“You just wander through New York City’s streets?”
The question comes about halfway through The World Before Your Feet, a new documentary about Matt Green, a civil engineer turned urban nomad who has vowed to walk every single block of New York City—an intracity journey totaling more than 8,000 miles. It’s posed by an incredulous New Yorker who Green meets on one of his many walks throughout the city, who can’t quite grasp the point of the years-long quest.
But for Green, the lack of an obvious point is … kind of the point. “I had gotten really interested in this idea of seeing what it looked like on the ground on all these places on the map,” he says. “I’ve always been very interested in maps, so even just looking at the subway map, you’d see these stops with certain names and the stations—just like, ‘What does it look like there?’”
Green began his New York City walk on New Year’s Eve in 2011, with the goal of seeing every navigable pathway the city has to offer—not just streets, but also pedestrian-friendly parts of parks, cemeteries, and beaches. A little more than two years into his journey, filmmaker Jeremy Workman began tagging along, shooting what would end up being more than 500 hours of footage of Green walking throughout the five boroughs.
“[Green is] not somebody who’s, like, dying to have a documentary on him,” Workman explains. “So it was very much about trying to not impact [him] so much and stay back a little bit and observe, and let the audience experience his walk without making it, ‘Oh there’s a big documentary that we’re doing on you about the walk.’”
That comes through in the film, which is largely devoted to footage of Green wandering throughout the city. And if that sounds tedious, it’s not: New York is as much a character in the film as Green, and the characters he meets along the way are an essential, often poignant part of his walks. Many of the places Green travels through—remote pockets of Staten Island, residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens’s many cemeteries—are well outside of the city’s typical tourist areas.
“Matt has this thing where no street is more important than another street,” Workman explains. “So for him, it could be a street in Queens somewhere, in College Point, it’s as equally interesting as Times Square. It’s a crazy concept and radical concept. But when you start going by those rhythms, you start seeing the world differently.”
And Green himself proves to be an engaging narrator, sharing facts about random spots and the connections he’s made on his five-borough journey. (See: the number of barbershops that have a “z” in their name.)
“You’re seeing the city in this longitudinal way,” Workman says. “It was always really mind blowing to suddenly be in eastern Queens and Middle Village or parts of Staten Island … just being able to experience them in this first hand immediate way with [Green], who knew so much and knows so much about all these different areas.”
The film also delves into Green’s background—he quit his job as an engineer and gave up his apartment to do this project, and subsists on about $15 a day—and includes interviews with his family and ex-girlfriends, which shed some light on why he would undertake this kind of project. But mostly, it’s about the walk: what Green sees, who he meets, and how such a simple act can create such a strong sense of place.
And even though New York obviously provides an unprecedented amount of material to work with—8,000 miles of it!—Green believes that anyone can follow his example and understand their community, and the people who live there, a little better. “It’s not like, Look at what this guy’s doing,” Green says of the documentary. “It’s like, look at the world that’s out there in front of all of us.”
“We live in this Instagram era and what [Green is] doing is sort of anti that,” Workman says. “It’s sort of almost in stark opposition to that. It’s not about quickly snapping something cool and going to the next thing. It’s about slowing down and processing it.”
The World Before Your Feet opens tonight at Quad Cinema, and will be screening throughout the weekend.