Robert De Niro Stars in JR Film Shot in Crumbling Ellis Island Art Installation
The film is being screened in a shuttered leather shop.
Inside a shuttered leather shop on New York’s Orchard Street, Galerie Perrotin is hosting a pop-up exhibition featuring a 14-minute film starring Robert De Niro.
The French street artist JR shot the short film, titled Ellis, inside “Unframed—Ellis Island,” the first art exhibition to be hosted in the abandoned hospital complex since it was closed in 1954. The pop-up show includes photos of the installation on the island, in which JR pasted archival images of 19th and 20th century immigrants in the decrepit facilities.
“It’s pretty special to screen the movie on the Lower East Side where all the immigrants lived,” said JR during Friday’s night’s opening.
The 130 Orchard Street location is just down the block from the Tenement Museum, which pays homage to America’s immigrant history.
JR has always documented his work by interviewing his subjects on camera, but Ellis is an entirely new type of endeavor. “When I started installing the art and I heard that no films have ever been shot there, I saw it as a challenge,” he explained in an e-mail to artnet News. “I wanted to do that jump into fiction because I thought that [in focusing] on Ellis as a place that was left behind, there was a way to talk about those ghosts in a more interesting way.”
For JR, the film has an important message, but he hopes it will also serve as a historical record: “The island will slowly disappear, but this will remain.”
JR met De Niro five years ago, about the time that he first became interested in creating the Ellis Island installation. “When it came to the film he was the only person I proposed it to and the only person I could see in this project,” he insisted. (This spring, JR’s short film Les Bosquet premiered at De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival.)
While ostensibly the star of the film, De Niro is a quiet presence in Ellis, narrating while the camera explores the crumbling hospital facilities, as light streams through dusty windows with broken panes. He reads a script by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Eric Roth, a poignant tale of a young immigrant turned away from Ellis Island. “This is essentially the story of [Roth’s] family,” said JR.
The film begins in silence, a camera panning down a long, dimly-lit hallway that connects the different buildings in the hospital complex. De Niro’s character appears. “I came here because I wanted a home,” he says. “Where I can find peace. Where I can be treated like anyone else. Where I can be anyone I want to be.”
If the quiet beauty of the island and its slowly decaying buildings takes a lead role in the film, the third character is undoubtedly the weather, a swirling snowstorm blanketing everything in fresh white powder. “I wanted to shoot in the winter. And I wanted there to be snow on the ground but I was really lucky to have this incredible storm that kind of set the whole tone of the film,” said JR.
“I’ve got to go to New York, I come for a new life,” De Niro’s character tells an unsympathetic doctor who tries to send him back to the old country, before he takes refuge in a closet, slipping into a life in the shadows. He delivers a single line on camera: “I’m sorry; we were so close,” the old man said, remembering the death of a fellow stowaway.
Stunning views of Lower Manhattan and sweeping vistas of the island, captured by helicopter, serve to underscore the futility of some efforts to make it safely to America.
Given the current European migrant crisis, the film is timely. “A year before I went to Lampedusa in Sicily to kind of observe the Ellis Island of today,” JR said. “It was really interesting to see the process and how they were welcomed… a lot of the process was similar to what I’ve seen through researching Ellis Island.”
At the film’s end, De Niro enters a room full of contemporary portraits taken by JR over the course of a year. “We went all around America to take photos of all these undocumented people in the US that were willing to show their face for immigration reform—to stand for their situation,” said the artist.
In the film, De Niro acts as the bridge between past and present. Before walking out into a raging snow storm, his character says: “I’m the ghost of all those who never got to get there, and the ghost of those who will never get there.”
Watch the trailer for Ellis:
Galerie Perrotin’s pop-up exhibition featuring Ellis and “Unframed Ellis Island” will be on view in New York’s Lower East Side at 130 Orchard Street, New York, October 24–November 8, 2015. During Art Basel in Miami Beach, the pop-up will appear at the Melin Building in the Miami Design District from December 2–December 7, 2015.
“Unframed Ellis Island” can be visited via guided hard hat tours run by Save Ellis Island. Tickets cost $50 and must be booked in advance.
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