Living history — Museum founder who recorded Sandy as it happened to premier proof at Coney film fest

Living history — Museum founder who recorded Sandy as it happened to premier proof at Coney film fest
Photo by Charles Denson

Hurricane Sandy soaked Coney Island — now a new film on the superstorm is making a splash at the neighborhood’s film fest.

“The Storm” is a 20-minute flashback to last year’s catastrophe that documents the devastation Sandy wreaked on the People’s Playground and Seagate, and its premiere will cap-off the 13th Annual Coney Island Film Festival on Sept. 22. The picture is a video diary of Coney Island History Project founder Charles Denson, and begins with a striking piece of the neighborhood’s past — footage of Hurricane Donna washing over Coney in 1960, as captured by Denson’s mother.

“It’s been almost a tradition in my family to record storms,” said Denson, who grew up in the nearby Coney Island Houses.

Narration from the neighborhood historian guides the viewer through the scenes before the storm: the tide rising in Coney Island Creek, workers piling sandbags, Wonder Wheel owner Steven Vourderis securing his iconic attraction with steel cables, and residents preparing to leave.

Denson was one of the hold-outs, staying the night in his Seagate home and looking after his neighbors’ cats. When the storm surge struck, he took out his camera and switched on night mode.

“I thought, ‘nobody’s filming this. I’ve got to record this,’” Denson recalled.

From the window of his second story building, Denson captured the waves rising more than 25 feet, charging and retreating up and down Atlantic Avenue, smashing houses, dragging cars, and crushing metal. The filmmaker, who already had made two previous documentaries, said that filming the disaster was horrifying but hypnotic.

“I didn’t think to go inside. I just kept shooting,” said Denson.

The next morning, as the waters calmed, Denson went outside to survey the damage. He found his storefront museum under the Wonder Wheel, with its countless Coney artifacts and curios, waterlogged almost beyond recognition. But it soon occurred to him that he now had a new, vital piece of history in his possession.

“I realized, it’s very different when you actually experience something and put your life on the line to record something,” Denson said. “I happened to be in the right or the wrong place at the right or the wrong time, but I got some dramatic stuff.”

But the documentary also looks to the future, at how Coney is bracing for a future superstorm — or how it is failing to prepare at all.

“Ultimately, it asks, ‘is anybody really paying attention? Is anyone really listening? Is anything really going to be done about it?’” Denson asked.

“The Storm,” at the Coney Island Film Festival, at Sideshows by the Seashore. [3006 W. 12th St., at the corner of Surf Avenue, in Coney Island] Sept. 22, 6 pm. $7. For tickets, go to shop.coneyisland.com.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him attwitter.com/WillBredderman.