James Belzer: Putting the Stories We Care About on Film

With the 2012 presidential election on the very near horizon, the electorate has less than two weeks to decide which candidate has the appropriate platform and point of view that is aligned with this country’s fiscal and economic needs, as well as the needs of the citizenry. Between the Democratic and Republican conventions, topped off by the political rhetoric bandied about during the presidential debates, one issue that has demanded attention by both candidates is offshore manufacturing, and how Barack Obama or Mitt Romney chooses to solve America’s need for homegrown manufacturing.

Fashion Reverie, in late August tackled this issue with its The Demise of Made in the U.S.A feature article. And though this article was good fodder for some provocative conversation among fashion industry professionals, documentary filmmaker James Belzer is approaching this heated, but time-sensitive issue in a more in-depth arch in his upcoming documentary Make It in Manhattan and the USA.

Most fashion insiders know James Belzer from his much lauded 2011 documentary The Tents. The Tents gave an insider purview into the pop culture phenomenon now known has Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. In The Tents, Belzer tracked the last season Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week was held at Bryant Park and its move to Lincoln Center, as well as stunning footage and interviews with such esteemed industry professionals as Fern Mallis, Stan Herman, Donna Karan, Hal Rubenstein, Tommy Hilfiger, Isaac Mizrahi, Carolina Herrera, Betsey Johnson, Suzy Menkes and others.

“When we [my production team] learned that Fashion Week was moving from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center we realized that we needed to capture this,” explains Belzer.”  “I was still at Harper’s Bazaar at the time of the announcement, but I had developed a relationship with Fern Mallis over the years. I was approached about doing a documentary about Fashion Week … so I contacted Fern Mallis about this, linked up with Marcus K. Jones, my cinematographer and moved forward.”

Belzer’s segue into documentary films came out of his desire to combine his creative point of view with advertising and marketing skills acquired while working at Harper’s Bazaar. “Working on the advertising side of fashion publishing I learned lots of business fundamentals, but I never gave up my creative self. As a filmmaker I have synthesized business fundamentals from fashion advertising with my creative side.  Documentaries are great place to objectively observe the subject in question and creatively produce those points of view,” details Belzer.

The Tents provided fertile ground for Belzer to capture and crystallize his particular type of narrative storytelling; a narrative form that includes engaging film footage and interviews with some fashion personalities outside of the public domain. “There are so many personalities that attend New York Fashion Week that we were able to get a lot of footage just shooting at Bryant Park. We wanted to cover a cross section of the players and not just the high profile ones. In a film you have a certain amount of time to tell a story so we realized we had to get key voices,” purports Belzer. “The bulk of the interviews and film footage took place during the fall of 2009 at Bryant Park. There was lots of discussion about how the landscape of New York City changed as the fashion industry in the US became a more prominent fashion player globally.  Helmut Lang led the charge in moving NYC in the front of the fashion calendar before London, Milan and Paris … There was such much design talent coming out of NYC that was influencing fashion that Lang and others felt that it was an injustice for NYC to be last on the Fashion Week calendar.”

With Make It in Manhattan and the USA, Belzer has teamed up with handbag designer and Garment District advocate Michelle Vale to explore the issues and trajectory of domestic garment manufacturing. “I met Michelle Vale at the preview of The Tents and we spoke about working on a documentary about domestic manufacturing. Just coming off the heels of The Tents, and interviewing and meeting so many designers that were having manufacturing issues, the subject of the struggles around domestic manufacturing was a subject I wanted to tackle,” details Belzer.

Belzer also realized that though the subject matter for this documentary is timely, the documentary’s narrative had to appeal to American consumers. “We are attempting to propose a shifting of energy of why homegrown manufacturing is good all around. And in this political year the conversation around homegrown manufacturing is growing.  And within the fashion industry there is more energy and stimulated conversation around homegrown manufacturing; so the time seems to be right for this type of documentary. In Make It in Manhattan and the USA we have also touched on the business cycle of manufacturing textiles … The reality of this film is getting a story out that is going to resonate with the consumer. If consumers understand how this is good for our economy, this becomes a good business story.” contends Belzer.

Documentary filmmaking, Belzer’s current brand of storytelling, has brought Belzer’s life full circle and formed a synergy of creativity, passion and process that fits Belzer like a glove. “My ambition for the future is for audiences to have an emotional experience from the narratives I tell on film. The fashion industry is in my mind and my heart and has given me the narratives that I want to see put to life on screen.”

And at this time and place, Belzer is talking about subjects we care about and filming stories we want to see. Belzer has his captive audience!!

Make It in Manhattan and the USA is scheduled for released in 2013.

—William Gooch




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