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Koch Documentary: Conversation Between Barsky & Goodwin Provide Insights
By Danielle M. Bennett (L-R) Michael Goodwin interviews Neil Barsky
(L-R) Michael Goodwin interviews Neil Barsky

Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse was the recent venue for a compelling interview between Neil Barsky, director of the documentary film Koch, and Michael Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for New York Daily News, New York Times, New York Post and Fox News. Goodwin served as City Hall Bureau Chief during Ed Koch’s administration. The conversation was of particular interest in light of the current mayoral campaigns.

Barsky explained that his decision to film the story of former New York mayor, Ed Koch, for his first movie was based on his own experiences as a New Yorker.  As a high school student in the 70’s and 80’s, Barsky recalled that New York was on a downward spiral, unlike the thriving city New York is today. In searching for answers, “KOCH” was born. “I don’t think I liked Koch too much when I was in my twenties,”said Barsky. But Barsky grew to appreciate the mayor, realizing that his leadership played a major role in New York’s recovery.

“He was one of the most compelling characters this city or politics has produced,” Barsky said about Koch. 

Goodwin’s questioning moved on to Koch’s death, which happened on the film’s opening day.  Barsky shared that although he and the crew knew of Koch’s hospitalization a few days prior, the mayor’s death still came as a shock.  While the film received a great deal of attention, Barsky said he didn’t think Koch’s death was good for the film. “Ed Koch was the best promoter,” said Barsky reverently.

Goodwin had been with Koch two days before the mayor died. Goodwin had co-authored a biography on Ed Koch in the 80’s, “I, Koch.” The two discussed how the film was well received at the premiere in October of last year. Koch told Goodwin that during the filmmaking, he had the right to veto anything in the film.

“I did not make a single complaint,” Koch said to the reporter.

“Knowing him, I’m sure it was much more complicated than that,” Goodwin joked.

Barsky told Goodwin that, although Koch was generally amenable during the process, Koch took issues with how the film portrayed his handling of race issues and Koch suggested to Barsky that he didn’t like the scenes when he was walking down the hall alone.  “He’s a very proud guy and he didn’t want to seem weak or vulnerable or pitied,” said Barsky about the mayor.

Barsky’s film went boldly into Koch’s sexual orientation, which Goodwin recalled had been an issue for Koch his entire life and would have threatened Koch’s career at that time.  Some of Koch’s friends thought the film harshly portrayed Koch’s sexuality, Goodwin stated to Barksy.  Barsky defended the film’s coverage of Koch’s sexuality, saying that many in the gay community thought Koch was gay and, in general, Koch’s identity was a critical part to include in the film.  Barsky informed Koch that the film touched on the mayor’s sexual identity.

 “We’re not going to report on your sex life.  We don’t care.  We will go as far as you want to go,” Barsky told Koch.  Barsky told Goodwin that the film’s overall goal was for people to see and make their own evaluation of Koch; i.e., his handling of issues on race, especially with the African-American community and his sexual orientation. 

“Yeah, he was very reluctant to talk about that,” said Barsky about Koch’s refusal to give specifics about his military career. As Koch’s biographer, Goodwin also failed to get specifics about Koch’s military career—only that Koch was hospitalized at one point and did not return to his unit.  Koch became a military translator.  “He spoke enough German through Yiddish,” Goodwin said jokingly about the mayor.  Barsky found Koch to be a private person and his family to be very protective.

Goodwin later discussed with Barsky the colorful and gritty images (e.g, graffiti on subways) in the film that documented a very different New York in the 70’s and 80’s.  Barsky explained that those images were made possible with the help of an archivist and access to footage from major media outlets (ABC, NBC, CBS, NY Times, Daily News) and the Library of Congress. 

“What was the proudest part of the film for you?” asked Goodwin toward the end of the interview.  As a first-time filmmaker, Barsky said he was proud of the entire process; but he admitted, it was an arduous task. 

“When you write something, you can erase and re-write.  With film, you’re limited to the actual footage and interviews you have.”  Barsky said he was also proud of being able to capture New York at its turning point and is hopeful that his film will be seen as a historical document for New York.

“Is there anything you would do differently?” asked Goodwin.

“We got what we wanted,” Barsky told Goodwin. The film covered two main issues that Barsky wanted to address: Koch on race, which Barsky believed was the mayor’s undoing and Koch on community issues such housing, gay rights, smoking reform and free, clean needles to combat the increasing contractions of HIV/AIDS during his time.

The interview concluded with Barsky’s and Goodwin’s admiration for how Koch enforced strong business, fiscal policies to stabilize government and, yet, pushed community outreach efforts.  Looking ahead to the current mayoral race,  Barsky admitted that he liked Bill DiBlasio but that he and the other candidates would have to do what Koch was able to do during his tenure: say ‘no’; have tough skin and govern during the tough times. 

“He was a definite warrior,” said Barsky. #



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