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Faces of the Festival:<br>Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio

The directors of Cropsey revisit their Staten Island childhood ghost stories in this must-see horror documentary. That's right, horror documentary!

With Cropsey, a pair of first-time filmmakers set out to dissect the urban legends of their shared childhood in Staten Island. By connecting a string of unsolved missing children cases, an apocryphal (or is he?) bogeyman (known to kids all over SI as Cropsey), and a mentally unstable mental hospital worker, they begin to unravel some longstanding mysteries.

What makes Cropsey a Tribeca Must-See?

Joshua Zeman: The fact that we have created an interesting hybrid of a narrative fiction film and a documentary. Everything is real, but it plays like a narrative thriller. So it’s a reverse gotcha. You have a lot of films that are fake but purport to be real, like Blair Witch. But here’s a real story that wants to play as a narrative story.

Barbara Brancaccio: It’s a horror documentary. That’s what makes it a must-see film.

JZ: We like documentaries, but we liked the twist of using the urban legend. We wanted to do something different, and since Cropsey is what locked us in as kids, it made people pay attention to the story.

BB: We remember these events growing up, and how they affected people in the community. Thing is, people knew the urban legend of Cropsey and they knew the stories of the children who went missing, but we were the first ones to put these two contexts together, which was enlightening. People said, “Wow, I remember when Jennifer went missing.” And now they realize that Cropsey might be an urban legend come true.

What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

JZ: As we were working on the film, the police started asking us to help with their investigations into other missing persons cases. Suddenly, we became the experts on missing children.

The other crazy thing was meeting people connected to the Son of Sam case. Some of our potential suspects and witnesses talked about a cult leader living on Staten Island. It’s unclear whether that cult was connected to the missing children, but it was the same cult that David Berkowitz says he helped commit the Son of Sam murders. Everyone thought that David Berkowitz acted alone, but later on in letters he said he was working with a cult—the same one connected to Charles Manson, which involved devil worshipping—and that some of the murders were being filmed for snuff films.

BB: The deeper we got into the stories of the missing kids, the deeper we got into the seedy underside of our community. All these horrible things were just pieces of a much bigger picture. What the public knows and what the police know are two very different things.

JZ: At first we thought we were just doing a crazy doc about the missing children, but by the end we ended up investigating child pornography, slavery rings, devil worshippers. If you peel back the layers on any community, it’s amazing the depravity that lives underneath. 

What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

BB: We are fortunate that the movie is premiering in New York City: because it’s our hometown, we hope to shed light on the unresolved missing children cases. This is a story that’s never been told, and for us, it’s particularly relevant because it could spark new interest in the cases.

JZ: There are four bodies that have never been found, and many people believe they are buried on Staten Island—possibly in Willowbrook, which is now the College of Staten Island. If these cases could be solved, imagine the closure we could give the families.

BB: And we hope people never forget the children.

JZ: Of course, we also hope as many people see the film as possible—that they get the fact it’s a horror documentary. I think we are in a bit of uncharted territory, and it’s an interesting film—I hope people take the time to go see it.

If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?

BB: While we were making this film, I watched and studied all kinds of documentaries—I looked at their styles, and I was fascinated by storytelling techniques. I am interested in the community of documentary filmmakers, and how people work together. It would be extraordinary to sit down with the Maysles brothers—they were partners too, and I would love to hear about the process of their creativity and storytelling.

JZ: For me, it’s Sam Peckinpah or Sam Fuller.

What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?
BB: Darling, a novel by Russell Banks.

JZ: I recommend two movies to people every chance I get: The Return and Head-On

What did you each bring to the project?

BB: Josh was a feature film producer, and I was a spokeswoman for New York City.

JZ: Barbara also ran a non-profit program in Rikers, so we both brought different individual assets to the film.

So let’s get this straight: are you a couple?

JZ: No.

BB: But we were while making the film.

And you didn’t know each other growing up?

JZ: No, but since we were both from Staten Island, we shared memories without knowing each other. We were able to relive different issues from our shared childhood.

I guess you wouldn’t exactly call the film a love letter to Staten Island.

JZ: In some ways, it is a love letter to Staten Island. But we know you can never go home again. We spent a lot of time trying to get off that island, and then we’ve ended up going back. This was an attempt to come to terms with that place we tried to escape from.

Do your families still live there?

BB: Yes, and I am going there in three hours.

JZ: Mine doesn’t live there anymore, but going back to make the film, we reconnected with neighbors and friends. It was so easy to do so—people were so helpful because they were so involved with the cases when they were happening. We love our hometown, but we took liberties in uncovering the underside.

BB: The only people who have the ability to comment the way we do are the people who grew up there. 

Yeah, I lived through the largest garbage dump in the world. We took class trips there. We smelled the smell.

BB: We can be critical of our community while at the same time also loving it so much.

JZ: It's kind of like spending the holidays with your family—you know how complicated those relationships can be.

Meet Josh Zeman at the FREE Community Kickoff Party at Tribeca's Barnes & Noble on Monday, April 20; he will speak on a panel, "New York as Muse," along with fellow TFF '09 directors Michael Sladek (Con Artist), Gloria La Morte (Entre nos), and Julio DePietro (The Good Guy).

will premiere Saturday, April 25, at 11:30 pm as part of the Midnight section.
Three more screenings will follow.
Get your tickets today! 

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