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NOLA-bred filmmaker wows at Tribeca Film Fest

Benjamin Wilson, aka 'Benji,' in his prime; New Orleans native Chick Ozah screened his new movie about the basketball player at the 2012 Tribeca Film Fest.

Last week I flew up to New York for the Tribeca Film Fest to attend the premiere of “Benji,” a documentary about 1980s Chicago phenom Ben Wilson that was directed by New Orleans native Chike Ozah. “Benj” will premiere on television as part of ESPN’s highly acclaimed 30 for 30 series in October.

The following is a brief account of the trip:

Thursday, April 19

8 a.m. I’m a nervous flyer, and that’s despite the fact that flying is statistically far safer than the cab ride to the airport. This was brought into focus during my cab ride to the airport, as my grizzled cabbie kept popping some kind of pills. As for the flight to NYC itself? Smooth as Karl Rove’s forehead.

3:30 p.m. I arrive at my hotel in Tribeca and unpack, by which I mean I take a few articles of clothing out of my suitcase and throw them on a chair or two, and leave the rest inside. I need a nap.

5:30 p.m. The nap was too good and now I’m feeling really sluggish, so I head down to the gym to ride the bike and use the treadmill for a few minutes. While on the treadmill, I hear from Chike – we should meet up at the Apple Store for a party.

8:30 p.m. Another New Orleanian-turned-New Yorker, Alex, who will heretofore be referred to by his last name, Bates, (which is what we call him) meets me at my hotel and we grab a cab to the Apple Store.

You’ve seen an Apple Store (iPhones, iPads, laptops) and you’ve seen a party (people talking, drinking and dancing), so combine the two. The highlight for me is definitely that Q-Tip of Tribe Called Quest fame is DJ-ing. The lowlight arrives when I accidentally drop my drink and it shatters on the ground of the Apple Store. No one is hurt.

Made it back to the room around midnight, and fall asleep soon after.


11:30 a.m. I head down to a breakfast place I like – Bubby’s – for some huevos rancheros and then it’s off to find a store that sells boxer shorts, as those turn out to be the necessity that I forgot this trip. I didn’t think it’d be much of a problem, but it turns out the stores of SoHo, which is adjacent to Tribeca and where I do most of my searching, are a little too good to sell boxers. I end up having to settle for some special mountain-climbing undergarments at Patagonia made of some futuristic material that I literally have never heard of before.

The next item on the agenda is to pick up my ticket for “Benji” at one of the film fest’s box offices. This is a snap.

One unsettling moment of the trip occurs as I come around a corner to find a police/media presence that would have rivaled any sort of terrorist threat, with streets blocked off and crowds of onlookers, um, looking on. “As a matter of fact,” the fear center in my brain wonders, “is this a terrorist threat?”

It turns out to be one of those intersections of real life and the headlines, as a story I’d been hearing about on the national news recently – that of the 30+ year-old missing-person case of Etan Patz, who disappeared on his first damn walk to his schoolbus stop – plays out on the street.

Police are working on a new clue in the basement of the building where the family still lived. One of the saddest parts of the entire sad story is that the family hasn’t changed their phone number, despite countless prank calls and false leads over the years, in the hopes that Etan will call. And by the way, what kind of person makes such prank calls?

Sadly, the latest clue turns out to be another false alarm.

5 p.m. A rest and a shower and now it’s getting to be time for the main event – Chike’s movie. Bates meets me at my hotel, and we walk over to a college friend’s apartment. After collecting her, we begin the 15- or 20-minute walk to the college where “Benji” will be screening. My college friend’s husband and two more of their friends will meet us in line.

Ten minutes into the walk, it hits me that I have left my ticket in the hotel room. The one, single, solitary reason I’ve come up here, and I am about to blow it. Then I remember that Chike’s girlfriend had gotten an extra ticket for me, so I send Chike a text message asking if it’d be possible to get it.

When I don’t hear back within, oh, five seconds, I give him a call. Voicemail.

We arrive at the college where “Benji” is screening, and while there’s activity going on outside the entrance, it definitely isn’t the hub of activity I’ve been expecting. We keep walking, however, and turn the corner to find a line a block and a half long, complete with red carpet, bright lights, photographers, etc.

But I have a decision to make: wait and hope to hear from Chike about the potential spare ticket and risk it not working out and missing the movie, or speedwalking back to my hotel and back, likely missing the opening third of the film.

“You know what?” I ask the group. “I’m heading back to the hotel.”

Fortunately for me, one of the things I’ve learned about film fests is that the movies generally don’t start on time – there’s generally some pre-film activities/introductions, and relief washes over me as I realize I’ve made it back, with even a few minutes to spare. I’m not seated with the rest of the group, but at that point I really don’t care. The only thing that matters is that I’ve made it back.

And I have to admit, after my 30-minute jog/speedwalk, my new boxers keep things cooler than they have any right to be.

I won’t divulge too many of the film’s details – it’s definitely worth watching on your own – and while I’ll admit it’s impossible for me to be completely objective about it, I’m going to go ahead and say it is awesome. When the lights go up at the end, the packed house gives it the best kind of audience reaction – a brief pause followed by a whoosh of applause and cheers.

While there is an after-party, my group is looking for a more gustatory experience. Unfortunately, on a Friday night in Manhattan, happening upon a table for six at the peak dinner rush turns out to be out of the question.

Personally, I’m glad we end up back at the ole Tribeca Grand lobby bar. Each place we’ve looked in seems a little too loud and involved for talking about the movie and catching up with some old friends. We find a nice table and couches, order some drinks and some sliders, and enjoy a great end to the evening.

At least, I think it’s the end of the evening. It’s midnight when I get back up to my room, and I start to think, “Man, you should really try and mix it up a little bit more. You’re in Manhattan on a Saturday night, for crying out loud.”

So I call up another college buddy, Owen, who I’d heard from earlier in the night, and I meet him at a tapas place for a drink, then go across the street to a more raucous bar that reminds me a little of New Orleans, actually, at which we remain until around 3. That is sufficient for a Saturday night in NYC.


I ease into the day with some iced coffee, a muffin, and some people watching on a bench outside a bakery near the hotel. I could have sat there for hours, but instead, I walk down the street to the Ivy Grill for some eggs Benedict, a bloody Mary, and even more people watching from an outdoor table.

Gradually, my table fills up with my college friend, her husband and their toddler, and then Bates. All in all, a perfect afternoon.

6 p.m. Bates and I head back to the hotel to regroup before heading to a showing of another Fest film, “Knuckleball.” While I’m not much of a baseball fan, the rare purveyors of the odd pitch (there is now just one current major league starter who employs the knuckleball) and their often unique stories interest Bates and I. Plus, I’m at a film fest. It would seem that attending just one film would be selling the “fest” part a bit short.

It is a long, chilly walk to the Financial Center, where “Knuckleball” is screening on a giant outdoor terrace on the Hudson River.

8 p.m. Unfortunately for me, one of the things I’ve learned about film fests is that the movies generally don’t start on time – there’s generally some pre-film activities/introductions. But in the case of this screening of “Knuckleball,” it is a musical performance.

If anyone ever asks me who my least favorite band of all-time is, I now have an answer. They’re called Moonhooch.

How to describe the music of Moonhooch? I can detect a little bit of ska, mixed in with some farting noises, plus a little dub-step. Oh, and they brag about having fashioned their instruments out of found objects (a.k.a. garbage). And unfortunately, Bates and I are seated directly in front of one of the giant speakers.

And while the film itself is no “Benji,” it was decent enough, but honestly, just about anything would have been a welcome respite from any more Moonhooch.

10:30 p.m. As a bit of lagniappe, my cousin Mark, who lives in Connecticut, says he can meet up for a drink on his way home. He is really going out of his way, as he is flying home from Miami that night and stopping in NYC on his way.

It looks like the timing is going to work out perfectly, as Bates and I get back to my hotel room minutes before Mark has estimated he’ll be at the hotel. Ten minutes pass, and I get a phone call from him. He speaks in a hushed tone:

“You said you were in room 821, right?”
Uh-oh. Had I told him the wrong room number? I don’t think so. Just to be sure, I go and check.
“Yep, 821. What’s going on?”
“Well, I went up and knocked on the door, and this woman answered. I asked if this was the Friedman room, and she said no…

Immediately I know what is going on. Just a few blocks from my hotel, the Tribeca Grand, is the SoHo Grand – same ownership, same type of place, etc.

Sure enough, this is the case. Fifteen minutes later, Mark arrives, and he joins Bates and me for some more sliders and drinks in the lobby bar. It’s always great catching up with Mark.

The next morning I fly back to New Orleans. It’s always good to travel, and it’s always good coming home.

Writer and filmmaker Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans people and culture for NolaVie.


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