Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize 2003
It’s fairly apparent from the first minute of Stephan Nadelman’s documentary “Terminal Bar” why this film was so well received by juries and audiences on the festival circuit in 2003. The 22 minute feature, told entirely in black and white photographs with minimal live-action footage, is a first hand look into the lives of some of the roughest, slimiest, most interesting characters in New York at a time when the city’s reputation as one of the toughest in the nation was more than deserved.
The film tells the story of Sheldon Nadelman’s ten year bar-tending career at the Terminal Bar, formally located across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown. The short has no dialogue besides narration from a 1982 New York Times article chronicling the bar’s history and ultimately closure, as well as interviews with Sheldon Nadelman (Stephan’s father). Nadelman Sr. took over 2500 photographs during the course of his tenure at the bar, and these photos are edited together stylishly to music to tell the story of the bar’s journey from its Irish working-class roots, to its unintentional rebranding as a predominantly African American gay bar. The short spends the majority of its time focusing on on the portraits that Nadelman took, as he describes the interesting stories of these incredibly eccentric characters, and their lives inside and outside of Terminal.
The strength of the documentary lies in its simplicity, both in delivery and of message. With period-appropriate funk and disco music throbbing in the background, Nadelman Jr. employs fast-paced and editing techniques (panning, tiling, zooms in and out) to keep the montage of gritty, beautiful photographs taken by his father moving at a speed that not only holds the audience’s attention, but reflects the mood and atmosphere of the city and its inhabitants as they passed through the Terminal. The narrator’s vivid anecdotes of the working-class alcoholics, homosexuals, and riff-raff that frequented the bar are as lively as they are depressing, and paint a portrait of the tough, yet fascinating lives of the middle and lower class of New York during the era.
There’s a particularly poignant moment towards the end of the film that serves as a sort of thesis for the short. In the Times article about the closing, Nadelman says “[People] come out there in the morning, step over the bodies, and go to work. And they step over them on the way back. And nobody says nothing. When one person’s lying in the street, everyone’s lying in the street.” The photographs that flash behind these words echo this sentiment, and show the harshness of the time, and help the audience understand why so many of New York’s dejected masses wandered into the bar, to enjoy the moment, and escape.