Joe Brinker & Melissa Godoy, OTR filmmakers

Inspired by a family connection and deep affection for Over-the-Rhine, Joe Brinker wanted to make a documentary that captured the changes taking place in his hometown's oldest neighborhood.  Brinker, who now lives in Washington, DC, and his co-producer, Steve Dorst, enlisted local award-winning filmmaker Melissa Godoy to helm the project. For the past two years, Godoy has been immersed in the neighborhood shooting footage on the ground, in City Hall, and throughout Washington Park. In this week's My Soapbox, Brinker and Godoy talk about "Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine" with Soapbox Managing Editor, Sean Rhiney.


Q: Joe, this all started with a very personal connection you have to the neighborhood, would you share it?

Brinker: My extended family is pretty diverse these days, but when I was a kid it was almost exclusively German.  My first birthday was celebrated at the Kolping Society.  We listened to some local German radio broadcast once in a while, and I went to German language class on weekends.  Along with all of this came a connection with Over-the-Rhine.  My great-great uncle, Henry Schmidt, was the first family member to start in the neighborhood, followed by my paternal grandfather and a great uncle. When I was a kid, we regularly, and particularly when relatives visited from Germany, did our shopping at Findlay Market.  I loved it.  We had real relationships with the shop owners.  An Italian guy, I think his name was Frank Gaudio, sold us fruits and vegetables, and German shops sold us meats, Goetta and bread.  One of them must have been Krause's, who are still down there.

The connection continues.  My parents are parishioners at Old Saint Mary's, and my sister was married in the church.  We continue to shop at Findlay Market.  And obviously, the film now has me spending time in Over-the-Rhine. Beyond my family connection, I have always felt that the neighborhood was special.  The place is special not just because of the history and architecture; it also has an unusual energy that reflects the remarkable mix of people who live there.

Q: Since you began the project over three years ago, we've seen an influx of residents coming back to OTR, an entire bar and restaurant district spring up on Vine Street, five to six major condo developments, and most recently, the groundbreaking at Washington Park.  How have the film and your initial vision for it developed alongside these dramatic changes in the neighborhood?

Brinker: First off, it took us a while to narrow our focus to the area around Washington Park.  There are more than enough compelling characters, places and stories in Over-the-Rhine to fill several documentaries, so it required some discipline to drill down on one area where some of the key story lines all meet.  Just the OTR sub-culture alone is worth filming.  Sitting in Tucker's restaurant on any given day will give you that flavor.  And for a random example, one night I was in Grammer's meeting with some people about the film and suddenly women in roller derby uniforms showed up and conducted a small-scale roller derby exhibition on the old dance floor upstairs.  It was like the frontier roller skate scene from Heaven's Gate had met Whip It.  It was so visually rich and quirky that I wish we had been able to film it right there.  Things like this do not occur in the average neighborhood, but they do in OTR.  I love that freedom and spontaneity. We have also had to extend our time lines somewhat to adapt to the realities on the ground, though we did always expect this to be a multi-year project where we invested in the characters and their stories.

Q: Melissa, you've worked on a number of film, many with a Cincinnati-centric storyline - what in particular drew you to this Cincinnati story? Was there an 'ah-ha' moment for you once filming began when you realized that there were compelling stories to tell here?

Godoy: This Cincinnati story drew me because it is both epic and specific.  The challenges and the people facing sometimes steep obstacles, seem to come from great literature, including their very human hopes, dreams, and flaws. But specifically, the personalities of our main characters are Cincinnatian - - artistically sophisticated, deeply, often quietly spiritual, learned and tempered by the recent riots, patient, strategic, and integrated.  What I enjoy most is that our story tells both about the changes in the exterior world and the interior worlds of the characters. Because of the deep history and architecture of Over-the-Rhine, it is set someplace real and gorgeous. It is fun to tell a story set in a place that has footprints, bricks, and literally, the bones of many previous generations. This generation is the one that has challenged itself to resurrect the historic soul of the city in smart way that embraces all people.

Q: While you've talked to many people, the film follows several individuals and organizations in OTR who are part of this transformation story. Who are they and what was it about their individual stories that you found so engaging?

Brinker: With 150 hours of film already recorded and more to come, not to mention that editing has not begun, we really would be jumping too far ahead to name specific characters who will make the final cut.  That being said, we are following a number of developers, both long-time and new residents alike, members of the religious community, small business owners, key political drivers, people associated with the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), etc.  I find these characters engaging for a variety of reasons.  Some are risking a lot to pursue dreams.  Many are visionaries with incredible talents.  All care about Over-the-Rhine in a way that is so evident on the screen, yet they are all unique in their views and backgrounds.   

Godoy: What I like most about our main characters is that they all allow themselves to face challenges and uncertainty openly. They have to be willing to bare their hopes and humor alike and allow us to stick with them, whether things turn out the way they want or some other way.

Q: Joe, your work takes you all over the world when you're not in DC. As you've been reviewing Melissa's raw footage you're seeing some of the changes taking place and the stories unfolding in your hometown. As someone who grew up in Cincinnati, what has surprised you the most?

Brinker: Since childhood, I always thought Over-the-Rhine should be embraced as part of the physical, spiritual and historic heart of Cincinnati.  There are two linked surprises for me.  First, after decades of accepting that my belief must be unworkable and/or misplaced, there is enough serious backing behind this idea to reach a tipping point and bring it to reality.  Second, given my location in Washington, DC since 1988 and eight years overseas, I never thought I might have a role in such a transformation.  And if you told me that role would be through producing a documentary, well... I guess I am also a bit surprised by the sense I have that I have seen this before.  In 1988, DC was the murder capital of the world.  It's urban core was abandoned too.  In 1994, I moved into an area a bit like OTR today, let's just roughly call it zip code 20009.  For several years, most people would have never considered returning to urban DC.  Yet it all worked out pretty well.  20009 and some other areas of the city center are among the most desirable in the entire DC metro area.  I recently returned from a long time overseas and bought a place there.  The "deal" I made on my place is still probably three times what I would have paid in 1994.  And importantly, these areas are all incredibly diverse, certainly more diverse than they were in 1988.   

Q: I know from some of our earlier conversations you and Steve (Dorst, co-producer) have always intended the film to be exposed on a national level and not just showcased locally.  What about the story makes you confident it's one that will transcend the regional/local flavor of it, and what are your next steps for making that happen?

Brinker: This story combines an incredible, unique sense of place with universal story lines that could be found in many cities, not just in the US but throughout the world.  So viewers should be able to readily identify with issues they confront in their own communities while watching the plot play out against an almost hauntingly beautiful backdrop that will surprise and intrigue them.  Most people outside the city simply would not expect the largest concentration of Italianate architecture in the US to be sitting in a once neglected neighborhood in Cincinnati.  And it is not just the architecture.  OTR has soul, and that soul is German, African-American, Appalachian, Jewish, Italian, young, old, Catholic, Lutheran, etc.  It combines in unexpected, authentic ways that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. 

The global interest I see is not just theoretical.  The German Embassy recently picked up our project and sent it to the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, which is currently considering what kind of support they might be able to provide through their arts foundations and regional television stations.    

Q: I recall that filming will be complete over the next year, and it's safe to say that OTR's transformation certainly won't be done by the time you finish production and start showing the film.   What, then, will be the message the film leaves with the viewer - that we're a work in progress? Does this film have a happy ending?

Brinker: While filming may finish next year, the editing and distribution process will likely put the film on screen in 2013.  We anticipated from the beginning that the transformation might not be fully complete when we wrap our project.  It is quite possible that we will leave viewers hanging a bit.  I think that is great, because I think the best ending will be to have everyone in the movie theater thinking, "Wow, I really hope they all succeed," while possibly harboring a second thought: "Maybe I need to visit Cincinnati." 

Godoy: This film will not be tied up neatly with a bow. But how can it not pass on strategy, ideals, values, present day history, and hope?  Such a thing as bringing a neighborhood back to vibrancy may take more than one generation, and certainly will take maintenance, creativity, and ingenuity long after we're gone. If anything, I hope the film gives many people appreciation for what is here and a desire and commitment to maintain the goodness. And by goodness, I mean goodness both visible and invisible. There are many spiritual lessons to be learned from citizens who may appear to be at the fringes of society, as well as from those who step up to the plate and risk their reputations on bold decisions. This film has many heroes.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Melissa Godoy

Melissa Godoy and Steve Dorst
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