Matt Pless, a young folk singer, at a peace rally in Lower Manhattan.
Times a-changin’…for protest artists
BY ROSE ADAMS
‘I’ve always been a rebel,” says Jeremy, or
“Germ,” a young poet in Karen Kramer’s
latest documentary, “Renegade Dreamers.”
He speaks in a low voice, his eyes often wandering.
“But I’ve always wanted to take my rebelliousness
and channel it more productively through the art
The same could be said for all the artists in “Renegade
Dreamers” — a fi lm about New York’s protest
poets and musicians that makes its U.S. premiere at
Cinema Village on May 31. Through interviews and
performance footage, “Renegade Dreamers” deftly
weaves together the stories of three young spokenword
poets and three folk singers who live on the
margins, the poets chanting their verse in dimly lit
cafes, the singers performing in subway stations.
Alongside their stories, Kramer interviews many
of the leading fi gures of protest music and poetry,
like Wavy Gravy, Peter Yarrow and Dave Van
Ronk, who recall the Village’s rich history of the
“I’ve always had an interest in people who challenge
the status quo, who don’t heed to conformity,”
said the fi lm’s director, Karen Kramer. The
Village-based fi lmmaker has produced several
award-winning documentaries, including “The Jolo
Serpent Handlers,” “Legacy of the Spirits” and
“Haitian Song,” which have screened at the Museum
of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution
and an array of international fi lm festivals.
“I was always fascinated by the people who were
able to escape the conformity of America after
World War II. They came to Greenwich Village and
started putting their words and their questioning
into poetry,” Kramer added.
Like its subjects, “Renegade Dreamers” is both
down to earth and idealistic, gritty and reminiscent.
The documentary digs deep into the Village’s history
of protest music and spoken word. Impressive
footage of anti-Vietnam War protests and performances
at the famed Gaslight Cafe — where young
artists like Bob Dylan got their start —immerse the
viewer in the anti-establishment energy of that era.
Older artists wax nostalgic remembering the close
community the Gaslight Cafe fostered.
But the fi lm’s contemporary subjects bring the
viewer back to the unromantic present day. Life as
an outsider isn’t easy, these artists remind us. It’s
lonely, uncertain. Germ and his contemporaries
embody what Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie once
PHOTO BY KAREN KRAMER
were: artists on the fringe. Or, renegade dreamers.
This space in between past and present is where
the fi lm gains much of its strength. By contrasting
1960s protest art to today’s version, Kramer
hints at how our collective memory of the past has
softened, turning what was once a radical, far-left
movement into little more than an entry in a mainstream
The fi lm’s balance between today and yesterday
also reveals the ways in which protest art has
changed over the decades. Today’s subversive artists
don’t share the same tight-knit community their
predecessors did. And the issues they tackle have
broadened and changed.
But despite these differences, all of the fi lm’s
renegade dreamers share the same overall vision
—one that the documentary communicates subtly
“The fi lm isn’t about a person, it’s not about a
cause,” said Kramer. “It’s about radical optimism.”
“Renegade Dreamers” will screen from May 31
to June 6 at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. Tickets
$12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors. For
more information, visit https://www.cinemavillage.
18 May 30, 2019 TVG Schneps Media