When Neil Barsky, a journalist-turned-hedge fund manager, was ready to return to the creative world a few years ago, he decided to do it with a documentary about a favorite subject from his newspaper days: former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
The result was “Koch,” a newly released documentary that serves as Barsky’s directorial debut at the age of 55. I spoke with Barsky last week about the film and the journey that led him to documenting one of the great characters in U.S. politics.
Barsky, a Bronx native who spent several years as a reporter with the New York Daily News and Wall Street Journal before shifting to the financial world, decided to make another career change two years ago after the hedge fund he was managing liquidated.
“I wanted to get back to journalism in some way, it was in some ways my first passion,” Barsky said. “Journalism is changing so quickly, and becoming so fragmented. I came to the conclusion that the one form of journalism where the impact has arguably been enhanced over the years in documentaries. It can change minds, it can even free people from prison.”
He chose to make the film about Koch, he said, because “I thought he was one of the most compelling political figures our country has produced. It became clear, even when we were shooting, that he was still compelling. It gave us a lot more riches.” The film, the director said, was self-financed.
What did Barsky think of Koch, following the project? “I probably grew to like the contemporary Ed Koch more- he was very easy, and more fun to work with,” Barsky said. “I may have grown to like the Ed Koch of the ’80s a little less. He was brash, he could be a little uncivil. He did amazing things for the city, but did a lot to lower the level of discourse.
“[He was] very much a straight shooter. Very trustworthy, very easy and professional. I guess what I was surprised at was at the age of 86, this guy had such a life. He had such an amazingly full life. He says ‘to my death I always wanted to be relevant,’ and he was.”
Indeed Koch, incredibly, passed away on Feb. 1, the very day this documentary about him was released in New York City. This is believed to be a first in the annals of documentary filmmaking., although Koch was able to see the film prior to his death.
The other major subject of the film is New York City itself. One reason Barsky chose the project, he said, was to “tell the story of New York’s recovery, through Ed Koch.” And while he believes all of the last four mayors deserve some credit for city’s post-’70s revival, it’s Barsky’s opinion that Mayor Rudy Giuliani generally gets too much recognition and Koch not enough.
“Koch” is actually one of three major documentaries in the last year to deal with the New York of the 1980s, and the others- “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Central Park Five”- both featured appearances by Koch himself. Barsky doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that interest in that period has lately come to the forefront, and not only because filmmakers who were in their 20s then are in their 50s now.
“We didn’t know then whether New York was going to live or die,” Barsky said. “It was afflicted with so many plagues- crime, AIDS, crack, theft. [The late 1980s] was the turning point for New York- that’s where the seeds of the recovery were planted- even though, to the naked eye, New York was still a mess.”
The film goes back and forth between archival footage and a handful of contemporary interviews. Barsky said the footage came from a variety of sources, from TV networks to the Library of Congress to photo agencies and newspaper archives. “It’s New York- there’s a vast amount of stuff that was shot back then.”
“Koch” also deals with the long-simmering question of whether Koch, a lifelong bachelor who was cagey about his personal life right up until the end, was gay.
“I don’t know. I think it’s a fair question,” Barsky said. “I think probably he was gay. But I think the film points out that they might not be the relevant question. That he was alone, I think, that was more poignant.”
Barsky, who has no formal training as a filmmaker, was especially thankful to his editor, Juliet Weber, for helping to structure the film. He executive-produced another recent documentary, on baseball knuckleballers, and plans to continue directing feature docs.
“Koch” comes out Friday in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities.