Sunday, July 14, 2024

Filmmaker Federico Muchnik discusses his “Open Space,” a documentary set at Cambridge‘s Danehy Park, on March 3. (Photo: Tom Meek)

During the Covid pandemic, Cantabrigian filmmaker and educator Federico Muchnik had his own crisis unfold within the global one when he was diagnosed with tinnitus. For a person who crafts audiovisual works, that ringing in the ears was more than an impairment – it brought on depression and made Muchnik, in his early 60s, question his path forward. The way up for Muchnik was a circuitous quest for self-revelation that involved a stint in a California bakery and a run for public office, but culminated in the film “Open Space,” a hyperlocal documentary about Danehy Park and the fabric of the city Muchnik has been a part of since coming to America at the age of 5.

The film, a totally lo-fi, DIY, one-person-band project that brought Muchnik to the park 65 times over six months, gets free screenings Saturday, Sunday and April 6 at the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch. Muchnik has had to add dates as screenings fill up.

The film is about community and the communal aspects of green gathering spots. “As I started to pull it all together in the editing room, it became evident that open spaces are highly beneficial for the mental, psychological and physical health of citizens and actually address deeper issues of community, where socioeconomic differences tend to disappear,” Muchnik said. “I saw a Black kickboxing instructor instructing an 87-year-old West Cambridge white woman on how to box, and trans-LGBT folks playing ultimate frisbee and developing a camaraderie” with ostensibly cis counterparts.

Much of what’s captured in the film is people going about their recreational routines at the park with testimonials from people Muchnik solicited for interviews. Filming was mostly with an iPhone 15 mounted on a gimbal, “much less intrusive than a big rig on a tripod.” It also allowed Muchnik to do tracking shots of people running and playing while riding his bike alongside the action. He did use a “big rig” for far-away telephoto shots of soccer and some sports action, as well as a drone for some “cool” aerial footage.

A still from Muchnik’s “Open Space” shows long jumpers practicing at Danehy Park. (Image: Open Space)

To get his filmmaking groove back after learning to live with tinnitus, Muchnik took solace with an old friend from Cambridge who ran a boulangerie in Santa Cruz, California. “I started baking,” Muchnik said. “And then I started shooting the staff making breads, pastries and napoleons.” That footage isn’t turning into a project of its own; some of the workers were possibly undocumented, and Muchnik does not want to expose them.

Back in Cambridge, Muchnik began filming at Danehy, then took a pause from the evolving “Open Space” to run for City Council – another process that had him engaging with the community. He didn’t win a seat, but describes both activities as “therapeutic” and opportunities to connect with fellow Cantabrigians.

The 50 acres that is Danehy Park was a landfill that closed in the 1970s – Muchnik recalls the stink of the smoldering landfill from childhood – and was converted to a park in the early 1990s. The film doesn’t deal much with that history or the site’s namesake, former mayor Thomas Danehy, who served on the council for nearly 25 years starting in Vietnam-era 1960s. “There’s a lot of that that’s brought up by Bumper Sullivan,” Muchnik says, referring to footage of retired Cambridge firefighter Bill Sullivan. (The nickname was imposed by a grandmother because, as a child visiting her on Sherman Street, Sullivan kept tripping over door jambs.)

Not covered in the film is the unsolved 2019 killing of Paul Wilson at the park, a subject Muchnik said did not mesh thematically with what was coming together and that deserved its own focus.

Recently Muchnik, who has contributed to Cambridge Day film coverage and taught film at Lesley University, self-published a locally set crime noir, “Lucky Tom” (2022), and directed the short “Doc West Moves” about blind Cambridge jazz musician Lewis “Doc” West. The film played the Roxbury Film Festival this year; “Doc” West performs Thursday with the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Somerville Armory.

Muchnik has finishing touches to put on “Open Space” but hopes to have it ready for the festival circuit in the spring. Tickets for the April 6 show are available here.

  • “Open Space” screens at 1 to 4 p.m. April 6 at the Cambridge Main Library, 449 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge. Free.