One difference between The Projectionist and Abel Ferrara’s earlier documentaries is the point of focus: Instead of being specifically anchored to the exploration of a particular geography, Ferrara traces an immigrant’s experience of both the culture he comes from and the one that he adopted as his own. Nicolas Nicolaou, who came to the U.S. as a boy and has been working in New York City movie theaters since the 1970s, retains deep ties to his home in Cyprus, where his wife is still living—and where the film begins.
Ferrara uses his typical mosaic approach of rendering an environment to gently cut against Nicolaou’s straightforward narration, in which he chronicles his youth and the social conditions of his hometown, in between casual banter with Ferrara. “It’s a lot of work, Abel,” Nicolaou mutters, while displaying one of the old fishing nets that his father used to use. “And those years, you couldn’t sell fish.” But The Projectionist soon uproots itself, just as Nicolaou’s father once did, and relocates to New York City, where it becomes clear that, in actuality, Ferrara’s latest documentary isn’t all that different from his previous ones.
Though the film is framed as a biography, Ferrara is much more interested in the monumental transformation of space that’s taken place around his subject’s life. In particular, The Projectionist is about the decades of social and political change that have shaped New York through the representative example of the city’s relationship to cinema—both the way it’s been depicted in the movies themselves and as an industry that’s been subjected to various efforts of reformation. Nicolaou’s subjectivity serves essentially the same purpose as Ferrara’s own did in 2010’s Mulberry St., a tribute to the Little Italy neighborhood that he used to call home. But in its mapping of a culture that’s experienced rapid diversification of its population, and the backlash to that progression, The Projectionist also connects to 2017’s Piazza Vittorio.
Nicolaou’s career spans the heyday of the adult movie theater business—which, as Ferrara emphasizes, coincides with the most popular period for arthouse films in New York’s history—through the Giuliani years, and that administration’s clean-up of the city, to a contemporary culture of big corporation’s “colluding” to monopolize, and to put privately owned theaters, like those that Nicolaou runs, out of business. Ferrara clearly has affection for Nicolaou as a kind of mirror image of himself: Both began their careers in New York around the same time, albeit on almost opposite sides of the industry, and both have survived mainly by adapting to the times and trusting their intuition. But there’s also something bittersweet implicit in that comparison: Nicolaou has built a stable, family-run business around his passions (one that his wife manages remotely from Cypus), whereas Ferrara’s path hasn’t been so profitable.
For a lesser filmmaker, the schism between artist and businessman that exists between these two men might evince contempt. But Ferrara’s approach to documentary has always been much less about his personal feelings, or polemical intents, than an intense sense of fascination. The only problem with that driving interest is that, especially when combined with a subject so close to Ferrara’s passion, it can lapse into sentimentality. Indeed, there are too many scenes here of Nicolaou voicing his abiding love and belief in the power of cinema, and without being questioned by Ferrara, most prominently when the former shows off the fancy interior of the Vynl nightclub that he owns and operates out of a building that, prior to its conversation, had been a theater of one kind or another dating back to the 19th century.
Where The Projectionist ultimately excels, however, is as the kind of cultural microcosm that makes Ferrara’s other documentaries feel at once urgent and incredibly rich in their broader implications. In Mulberry St., the transformation of one urban neighborhood becomes a representation of generational changes in modern Italian-American culture writ large, and in Piazza Vittorio, the transactionally motivated societal values of an immigrant-run marketplace in Rome are treated as a metaphor for the social conditions in contemporary Europe. Though painting with a bigger canvas this time—and exercising slightly less precision—Ferrara is able to frame Nicolaou’s experience of the New York movie theater business over the last several decades as one that parallels the director’s struggles in the film industry, and as illustrative of a major city’s radical reshaping of itself.