(Jeremy Brown photo/Courtesy Films at the Gate)
When Sam and Leslie Davol moved with their children from New York City to Boston’s Chinatown in 2005, they had one problem with their new home.
Just across Hudson Street sat a vacant lot, wasted space in one of the city’s densest neighborhoods. The Davols wanted to do something that would activate that space and make it a gathering place for the community. By the following summer, they had helped organize the first Films at the Gate, a four-day festival of Chinese films named for the lot’s proximity to the landmark Chinatown Gate.
“It was about doing something with the vacant lot that was more than just letting it fill with trash,” Sam Davol, 41, said of the festival, which will be held from Aug. 25 to Aug. 28 this year.
To create the film festival, the Davols worked with Jeremy Liu, then-executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation, who introduced them to Jean Lukitsh, a scholar and critic of Chinese films who had worked as a projectionist in two Chinatown movie theaters in the 1970s and 1980s.
The neighborhood once had three movie theaters — the China Cinema, the Pagoda, and the Star Cinema — until the home-video revolution made them unprofitable and all three closed their doors.
“[Liu] had met me through some mutual friends,” Lukitsh recalled, “and we had talked about how wonderful Chinese movies were, and how great it was that Chinatown used to have these movie theaters and how sad it was that they were no longer there.”
So when Liu met the Davols and learned they were anxious to do something for the community, he suggested putting together a film series with sponsorship by ACDC and introduced them to Lukitsh.
“It just sort of came together very naturally, very smoothly that first year,” Lukitsh recalled. “It was like, ‘Yeah, what a great idea. Let’s just do it. Hey kids, let’s put on a show.’”
Davol said the annual festival draws many Chinatown residents and people of Chinese heritage but also people who live in other parts of downtown, people who are enthusiastic about the idea of “pop-up” events in otherwise unused urban spaces, and people who love kung fu and Chinese films.
“That’s kind of the value I see of this kind of event,” he said. “It really isn’t just for Chinatown. It’s a very urban event in a way, and gets a mix of people from all over Boston.”
Lukitsch selects the films for each year’s festival from her broad collection of Chinese films on DVD. Davol said that because the movies typically have a lot of action and interesting visuals, they’re enjoyable for all audiences, regardless of the language they speak.
“The language thing isn’t so critical,” he said. “The films are very visual and enjoyable even when you don’t get all the nuances.”
There are English subtitles for most Chinese-language films, and this year’s festival includes one English-language film that will have Chinese subtitles. “A Moment in Time,” is a documentary that examines how immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown maintained their cultural identity through watching Chinese films while developing an American identity through watching films made in this country.
The festival will also include the 1950 film “The Kid,” featuring a 10-year-old Bruce Lee. It’s not widely known, Lukitsh said, that Lee appeared in about a dozen films as a child in Hong Kong before coming to the United States, with “The Kid” being probably his largest role in that phase of his career.
Other films this year include “Way of the Dragon,” the only film directed by Lee, and “The Young Master,” the first film directed by Jackie Chan. Lukitsh found it interesting that when given their first opportunities to direct, both Lee and Chan chose to make comedic films, with Lee even playing a character that is the butt of most of his film’s jokes.
“He plays kind of a hick from the countryside in the big city, so a lot of the humor revolves around him misinterpreting the more sophisticated ways of the city people,” she said.
An unusually recent movie for the series is “Gallants,” a popular, award-winning independent film from Hong Kong featuring a cast of kung fu actors from the 1970s.
“It’s really exciting to see them get a chance to not just perform again but also to get this kind of recognition,” Lukitsh said. “So when I saw an opportunity to book that, I definitely grabbed it.”
Since the festival began, the Davols have worked on several more projects to benefit Chinatown and other urban communities. In 2008, they founded Boston Street Lab, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating programs for public spaces, and in 2009, they brought a temporary storefront lending library to Washington Street.
Davol said that while some projects come and go, the popularity of Films at the Gate is what has kept it alive for six years.
“We were trying to bring people together outside again to watch movies,” he said. “That’s how we got started, and it has been something we have not been able to stop doing because people love it. So we just keep doing it every year.”
Films at the Gate will screen after sundown from Aug. 25 – 28, with Thursday and Friday screenings in the vacant lot on Hudson Street between Beach and Kneeland Streets and Saturday and Sunday screenings in the Chinatown Park on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Some folding chairs will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, but film-goers are encouraged to bring their own chairs to be safe. For more information, visit http://www.filmsatthegate.org/schedule/.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at email@example.com.