Film Review: Gut Renovation

Very DIY project covers the scary gentrification of a beloved New York neighborhood, but ends up being more a whine-fest than truly powerful.

Every longtime resident of New York has a love-hate relationship with the city, but lately, for many of us who definitely do not comprise the so-called one percent, the latter emotion is holding sway. Su Friedrich’s Gut Renovation tackles the main reason for this head-on by focusing on how her 20-year neighborhood of Williamsburg is, in her opinion, being destroyed by soulless gentrification.

She starts by listing from A to Z the various longtime local businesses which have been forced out of the district by the skyrocketing rents of venal landlords and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s unstinting support of luxury housing development, which has resulted in rezoning laws favoring the rich over smaller commercial enterprises and aspiring artists. Bakeries, delicatessens and garages which have been around since the 1960s are all being chased out and, as someone remarks, “Soon this area will be nothing but coffee shops and bars.” (Sadly, this phenomenon is worldwide, as the exact same thing was said in a recent documentary about the fall of Venice.)

Friedrich’s shaky handheld-camera/one-woman-band technique here epitomizes guerrilla filmmaking as she pokes her nose into demolished old buildings, open houses of sterile luxe apartments in complexes with names like Jardin (“In French it means ‘garden,’ the English use it to express ‘Exceptional lifestyle’”) and the faces of the affluent people moving in, replete with fancy dogs, nannies and strollers. At one point, a well-heeled lady complains, “You don’t know anything about me and it’s rude to film me.” Friedrich backs down—“She had a point, I hate being filmed, too”—but in the dramatic interests of her movie, I wish she hadn’t wimpily caved.

Although the film is a valuable five-year record of a venerable neighborhood’s transition, all the futile outrage becomes very one-note, however much you may be in her corner. (Friedrich herself originally had the happy setup of a very affordable loft space in an abandoned factory before being evicted in 2010.) The tone becomes oppressively whiny, not helped by her monotonous, recurring countdown of the shuttered, beloved businesses (“56, 57, 58…” superimposed over a map of the area). Rather than having any true expositional arc or offering any real solutions, her film, although passionate, is more like a presentation an angry person would give at a concerned neighborhood meeting.