The Project

The Project


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

The Project sees Cloverfield’s Michael Stahl-David in another handheld, faux-realist film that just about manages keep its conceits intact. Except here there are very different monsters on the streets of New York.

Justin (Stahl-David) and girlfriend Dana (Jamie Proctor) are young, first-time filmmakers. They’re white, clearly educated and from reasonably well-off backgrounds, so when they announce that they’ve moved to NY to make a documentary about the hardships of inner-city life, you know they’re due a hiding at some point. They have also roped in their sardonic friend John (Nicholas Webber) to act as another cameraman and opted to film themselves while they grapple with the project. So, in a digital nutshell, we get a fiction film shot in the style of a documentary that includes documentary-style footage of the film being shot.

Copy picture

Justin hooks up with two white Nu Yoik cops as they pound their precinct beat and are slowly, unknowingly ground down by their prejudices about the streets and the coping strategies of their lives. Meanwhile Dana and John start filming young Darryl (TJ Allen), a black teenager growing up in the disadvantaged Projects. Darryl has a good heart and is trying to do right by his doting little brother while their mother works and their father's sentence for a manslaughter conviction draws to an end. However, peer, gang and family pressures are tragically conspiring against him as he becomes pushed and bullied, especially by the pugnacious gangsta Nate (Bilal Bishop), towards what seem to be the wrong but only choices he has.

Soon enough the inexperienced Dana can no longer stand coolly by with her digital camera and she starts to try to help Darryl, and keep filming. Slowly and surely the filmmakers become dangerously embroiled in the lives of their subjects far more than they intended.

The film is composed entirely of the footage captured by their three cameras and writer-director Ryan Piotrowicz cunningly twists events so that these can take in far more than just the main characters. He also ensures that the actual look and style of the filming is true to its contrivances. It's another example of an inventive use of a sparse budget and scant hardware (the actual cameras star and perform as much as anyone else) and having John shooting the filming adds another perspective to this increasingly common method.

Piotrowicz has worked likable layers of meaning and intent into his screenplay, although it requires little peeling to get to them. On one level there is the obvious commentary on social and economic divides, as well as the chasm of misunderstanding middle America might have of inner-city difficulties. Another theme examines the trials faced by the documentary filmmakers, from selecting uncomfortable footage to serve the film, to losing objectivity and how their very presence is connected to and can alter events and perspective. This leads to an easy, critical comparison of Justin and Dana's intentions with (predominantly white) ruling America's myopic attempts to be 'involved' for its own ends, or exploit, and without taking responsibility.

Also getting a good look in is the periodic happiness and hell of living and breathing filmmaking at close quarters with others. John both documents and aggravates the strains and frustrations it places on everyone's relationships.

That all said, The Project doesn't really deliver a great deal of satisfaction. While in no way wanting to sound glib about the important message, you're left with the feeling that it hasn't actually told us anything new or created anything fresh.

This not helped by the broad array of stereotypes that we're presented with, which is disappointing considering Piotrowicz is in part retelling some of his own experiences of trying to make such a documentary. The cast graft hard with the faux documentary asking them to act as naturalistically as possible for us to buy into its make-up. Unfortunately, some of the performances don’t quite convince, especially in the early stages when everyone is meant to be relaxed, optimistic and 'just being themselves'. It feels like a good deal of ad-libbing was going on while still trying to get some scenes to very definite places. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. More forced manipulation is felt later when the stories of Dana and Justin's two parties start to converge. Not only do you see this coming far too early to really believe in it, it also hits a few flat keys when it arrives.

The Project has an interesting premise and a square slap of an ending, but isn’t quite as provocative and challenging as needs to be.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2008
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Fictional tale of naïve filmmakers trying to make a documentary about inner-city New York.

Director: Ryan Piotrowicz

Writer: Ryan Piotrowicz

Starring: ichael Stahl-David, Jamie Proctor, Nicholas Webber, TJ Allen, Bilal Bishop, Michael Ciesla

Year: 2008

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


Raindance 2008

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