saucy, not too saucy, crispy, cheesy, not too cheesy, to name just a few of the answers), he is far more interested in the interviewees themselves, as he attempts to find out exactly who these New Yorkers are, these people who are connected if by nothing else than by the city they inhabit and the pizza they eat.

And so Wilbrink speaks to every type of New Yorker there is: an assortment of struggling artists, a model in for Fashion Week, a homeless man named Al, a Rabbi who delivers packets of pizza spices, and Kitrosser who explains “what gay people like about pizza.” These assortments of New Yorkers confess their thoughts on pizza, politics and their personal struggles. They debate the changing face of New York in the wake of Giuliani’s controversial one-way ticket policy that expelled many of the homeless from the city. Al, who is currently homeless, pleads for people to simply open up a dialogue with him; Meyer, the Rabbi who delivers pizza packets reaffirms his conviction that man is inherently good and will do his part to help others; Kitrosser recounts a childhood trauma involving religion and pizza. And all of these conversations begin with a simple question about pizza.

The pizza in The New York Pizza Confessions is not just a food, a dietary staple of the city; it is a symbol of hope, a unifier in a city that appears deeply, perhaps irrevocably, fragmented. Desiree Burch, a writer who is featured in the documentary was struck by this while filming with Wilbrink in a pizza place in Astoria Queens.  “New York being one of the most paradoxically segregated and enmeshed of cities, I think it is interesting that Finbarr chose to take a look at this aspect to connect us all.  Not only for his love of pizza, but because of the pride NewYorkers have in their pizza and the lack of self-consciousness we have about the machine of New York City and how it grinds us up, separates and commodifies us all. Pizza harkens back to something innocent and universal.”

Ultimately, this is what The New York Pizza Confessions achieves. It forces conversation and confronts New Yorkers with the ugly side of their city. But even more so, it connects its subjects and joins them in a community of New Yorkers and pizza eaters.  For Desiree, watching the finished film, sharing the joys of pizza is what the documentary is all about. “I was particularly happy about the satisfying moment of getting to bite into the slice and the globs of cheese on my face” she says. “It is the truest, happiest moment about pizza, and I am glad that the film's audience and I get to share in its gloriousness.

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