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Brooklyn’s Reel Works finds and develops cinema’s future stars

April 25, 2022 Evan Rosen, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Helsen Sanabia is just 15 years old, but he already has the knowledge and the credits of your typical college film student. When discussing his craft, you might find him referencing directors like Wong Kar-wai or speaking about his own film, which recently screened at the MOMA. 

How is this possible? Much of it is a testament to Sanabia’s own curiosity and drive, as well as the encouragement of his father, who introduced Sanabia to many influential films. But a large part is due to a Brooklyn-based organization called Reel Works.  

It’s a program that provides free filmmaking, mentoring and workforce readiness programs to over 1,600 youth ages 12-24 across NYC. Each year, Reel Works sponsors a 24-week documentary filmmaking workshop where high school students are paired 1:1 with an industry mentor to plan, shoot and edit a short film on their lives and communities. That’s where Sanabia partnered with mentor Alex Portera, Director and Co-Founder of the Brooklyn-based digital production company Rally On Media. It’s also where he forged his latest project – WANGS

The documentary short film chronicles the origins of the Brooklyn fried chicken restaurant of the same name, owned by former Top Chef contestant and current Park Slope resident, Sara Nguyen. It premiered on April 12th at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of the Reel Works Documentary Lab. I had the privilege of sitting down (virtually) with the up-and-coming filmmaker, to hear about his experience and thought-process behind the piece. 

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“I first found [Wangs] during the summer I was doing the experimental filmmaking lab,” Sanabia explains. “It was close to Reel Works and it was just a really interesting place. It stood out a lot, and also the fact that it was a mix between Korean and Soul food – just everything about it. I thought it was really different, and the food is amazing.”

Mentor Alex Portera (left) and Sanabia, credit Abby Verbosky/Reel Works

The restaurant Wangs seems to be a fitting subject for Sanabia to study. Like himself, it’s a bit of an anomaly. 

Owner Sara Nguyen says, “We’ve been open since 2014 and there’s still a lot of confusion about the concept. It’s Southern-American soul food with Asian flavors. The name Wangs is a play on words – the sound of a southern drawl when saying the word, “wings.” It’s not my name or a persons’ name. It’s not just one type of Asian cuisine either; influenced by Thai, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese flavors but all played on Southern American Soul food dishes.

Thinking about this vast and varied array of influences, brings me back to Sanabia, the filmmaker and his process. “Gaspar Noé uses a lot of techniques in his movies that I’ve never seen done before, and I admire that a lot. Stanley Kubrick also has a history of making movies years ahead of their time, and Alfonso Cuarón’s visuals have always blown me away, to name a few.” 

To name a few, indeed; Sanabia also cites the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, as one of his favorites and believes “the best movies have a unique story and a very creative and out-of-the-box approach to their visuals.”

While his films don’t look quite like Kubrick’s yet (Sanabia does all the filming and editing himself on a less-than-Hollywood budget), he is relishing the moment and the spotlight. “That was the first time I had my work shared like that, and it was just really nice having so many people see it and on such a large screen.” 

Helsen Sanabia at the Reel Works Documentary Lab. Credit Abby Verbosky/Reel Works

He says narrative films are still his preferred method of storytelling. This documentary was Sanabia’s first dabble into the genre. Up next, he has hopes of directing a music video, and in general, just “doing a lot more films.”

As for his fruitful collaboration with mentor Alex Portera, who Sanabia hand-picked to be his mentor, – “it was really nice,” Sanabia says. “I really enjoyed it. [Alex] helped me edit it down and find the points to keep… and organize the story too.”

But at the end of the day for Sanabia, it’s not all about showcasing what he can do. I asked him what he hoped people walk away with, after seeing his film. “I hope that they appreciate restaurants a little more and see how much effort and thought is put into everything,” he answered. “And I hope that they also want to try the wings cause they’re pretty good.”

I, for one, am convinced. Something tells me I’ll be trying the wings at Wangs in the near future, as well as seeing a lot more Helsen Sanabia films. 

Helsen Sanabia at the Reel Works Documentary Lab. Credit Abby Verbosky/Reel Works

Helsen Sanabia is a student at the High School of Art and Design, and lives in Corona, Queens with his mother, his younger sister, and his dog (Ollie) and cat (Puma). 

Chef Sara Nguyen, originally from Los Angeles, moved to Brooklyn in 2003. “The sense of community and the energy of the borough are just a few of the things that made me decide that Brooklyn was the place for me to live and operate a restaurant in.” Her restaurant, Wangs, is located at 671 Union Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

To learn more about Reel Works and their programs, you can visit their website: 

Evan Rosen is a culture writer and reporter living in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached at [email protected]

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