Street booksellers in the U.S. need no licence, because they are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says that everyone has the right to distribute literature. However, with his “Quality of Life” campaign to clean up the city, New York’s controversial mayor Giuliani has given the NY booksellers a hard time. That’s what triggered filmmaker and then-bookseller Jason Rosette to document the lives of the street booksellers in Greenwich Village.

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

Bookwars

Jason Rosette

USA, 2000, 79 min

The result was Bookwars, a no-budget doc filmed on various formats, depending on what cameras he could borrow. Filming while he was still working as a bookseller gave him unique access to, and knowledge of, the subjects’ lives. However, perhaps because he is too involved himself, there seems to be some lack of judgement of his own material.

Rosette’s footage – 200 hours of original material edited into 73 minutes – is marked by a lot of shooting at random. To structure and connect it all, he includes his own explanatory voiceover. This does improve the story’s flow, but with footage of a more illustrative nature, the result is a film that tells more than it shows. The strong point of the film is that it allows the otherwise anonymous booksellers to come forward as individuals. They are very knowledgeable about books and have chosen this profession because of the freedom and satisfaction of working for oneself rather than slaving away at a regular job. Unfortunately however, Slick Rick, Pete, Polish Joe and all the others never become real acquaintances, as Rosette chooses to talk about them rather than show their lives. Pete is the only one we get closer to, as we are invited home to visit him.

Another weak point is that the dramatic crisis provoked by Giuliani is not presented until about one hour into the film, and in the fifteen remaining minutes you don’t really get a feel for how badly this will affect the booksellers’ lives. The conflict seems to revolve around some lines that are drawn to mark the area within which are allowed to work, as well as the issue of the tax I.D. cards they are required to carry.

Bookwars insists on a “street life” underground look, with a constantly moving camera, a preference for odd framing, and a loud musical score. Jason Rosette’s narration is nicely written, and the literary style may be considered appropriate in a film about people who are passionate about books. Ultimately, the film is a sympathetic portrait of the New York booksellers, although it would have been far more interesting if Rosette had dug deeper and gotten closer to his protagonists with images as well as text.


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