Image courtesy of Benjamin Asciutto
The documentary “Next Stop” opens with a bird’s-eye view of New York City. As traffic and skyscrapers crawl across the screen, the voice of Ben Asciutto muses about a town near the city, yet worlds away.
“Although I was born in Manhattan, I’ve lived my whole life in a town that is only three miles away from the greatest city in the world,” Asciutto said in the voiceover. “If you take a car across the George Washington Bridge [and] drive past the miniature city that is Fort Lee, you arrive at a town that acts like there isn’t 8.5 million people living seven minutes away.”
Ben Asciutto, a junior film and business major, grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, an idyllic suburb of 9,000 people – starkly different from the bustling megapolis shown earlier in the film. When the pandemic hit, he witnessed firsthand the obstacles his town faced. Asciutto spent months researching and interviewing residents to capture America’s changing suburban landscape on film. His final product was “Next Stop,” a 13-minute documentary in which he poses an existential question for towns like Leonia.
“As we find ourselves moving out of this pandemic, my question is centered around this — how will towns like mine be affected by a changing New York City commuter culture?” Asciutto questions in a voiceover.
The Barrymore Film Center, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, selected “Next Stop” for the 2022 Barrymore Short Film Festival. Though the documentary came short of winning, Asciutto said he was glad to be a part of the festival.
“[I was] so happy to be a part of this film festival. It was the first official film festival I have ever been in, not just in a student category,” Asciutto said. “It was screened with 40 other short films and I was so grateful to have my first film in a town that neighbors Leonia, and also has been facing the same issues as other New Jersey towns.”
The documentary, whose tagline is “From Commuting to Community: The Pandemic in My Hometown,” features interviews with Leonia residents discussing the shift from working in-person to remotely and its implications for towns built on a commuter model. Asciutto said he wanted to portray Leonia as a microcosm of pandemic-era American suburbs.
“What makes these issues so relevant is that there are these massive cities where we think about the large effects the pandemic is having on them, but at the same time, the population that makes up those cities is partially from those small towns surrounding them,” Asciutto said. “Leonia is one of these communities where the changes to remote work and commuting have impacted suburbs negatively and positively.”
Before the pandemic, many Leonia residents spent extensive time and money in New York, whereas the pandemic halting the daily flux of workers across the Hudson River drummed up business in the town. Pat Fusco, a Leonia town councilman featured in the documentary, said the pandemic brought a change to the local economy.
“Instead of losing the number of people who are regularly commuting into New York five days a week, we keep them here,” Fusco said in the documentary. “That creates a much more dynamic economic situation, because they’re going to need services.”
Asciutto said he conceived “Next Stop” as a project for the Creative Arts Fellowship, in which he participated. The fellowship included a $4,000 grant from the University Honors College.
“I really enjoyed this fellowship because it gave me the chance to forge my own artistic path in a career I hope to pursue,” Asciutto said. “The project topic started at a much larger scope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York City, which evolved into a personal story about the impacts of the pandemic on my suburb.”
Brett Say, the director of honors research and program director of the Creative Arts Fellowship, said he enjoyed seeing Asciutto’s progress firsthand.
“It was wonderful to watch Ben develop his idea over the course of the fellowship. What began as an idea to explore the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York City turned into a moving and insightful story about people,” Say said. “My favorite part of working in the [Honors College] is being able to support student work, across disciplines, and seeing all the amazing work Pitt students are capable of.”
Say said “Next Stop” joins the ranks of numerous other projects associated with the fellowship, available for viewing around Hillman Library.
“There are other student Creative Arts Fellowship exhibits in Hillman,” Say said. “One is on display on the ground floor by the Cup and Chaucer, another on the fourth floor, and two via the interactive wall on the third floor of Hillman.”
The documentary took Asciutto a year to create. He interviewed a total of 13 people throughout its production, compiling over a dozen hours of uncut footage to edit. Asciutto said the process was rigorous, but ultimately worthwhile to see his creation on screen.
“It was a real nice relief to see the end product finally emerge. I loved every part of this process, but I have to admit it was difficult at certain times,” Asciutto said. “Not knowing the narrative direction or having footage that doesn’t belong with my goals was difficult, but I found a way through and ended with a story I am really proud of.”
The most fulfilling part, Asciutto said, was finally getting the opportunity to share his work with the people of Leonia.
“I had two separate virtual screenings, because of COVID-19 and safety measures. In total, there were about 150 attendees that came, which was unbelievable to me,” Asciutto said. “I didn’t expect to see this much support and interest, but then again the people of Leonia are always willing to help each other because we are a tight-knit community.”
While many other selected shorts featured in the festival were fictional narratives, Asciutto said a documentary style best suited the story he wanted to convey.
“I have always had this underlying desire to document the world around me. Starting in high school, I learned photography with a real film camera and learned the importance of a single image in telling a story,” Asciutto said. “With an unprecedented event like a pandemic, I was immediately drawn to start documenting the changes, which inevitably brought me to the place I have lived my whole life – Leonia.”
Asciutto said he hopes to continue his creative work in the future, through documentaries or otherwise.
“I’d love to be a producer and help those stories shine and be seen,” Asciutto said. “I am certainly open to making documentaries in the future, but more importantly I want to tell stories.”