Off the Cuff: Neil Barsky, OC ‘81 and director of Koch

Koch, a documentary film by Neil Barsky, OC ’81, about Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, was screened this past week at the Apollo Theatre. After graduating from Oberlin, Barsky earned his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1984. He has written for multiple news publications, including The Wall Street Journal. Barsky went on to a career in investment management. Koch is Barsky’s first film and continues to receive praise as it is screened around the country.

Matan Zeimer

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I started my career as a journalist. I was a newspaper reporter. I was a managing editor for The Oberlin Review. I was at The Daily News in New York and at The Wall Street Journal in New York. Then I spent 15 years in the financial world and managed a hedge fund. When I retired in 2009, I wanted to go back to journalism in some form, but the world had changed so much that the business models had fallen apart. It’s an interesting period — very dynamic — but I didn’t really see a role for myself … I came to the opinion that documentary film is the one medium in journalism where the impact has probably increased over the years. It’s very easy to change a conversation with a good documentary.

How was it to direct your first film? Was there anything that was surprising?

The only thing that surprised me, and it shouldn’t have, was how … hard it is to tell a story in film. It looks so natural when you see a good film, but telling a story when you don’t have a narrator and you can’t write the dialogue, all you can do is stitch and sew interviews with archival footage, with music and with photos. It’s so difficult and unless you have a great editor, which we did in Juliet Weber, and a great producer because I was a first-time guy … it’s very hard to see how a documentary gets made.

What was your motivation for making this film?

Why did we do the movie? We did the movie because I think Ed Koch is one of the most compelling political figures the city has produced. He was funny, he was smart, he was controversial and he was an amazing street politician. But I also feel that he has more to do with how New York developed since the fiscal crisis than any other individual. I’m not saying there weren’t others who made contributions, but certainly it was not pre-ordained that New York City would survive and recover. Decisions had to be made, policies had to be changed and I think if somebody else had been mayor in 1978 the results would have been very different.

How did you balance providing a relatively objective view of Ed Koch and your personal feelings about him?

This is my first film and I definitely struggled throughout the editing process with how we should depict him … I wanted to do an honest film and I wanted a film where you could go to the film not liking Koch and come out liking him more, but you could also come in liking him and come out liking him less. So I wanted to create a three-dimensional character … people could evaluate through their own opinions and experiences.

What is something that people don’t often know about Koch?

It’s a hard generalization to say what people don’t know. … I would say the recent perception, I think, outside of New York City, is that Rudy Giuliani saved New York. He got tough on crime and he wrestled it to the ground and then New York thrived and I think Rudy Giuliani made his contributions, but I would hope the film shows the complexity of urban development and how long it takes. As I said, it was not inevitable. I think if there’s one thing that I would want the film to clarify [for] people is that the law-and-order mayor is what really turned the city around; the city was turned around by Ed Koch.

What were some of your experiences at Oberlin … especially in regards to journalism and this film?

Well, it’s funny because I was at Oberlin for the beginning of Ed Koch’s political career so I was virtually unaware of him. He was elected in 1977; that was the fall of my freshman year. I found the Oberlin community and experience to be memorable. It certainly shaped me. … What’s amazing is how similar Oberlin is now and then. I think it’s actually a lot more tolerant now — tolerant of diverse opinions — than it was then. … It’s hard to relate the film to Oberlin — I wasn’t interested in film at the time and would have never dreamed of doing a documentary — but being on the Reviewwas intellectually stimulating, very humbling and ultimately was one of the steps I was able to take to have a pretty rewarding career in journalism.

Do you think you would make another film? Are you planning another project?

I will probably do it again, but no, I don’t have a project in mind yet. It’s a [massive] amount of work and you really need a topic that you can sink your teeth into and you can live with for a couple of years. So while I expect to do another documentary, there’s nothing in the hopper as of yet.