‘Florida Project,’ ‘Strong Island’ Directors Honored at Rooftop Films Gala

Sean Baker and Yance Ford, the first transgender director nominated for an Oscar, were recognized for their excellence in independent filmmaking.

At St. Bart’s Church on Thursday night, Rooftop Films transformed the holy space into a place to celebrate its own religion: independent film. Over the altar, a projection of the Rooftop Films logo flickered. This year’s honorary prophets — or, rather, filmmakers — were Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) and Yance Ford, who is the first transgender director nominated for an Oscar, for his documentary film Strong Island.

Baker and Ford were recognized at the second annual gala for their excellence in independent filmmaking.

Dan Nuxoll, Rooftop’s artistic director, told The Hollywood Reporter that both artists were perfect for the recognition. To him, Ford and Baker each created a “a movie that’s completely unafraid to take chances or to break the mold and is willing to take real, genuine risks.” 

Risk-taking has been a part of Rooftop’s mission since 1997. Founder Mark Elijah Rosenberg started Rooftop by setting up his 16mm projector on his roof in the East Village. Those risks are part of the reason Sean Baker, who first screened a film with Rooftop in 2000, feels “very aligned” with the organization.

“I also love the way that Rooftop Films knows that innovation, inspiration, and excitement can be found in imperfection,” he said. “If they wanted to create a perfectly controlled environment, they wouldn’t show films outdoors in the middle of the city. They like to take chances and see where the evening takes us all.” 

Those outdoor screenings include Rooftop’s Summer Series, which last summer featured Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick and Jessica Williams’ The Incredible Jessica James. Rooftop also supports hundreds of other indoor and outdoor screenings all over New York City, year-round.

“Rooftop contributes so much to the cultural landscape of New York City,” native New Yorker Yance Ford told THR. “One of the things that Rooftop is doing is bringing independent film – things that don’t get into multiplexes – to neighborhoods and schools where people are interested in the content but don’t otherwise have a way to access it. That’s one of the reasons I support Rooftop.”

“[Rooftop] was one of the first festival acceptances that we had and it meant so much. It was that kind of recognition and support that keeps an indie filmmaker going. So, I truly thank Rooftop Films for that acceptance,” Baker said in his speech.

Ford also told THR that being in New York for the gala, donations and proceeds from which go to Rooftop’s filmmakers fund, helped “put all the Oscars stuff into perspective.”

As for how he feels about his historic nomination (and potential win), Ford said, “Regardless of how things turn out on Mar. 4, the fact that I will be at the Oscars as the first openly transgender nominee and, equally important to me, the first African-American openly transgender director, at a time when we are being driven into corners by someone whose job is supposed to be uniting the country. I’ll take that job any day.”