By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
(CNN), April 21, 2017 – Matt Tyrnauer always knew that a documentary about an urban planning pioneer would be a difficult sell. But two days after the presidential election in November, he was worried the “collective funk” that seemed to be afflicting despondent Manhattanites would prevent people from showing up to his film premiere at DOC NYC.
Tyrnauer soon realized his fears were unfounded.
Not only was the screening for “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” a packed event, the film inspired at least some moviegoers to join a battle of their own.
“After the screening, people came up to me and said, ‘I’ve been in a dark place all week. This movie actually showed me something I could do to start contemplating having an effect to push back and fight back,” Tyrnauer recalled in a recent interview with CNN.
At the center of Tyrnauer’s film is Jane Jacobs, an activist whose community-based approach to city planning put her odds with one of New York City’s most powerful developers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tyrnauer first became intrigued by Jacobs six years ago when he picked up a copy of Jacobs’ book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” at a bookstore in Manhattan’s East Village. Upon reading it, he was “blown away” by her writing style and theories, Tyrnauer said.
Jacobs was the voice of descent at a time when urban planners were demolishing neighborhoods and, in her view, killing the lifeblood of modern cities. This theory was her ammunition in a few fights against Robert Moses, a city developer whose plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway were at one point derailed by Jacobs and her community of backers following a bitter battle.
Tyrnauer realized that Jacobs had, essentially, changed the way people view cities and she had gone largely unrecognized for it.
He produced “Citizen Jane” with Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit organization that operates the legendary rail line-turned-public park in New York City.
Tyrnauer had no idea that by the time his film would be released, a tale about a grassroots effort that overturned a billionaire with power would strike a different kind of nerve.
“I’d like to say that we are Nostradamus filmmakers and we saw that coming, but none of us did,” he said, referring to the election of Donald Trump. “Life threw a curveball, and I think though I view the election outcome as a tragedy, I think the movie becomes more relevant than ever.”
Tyrnauer thinks his film is as much about urban theory as it is about the importance of not being “passive as a citizen in a civil society.”
“Jane Jacobs is an astonishing warrior citizen, who in her book preaches action,” he said. “It’s all about getting out and looking around and being skeptical and understanding the way things work, so you’re not a victim.”