It can be hard to forget that Brooklyn is more than just artisanal mayonnaise and cold brewed coffee. In two documentaries showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, the stories that come out of the hipper-than-thou borough are of personal struggle for scrappy, relatively unknown art forms.
In “Flex is Kings,” filmmakers Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols capture the intense and gravity-flouting moves of a dance style started in East New York. Flex is the name of the dance, and the main subjects of the film, Jermaine “Flizzo” Clement and Jonathan “Jay Donn” George — along with countless other hat-popping, head spinning dancers — fill the screen with bravado, insight and emotional intensity.
George is the film’s ultimate sooth-sayer. After taking the title role in an avant garde Brooklyn ballet company’s production of “Pinocchio”, he hugs the script to his chest and says plainly “this is me, this is my life. I’ve been held back,” as his mother wipes away tears and quietly congratulates him. As with many moments in “Flex is Kings,” it’s the extraordinary perspective and insight of the subjects that make it profound.
These moments of truth are woven through quick cut scenes of a dance style that, while reminiscent of capoeira, break dancing or pop and lock, has its own flair and fervor. Part of the thing that sets flex apart — and on
e of the things the documentary does very well — is sho
wing the people who surround flex. It’s evident that this is a style that needs space to rehearse and time off from day jobs that take energy away from dancing. As is the case with many scrappy, DIY endeavors, people banding together is what gives flex — and “Flex is Kings” — its most potent power.
Community is also the force that drives “Bending Steel,” a film that follows born-and-bred New Yorker Chris Schoeck through his journey to become an old-fashioned strongman. Schoeck is eloquent, insightful and emotionally opaque as the film’s subject, but through the film he stretches to become both the documentary’s star and the star of the stage at the strongman competition in Coney Island.
Both documentaries get one ultimate thing right about Brooklyn, and about New York as a whole: it’s a place where if you want to bend steel rods or dance while hanging from an overpass, there are enough people around that you can create a community around it.