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Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Storeys in the Air
"Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Storeys in the Air" documents Antoine Yates, who kept a 500lb tiger in his NY apartment

The documentaries exposing New York’s weirdest

One guy kept a tiger in his flat, another family never left theirs – these new films lead us to question how well we truly know our neighbours

It’s been said that New York City offers its residents the chance to encounter the entire cross-section of the human experience every day just outside their doorsteps. Filmmakers have long mined this richness of characters by highlighting the strivers (Man on Wire), dreamers (Paris is Burning), off-kilter romantics (Crazy Love) and eccentrics (Thoth) that call the city home. Now, a new wave of documentaries is again turning a spotlight on the unusual figures among the naked’s eight-and-a-half million inhabitants – each giving new meaning to the well-worn phrase “only in New York”.

Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Storeys in the Air, which made its UK debut at the Tate yesterday, highlights the relationship between Antoine Yates and the mini-menagerie of exotic animals he kept illegally hidden – even from his roommates – in his Manhattan apartment. The story is the stuff tabloid newspaper editors dream of: a man quietly keeps a 500lb Bengal tiger, Ming, in one room, and a seven-foot alligator, Al, in another, for five years, until he’s outed when a tiger attack lands him in the hospital. Even after his arrest, the charismatic Yates refused to admit he’d done anything wrong, inciting a media circus and causing the judge to scold him for his “chutzpah”.

In the film, British director Phillip Warnell checks in with Yates a decade after his arrest. As he tours his old neighbourhood from the back seat of a car, Yates reflects on his unusual living arrangement, and his close connection with his pet tiger.

Yates’ observation that “even people themselves are not free, until they’re able to be free” resonates with another new NYC documentary, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack. The film, which took the Grand Jury Prize for US documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of a band of brothers raised cloistered in their family’s Lower East Side apartment. With little exposure to the outside world, and forbidden from even cutting their hair, the six Angulo siblings create a world of their own based on the films that have been their only window to the outside world, using objects from around the house to recreate and reinterpret their favorite scenes from Scorsese and Tarantino.

“There needs to be something unexplained, an inexplicable factor driving a character’s actions, circumstances or beliefs” – Phillip Warnell

A different kind of dark family legacy is at the centre of new HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst, which premiered this month. The six-part miniseries tells the true story of a New York real estate heir twice accused – and acquitted – of murder, first of his wife, who disappeared in 1982, and then of his neighbour, whose dismembered body was found in 2001. Directed by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who told a fictionalised version of Durst’s story in the 2010 drama All Good Things, the series allows Durst to speak for himself in his first major interview alongside recreations and archival footage from his life.   

While it’s chilling to see an accused murderer describe lying about his last minutes with his wife, it’s also impossible to look away. That ambiguity, says Warnell, is exactly what makes for a great character on film: “There needs to be something unexplained, an inexplicable factor driving their actions, circumstances or beliefs – something that merits the narrative demanded by cinema. That ambiguity, mystery and even strangeness makes for a ‘wow factor’ and probably a headline, the exploration of attention towards a story becoming fascinating.”

For Warnell, it’s the city’s verticality and its “wonderful release from nationality” that allows so many characters to both find and lose themselves in New York. And though documentary filmmakers may paint a bizarre picture of the residents of America’s largest city, at least New Yorkers can say they aren’t as strange as one of their southern cousins currently getting the documentary treatment: the oft-maligned Florida Man.