Tendaberry: A Places Album

Writer-director Haley Elizabeth Anderson shares images, audio and video that coalesce to tell the making of her Sundance hit.

Have you ever explored your own Places album? That is, if you have an iPhone, the Places album will show you how many pictures you’ve taken in the countries, cities and streets you’ve lived in or passed through … as you zoom out, it quickly becomes a photographic map of your life so far (or at least since you’ve had that iPhone). It’s a strange thing seeing your life displayed and spread out over geography just like that. Maybe the most striking aspect of zooming in and out of this map in a Places album is recognizing the cycles of life, the full-circle moments within your days: a sad photo paired with a happy one on the exact same corner, two or three years apart. A sunset. A bridge. Corners, rooms, bars, tops of buildings, subway cars, 99 cent stores and laundromats take on different shades of meaning when viewed in the grand scale of a Places album — the spread of a very small life — in a city of eight million or so people. I think the idea of cinema is buried somewhere in it. Come August of this year, I will have lived in New York City for 10 years. I have become buried by the moments within my own Places album.

Tendaberry had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, playing in the NEXT section. The film follows a girl living in South Brooklyn experiencing loss, and trying to make rent and keep friendships. This is what the film is on paper, in reviews, and perhaps on screen. But Tendaberry will always be a collection of things for me — sounds, feelings, people, pictures, songs, streets and most of all, unfinished sentences in a decade-long conversation with the city. A small ode to the Nelson Sullivan archive, a nod to Laura Nyro and all the people who came before. The working class people in ever-changing neighborhoods. Bodega cats, nutcrackers, old signs on storefronts that have been left there just because … The West Indian Day Parade. The heat that rises from the subway grates in late July.

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Yes, Tendaberry is a love letter to New York City — South Brooklyn, specifically. The world of the film spans from around the Parkside Q stop and the Parade Grounds nearby all the way to Brighton Beach, Coney Island, until you reach the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. And then add Fort Tilden, Silver Gull Beach Club and Jacob Riis Park. And Canarsie. A strange, nonsensical map. The process of making Tendaberry could be considered nonsensical as well. Three-and-a-half years for me, two-and-a-half for the team of wonderful collaborators who made it all happen. Life is so easily experienced, but to capture it is an impossible task. Will it be my only love letter to the city? This is my first attempt.

There are endless stories within the story and here is my Tendaberry Places album, in hopes of sharing a few of the lost moments and memories from the creation of this film. Maybe some will resonate and maybe others will seem indulgent and have more meaning within a more private narrative or iPhone reel.

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The film is named after the Laura Nyro song and album New York Tendaberry. From the beginning, I would describe the film’s soundtrack simply as “Hot 97.” The first playlist I made for the film had Rihanna’s “James Joint” and Drake’s “One Dance” and ended with Mac DeMarco’s “My House by the Water.” Once we started filming, the playlist, created by my cinematographer Matt Ballard and I, was mostly CKTRL and Carlos Niño. But in between the chapters, another soundtrack emerged, made up of voice notes from Kota Johan (who plays the main character, Dakota) of coyotes howling upstate, her demos and songs from her friends.

  1. coyotes howling upstate
  2. Raysallas – WORK

There were several threads of the film that were lost to the process and here are three.

Tendaberry was originally a film that followed several characters in South Brooklyn — there was a child named Theo, who was inspired by a 10- year-old Georgian kid and his adult uncle who were walking past my apartment. “Do you think anyone would want to date me?” a small voice asked. I chased them down and asked for their contact and reconnected with them in 2021. The kid’s name was Nickolas and by the time we filmed him, he had outgrown the role I had written for him. The parts in the film that remain from this storyline are the darker ones — the contemplation on death, coyotes, time and a place in the middle of it all.

Another storyline that was lost was that of an elderly couple living in Brighton Beach who were separated due to a silly argument. By the end of the story, they reunited. After this storyline had to be reduced, Dakota’s neighbor held these stories. But then, the neighbor character had to be cut too. Our casting director Kate Antognini scoured Brighton Beach and met so many beautiful elderly people. During the callbacks, I filmed a story of first love, told to me by Lubia Brown, that I always considered dear. I always remember the moments when the city’s people were so open and generous in sharing a piece of their lives with us.

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Another lost thread was a sequence in the fall chapter that followed a kid from Canarsie and his friends, as they traversed Brooklyn on Halloween night in search of candy. We shot this sequence in October 2021, but quickly had to cut it after we had to downsize the film’s scope. In 2018, I made a short documentary about a homeless family living in the New York housing system. The process of making that film was also one that held many stories. We worked with organizations called ASET and SIMBA, which are located in downtown Brooklyn and help find young people who were experiencing homelessness. I returned to the organization so I could feature in the movie some of the same kids we met. While the final cast was made up of kids outside the organization too, this was one of the most special collaborations on Tendaberry that will go unseen. David Golson, our lead, became a stand-in for a couple of kids we met in the program. He can be seen in the film as the teenager selling Honey Buns in the subway during the spring and summer chapters. David was striking and a natural performer and I’m always sad this magical night was lost.

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I met Kota Johan in 2018 on the Q train. She flew through the train singing “I’m Alone in This World,” dressed in purple, swinging blonde dreads. When I saw her again in 2019, the dreads were gone and her hair was buzzed. We met up again in Coney Island to take pictures. I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew that I’d met someone special, someone who has become my bonus little sister. That day, she was very preoccupied by people who she called time-travelers. I don’t think she realized that she is probably one herself.

Here is my first video of Kota: on the Coney Island platform, in rhythm with the city. I asked her to learn an Angel Olsen song and always regret talking in the middle of her performance to give her a stupid direction. Kota was always the heart of film — she’s magnetic.

The rest is fragmented, funny details, and memories that exist beneath the images and moments of Tendaberry. I think I read somewhere that Tendaberry is romantic or something, but I hope that it is just a snapshot of being. These things are or they were, and that’s it.

I remember texting Kota this picture of Beyoncé’s face on a hair cap package found in a 99 cent store.

The walls of my old apartment. They feel like the walls in my friend Anthony’s apartment, where we filmed.

A picture of a friend crossing Nostrand Avenue on a balmy summer’s day.

Car lights hanging on Coney Island Avenue.

My first pictures on the subway.

Fishermen pulling up a net at Canarsie Pier.

My first pictures of Coney Island.

The wet sand on a winter day.

The trash left behind by the waves.

Matt Ballard’s changing hair color.

A girl selling cotton candy.

The film cans we started with.

And me, at the beginning of all this, falling outside of JFK, waiting for something to take off.

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As Joan Didion said, goodbye to all of that. Here’s to the next 10 years.

Haley Elizabeth Anderson is a filmmaker and visual artist born in Houston, Texas. Her debut feature, Tendaberry, had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, playing in the NEXT section and had its hometown premiere at the First Look film festival at the Museum of the Moving Image. Her short Pillars premiered at Sundance and won Best Short Film at AFI Fest in 2020. Named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2019, Anderson is currently developing her second feature, Coyote Boys, with support from SFFILM, Gotham, Tribeca, Sundance, Ucross Foundation, and Film Independent.