Watching Filibus on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal (By Tanya Goldman)

(Our pal Tanya Goldman canoed on the Gowanus Canal and sent back this wonderful blog!)


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a singular screening event. I watched Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate (1915) in a life jacket, aboard a canoe, on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The event was organized by the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club – a volunteer organization promoting waterfront access and education about Brooklyn’s shoreline neighborhoods – at the suggestion of silent film expert Kate Saccone. The Dredgers have previously hosted “Paddle In” screenings of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Saboteur (using a volunteer’s 16mm projector, no less!) What set this past weekend’s evening apart from the group’s previous screenings, as well as most other outdoor screenings I’m aware of, is what was happening simultaneously on the shore – live musical accompaniment by composer Donald Sosin and vocalist Joanna Seaton!


The event began at 6:30pm at the Dredgers’ boat house. The attendees and I boarded canoes and paddled south for 10 minutes until we reached the designated “theater,” an inlet alongside a weathered building that would become our movie screen. We tied the front and back of our canoes to floats to prevent us from drifting and to maintain the appropriate social distance. As we waited, we were treated to pre-movie content: a snippet of Jean Painlevé, footage about the Gowanus Dredgers, and the beloved snipe Let’s All Go to the Lobby (1957). There was even a canoe selling concessions!

As the sun went down, the music and movie began. The film begins by introducing the main characters. It saves Filibus – and her three guises – for last: masked cat burglar, wealthy woman with a fur shawl, and a mustachioed nobleman. A sample of Seaton’s lyrics during the opening: “Descending from a cloud, disappearing in a crowd. Tiptoe, tiptoe silently, closer, closer can see? Could it be that Filibus?”

I had already caught Filibus during its run at Anthology Film Archives last fall so I was able to focus on the affective qualities of the outdoor, on-the-water screening: the gentle sway of the canoe, the surprisingly chilly temperature, Sosin’s piano and Seaton’s vocals intermingling with chirping crickets and the occasional splash caused by the canal’s underwater creatures. I also focused on the image’s texture as it appeared projected on the building’s aged façade, especially during the occasional moments when the restoration maintained the decay of the original extant nitrate materials. I was also often struck by the image’s mirrored reflection onto the water below. The only comparative letdown of the experience was that the vivid purples, greens, and yellows of the restoration’s beautiful toning was muted.

As the film wrapped, the audience gave Sosin and Seaton an enthusiastic applause. We then canoed back to the Dredgers’ boat house, the women on one canoe even singing Seaton’s memorable enunciation of Filibus (“feel-ee-boo-s”). An enchanting evening for an enchanting film. Long live Filibus, the air pirate!