A film review by Christopher Null – Copyright © 2000 filmcritic.com
(3 1/2 stars out of 5)
Director: Jason Rosette
Producer: Jason Rosette
Screenwriter: Jason Rosette
Stars: Jason Rosette
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2000
There are a million stories in the naked city, and a new documentary from Jason Rosette does a remarkable job at ferreting out one of them — and where you’d least expect it.
BookWars examines the strange and unexpectedly intense world of street booksellers in Manhattan — specifically, a little stretch of 4th Street near NYU, where otherwise unemployed types set up an 8-foot table, covered with treasures of the printed word.
Rosette tells the story from the inside, having spent three years on 4th, selling precious volumes of Dostoyevsky, Kerouac, and Kierkegaard. We meet his colleagues, who range from surprisingly well adjusted to almost completely insane. And we discover the origins of the books — estate sales, libraries, the trash, and even other street sellers when they inevitably wash out.
But Rosette’s tale is especially remarkable from several perspectives. First, the streetwise merchandising tactics you learn in BookWars’ 79 minutes teach you more about business than any MBA program. Second, the socio-political microscope the booksellers find themselves under when Giuliani’s “Quality of Life” program is introduced (thus attempting to whisk them off the sidewalks) makes a powerful statement about who programs like these are really helping out. Corporate America and academia are the understated targets as the independent street booksellers are gradually given less and less “official” space in which to operate.
While Rosette’s over-earnest narration can get thick at times and the finale feels a tad dismissive, his story is never short of enthralling. Altogether, it’s a fresh break from more sanitized documentary filmmaking, giving us a unique look into a part of life I’ve always wondered about.