World Before Your Feet is Life Affirming

Directed by Jerry Workman

The World Before Your Feet is my favorite film of the year thus far. It is billed as a documentary, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s more like a life-affirming journey with an OCD eccentric.

Meet Matt Green, Virginia-born and now in his thirties. He lives in New York City, if we stretch the usual definition of “lives.” He’s a former engineer who had his midlife crisis early and walked away from a high-paying career because he couldn’t stand the idea of spending his life behind a desk. His response was, shall we say, unique. In 2010, he was living near Rockaway Beach in Queens, noted there was also a Rockaway Beach in Oregon, and decided to walk the 3,000 miles from the former to the latter. It took five months. It was great training for his next project: walking every block of New York City’s five boroughs. That venture took six years and covered more than 8,000 miles!

Green is affable and curious about everything. Depending on your point of view, he’s either an urban Henry David Thoreau or a bigger slacker than the Great Lebowski. He divested himself of all worldly goods that he couldn’t easily stow at wherever he was sleeping at the time. Green called upon friends, met people on his walks, did house sitting, pet care, and odd jobs, but he had no apartment or permanent base of any sort. Most days he spent $15 or less on food and essentials, though presumably he drew upon vaguely referenced savings to pay for his iPhone service. Each night, Green mapped out the next day's walk, which he wrote out on a piece of paper so he could keep his phone camera at the ready.

It’s safe to say you’ll never think of the Big Apple the same way after seeing this film. Green walked every day, even during the 2016 blizzard that dumped more than two feet of white stuff on Gotham. (He “only” did 8 miles that day!) Green takes us all over the city, though the film concentrates mostly on lesser-known parts of the city, such as abandoned shoreline streets on Staten Island and neighborhoods far from where tourists tread. As another interviewed walker notes, though, most of New York is undiscovered, even by those who claim to “know” a particular part of the city. After all, most of us travel the same corridors in our everyday lives and can easily be surprised by something just a block or two from our normal journeys.

It’s unclear exactly when director Jerry Workman got involved in filming Green, but it’s a daunting task to squeeze six years into 95 minutes of film. Doing so requires that one take a selective and episodic approach. We see Green walking streets all over the city, but Workman concentrates on a few themes. For example, Green reveals a series of “churchagogues,” former synagogues repurposed as street churches because Jews long ago moved out of a particular neighborhood. He also shows us the oldest tree in New York, impromptu 9/11 memorials, and the unmarked sites of where Malcolm X was murdered and where Margaret Sanger ran the first family planning clinic in America. For reasons that simply amuse him, Green is drawn to store names that replace the normal “s” with a “z,” as in hair cutz.

Mostly the film is about some of the people Green encounters. As Jamaican immigrant and poet Garnette Cadogan reminds us, it’s easier for Green to walk New York unaccosted than for a black man such as himself. It is nonetheless noteworthy that Green was never mugged, was often welcomed by complete strangers, and generated good-natured curiosity wherever he went. I suppose it helps when there’s a camera on the scene–not to mention various write-ups and news reports–but I doubt Workman’s camera there every day and every step. In many ways, this film is a love letter to the Five Boroughs. I’m not saying everyone could march across any part of New York at any time of the day without getting into sticky situations, but there is much to be said about connecting with people as people and not as categories. Call it karma f you will, but Green got back mostly what he put out: a love of history, the environment, the city, and humankind.

Green is no saint and he’s certainly not cut from domesticated cloth, as two former girlfriends attest. As both he and Workman remind us, though, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I found myself thinking of Thoreau’s assertion that he, “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau went to the woods; Matt Green went to the Bronx and beyond. This gem of a documentary is the most life-affirming thing I have encountered in quite some time.

Rob Weir

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