Taking place on the evening after St. Valentine's Day, the second annual Rooftop Films Gala, held in midtown Manhattan on a rare but welcomed warm winter night, continued the week's theme of adoration and love: in this case, for one's fellow artist. In keeping with the organization's 22-year mission to both financially support and provide filmmakers with lively, outside-of-the-box venues in which to showcase their work, Rooftop Films' good will was consistently felt and reciprocated over the course of the ceremony. It wouldn't be wrong to label it a holy experience: At 105 years young, St. Bart's Episcopalian Church served as an unexpectedly appropriate venue for an evening of food, drinks, live music, passionate dedications, and impassioned speeches. 

SeanbakerHonoree Sean Baker accepts his Rooftop Films award from Artistic Director Dan Nuxoll at last night's Gala.

Taking to the altar to provide a brief overview and history of Rooftop's year-round initiatives, Artistic Director Dan Nuxoll gave a shout out to Mark Elijah Rosenberg, the non-profit organization's founder, also in attendance. "[Mark's goal] was pretty simple: to bring people together via the medium of film, to show people films that they wouldn't have otherwise seen, to create a fun, communal experience where people can come, explore, go to a space they've never been to before, hear some music they hadn't heard before, and come away with an opportunity to meet people with interests like they're own and filmmakers whose work they admire. That was the goal."

Nuxoll admitted that while the outdoor summer series is what the organization is most well known for, they're just as persistent in empowering other film lovers through screening assistance (providing year-round equipment and technical expertise) and artist-support initiatives like the Rooftop Filmmakers Fund Grants, which are available to any filmmaker who has screened with the series in the past.

"It was one of the first festival acceptances that we had and it meant so much."

Nuxoll then welcomed the first honoree of the evening, director Sean Baker, currently experiencing a career-best year with his Orlando-set, realist drama The Florida ProjectBaker's relationship with Rooftop Films has spanned two decades, and the filmmaker recounted an experience in 2000 when a film he produced and edited by Koorosh Yaraghi, Men in Patience, was accepted into the series. "It was one of the first festival acceptances that we had and it meant so much. It was that sort of recognition and support that keeps an indie filmmaker going. The film was recently remastered and I'm going to be putting it up on Vimeo later this year, proudly displaying the Rooftop laurels at the front."

Baker would then return to the organization 15 years later with a screening of Tangerine on a rooftop in Hell's Kitchen, calling it one of his most memorable screening experiences. 

2018-02-15_rooftop_gala-071_0Honoree Yance Ford at last night's Rooftop Gala.

Taking to the stage next was Yance Ford, a current Academy Award nominee for Strong Island, the filmmaker's intensely moving investigation and rumination into the murder of his slain brother. He was presented to the stage by Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the  International Documentary Association (IDA), was a colleague of Ford's when they both worked for the long-running documentary series, POV.

"I remember when I first met Yance Ford," Kilmurry humbly recalled, "when he came through our offices at POV, the PBS series, to interview with Cara Mertes for a job in our programming department. She was really excited and impressed by Yance. When I was talking to Cara [earlier tonight], she reminded me that one of the questions she asked Yance was 'do you have staying power? Can you really stay the course and do this job?' Anyone who has seen Strong Island knows that Yance has staying power." 

"A lot of people have been talking about me being the first transgender nominee for an Academy Award, and I remind people that history has to be considered in context."

"Thank you Rooftop Films for this honor," Ford began his speech, drawing attention to the altruistic intentions of the evening's hosts, "and for the work that you do. I cannot stress enough the importance of access to films like the ones that you show around the city, in the neighborhoods where you show them, to the communities where you make them available (at affordable ticket prices), and to the support that you lend to filmmakers, an incredible gesture of faith and belief in the creative community here in New York City."

Ford then found a link between his own career and his fellow honoree's: "A lot of people have been talking about me being the first transgender nominee for an Academy Award, and I remind people that history has to be considered in context. Part of that context is Sean Baker's Tangerine and the example that he set in casting transgendered women to play themselves in their lives, and then you went on to The Florida Project—which is probably the closest thing to what it was like to grow up in my household—that I have seen enacted on-screen by anyone, anywhere." 

2018-02-15_rooftop_gala-015Gala honorees Sean Baker and Yance Ford's commemorative awards up close.

Ford looked back to provide a heartfelt appreciation of his extended, chosen families, groups he worked with that provided continuous inspiration. Citing personal loved ones, production crew, and colleagues ("Simon Killmurry interviewed me seven or eight times before actually hiring me to work at POV...stepping into those doors at 32 Broadway in 2002 was the beginning of a journey I could not possibly have imagined would bring me to here"), Ford's words indicated that a successful filmmaking career cannot happen overnight and it won't prosper without selfless peer support. 

If last night's Gala was any indication, filmmaker support is alive and well within organizations like Rooftop Films. Observing current grantees mingle amongst current honorees solidified the overarching mission: if you emphasize career sustainability, you can enable a filmmaker to grow from one role into another.

For more information on Rooftop Films, click here.