Private Project

Newburgh: Beauty and Tragedy

Newburgh: Beauty and Tragedy is a documentary film about a small city an hour north of Manhattan, whose Hudson River views, historic buildings and rising gentrification contrast sharply and iconically with the crumbling, low-income, crime-ridden, predominantly black neighborhood and the long, grinding hollowing out at its heart.

In 1952, Look magazine listed Newburgh as an “All American City;” in 2019, USA Today ranked it among the 50 worst cities in the United States. Newburgh’s decline is emblematic of a broader decline of thousands of other cities and towns across the country -- left behind by economic and social trends, largely forgotten and ignored by wealthier neighbors, yet rich in a sense of place, community and pathos that are deep, essential parts of the American psyche, albeit suppressed.

The film tells downtown Newburgh’s story through interviews with longtime residents, but it's much more than just a POV documentary. It’s an unflinching, compelling exploration of a place surrounding communities have long ignored and denied. It reveals Newburgh’s troubles and beauties alike in its unforgettable faces, once gracious ruined buildings and street scenes, in an overcrowded home, a soup kitchen, a prisoner re-entry program. It vividly evokes the lives and voices of Newburgh residents, who talk unguardedly and poignantly on camera, some of whom Kasterine had previously photographed for years. Still portraits of the subjects at earlier points in their lives contrast with the later interviews, conveying their uncompromising gazes, and a sense of both intimacy and distance.

The film is also a complex meditation on the camera bearing witness and building two-way bridges across racial, economic and cultural divides. Kasterine couldn’t be more different from the film’s subjects -- white, born in England in 1932, an elite photographer connected with celebrities, and a resident of a prosperous Hudson Valley town across the River. Not only did he find an entrée and welcome as an outsider, returning to Newburgh over 22 years to take stills and get to know residents, but some of the film’s subjects ended up helping make it, operating camera and sound equipment themselves.

Some will find it troubling when a white, relatively privileged filmmaker like Kasterine swoops in to portray life in a poor community of color, without directly thematizing or accounting for his own outsider or privileged status. Yet what’s unique about the film is how powerfully the residents and images of Newburgh speak for themselves, and not only because some of them helped make the film. They interpellate the viewer just as powerfully as the camera fixes them as subjects of the film.

Instead of implicit privilege or racism in the camera’s gaze, Newburgh: Beauty and Tragedy thematizes and surpasses the privilege and racism implicit in turning one’s gaze away from the thousands of Newburghs woven deeply into the unraveling fabric of 21st century American life. Kasterine is an artist, and his film is a multivalent, aesthetic document, not a manifesto about politics or racism. Yet it raises deep issues, and has the potential to start a new cultural conversation about politics, race and film.

  • Dmitri Kasterine
  • Dmitri Kasterine
  • Earle I. Mack
  • Caroline Kasterine
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Social Justice, Photography, Gentrification, Poverty, Race Relations
  • Runtime:
    58 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    January 1, 2019
  • Production Budget:
    150,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Dmitri Kasterine

Dmitri Kasterine has photographed iconic cultural figures ranging from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Samuel Beckett and Roy Lichtenstein to Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Cindy Sherman and many others. His work has been displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London and is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

Born in England in 1932, Kasterine began his professional career as a photographer in 1961, working for publications such as and The Daily Telegraph magazine. He had a long association with Stanley Kubrick, taking stills on the set of Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). His personal photographic survey England and the English was published in 1981 by Worlds Work.

In 1986, he left Britain to move to the United States, which he had first visited on an assignment to photograph Mick Jagger in Los Angeles for the Radio Times. In 2000 he directed and filmed a documentary on Anthony Bourdain as he moved from chef to best-selling author and television personality.

Kasterine began taking pictures in Newburgh, New York in 1996. It wasn't the city’s violent reputation that drew him there, but the beauty of its people and abandoned buildings. This beauty held him and he returned regularly with his camera for 22 years. His book Newburgh: Portrait of a City was published in 2012 by Quantuck Lane Press, an affiliate of W.W. Norton & Co. That same year, a public exhibition of 44 Kasterine’s mural-sized portraits of Newburgh residents was mounted on a building wall in the center of the city (where it still hangs today). Soon afterward he began filming Newburgh: Beauty and Tragedy, which he completed in 2019.

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Director Statement

Twenty-two years ago I crossed the Hudson River from my home in Garrison, New York and drove into Newburgh for the first time. All around me were very young, very beautiful men and women. I asked a shirtless youth if I might take his picture. “No,” he said, “you should get back into your car and go home.”

I tried again a few days later and never had another serious rebuff. “I had everything going for me,” I thought. “I speak with a funny English accent and I am too old to be a cop.”

Newburgh was once a prosperous city, renowned for its industrial output and resplendent Victorian architecture. Beginning in the early 1960s, the markets fell away, urban renewal came and 1,300 buildings were destroyed and never rebuilt. Since then, there have been many false starts attempting to rebuild and restore the city. Today Newburgh is a place of crumbling buildings, crime and violence. Will the present city government succeed where all its predecessors have failed?

In 2012, a book of my portraits of Newburgh residents was published, together with an exhibition of mural-sized prints on the wall of downtown Newburgh’s Ritz Theater, which is still up.

Then came the film. After listening to stories of imprisonment, teenage parenthood, drug addiction, unemployment, poverty, violence and corruption, I began on my own to record encounters with citizens in the street. At last, after 58 years of listening to interesting people while photographing them, here was the chance to share what they said through filmed interviews and discussions. They had all the qualities needed to hold an audience, relating without hesitation heartfelt, witty, illuminating and believable stories.

The film is an essay. It is a one-sided account of the life of the residents of downtown Newburgh, in their own words. It offers no conclusions, no tales of redemption or magic solutions to unemployment, crime or Newburgh's other social problems. It is a snapshot of a place whose future is left hanging. No one in authority, either the police or the government, is given a speaking part in this film. This was deliberate, I wanted to hear and see only the people I was drawn to.

I came across subjects and opinions in unexpected and obscure places. I was assisted by a crew of three local, young people, whom I took on as paid apprentices and instructed them in camera and sound techniques. No professional crew was employed.

Some of my original still portraits of Newburgh residents from years earlier are blended into the film. Many unstated events and feelings come out through these portraits. The film carries a sense of underlying sadness in the film, but also great beauty, warmth, grace and hope.