A family –- and a city — journey from crime and corruption
to reinvent themselves in the twenty-first century.
Today, Jersey City, New Jersey – sitting on the west bank of the Hudson River, directly across from lower Manhattan – is home to thousands from New York City’s urban workforce. Its nineteenth and early twentieth century brownstones are being sandblasted and renovated as a new generation reclaims one of the older urban spaces in the Northeast.
Five-Finger Discount is Helene Stapinski’s story of growing up in the Jersey City of the 1970s, the fourth generation of afamily of swindlers, bookies, embezzlers, murderers and mobster wannabes. She weaves the saga of her family, during Jersey City’s notorious era of political corruption under the rule of Mayor Frank “I Am the Law” Hague, who ruled from 1917 to 1947. It’s easy to understand how the climate created at the top of the city grid trickled down to everyday family life at the bottom. Everyone danced to the same music.
But even in the Jersey City of old, the Stapinskis were an extraordinary example of the gritty city’s 100-year history. Helene’s family tree includes, among others, Great Great Grandma Vita, a murderer who escaped from Italy to America; Grandpa Beansie, a lifelong criminal who tried to murder Stapinski and her family when she was five; Great Aunt Katie, the political “fixer” who delivered the Democratic vote by hook or by crook; and Cousin Mike, who went from mayoral candidate to mob consigliere.
Five-Finger Discount will tell this story in a new way, embellished with a rich visual history and images and news footage that chronicle the political history of Jersey City. It’s a place that makes On The Waterfront look like Mary Poppins. As we follow Helene’s growing awareness of what varied – and usually illegal – enterprises supported her various family members, we may find that Jersey City was not unique.
Today Helene is a New York Times published journalist and successful author, living in brownstone Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her story and her ability to make peace with her past – and of growing beyond it without losing it – may be a metaphor for Jersey City’s own journey towards civic re-invention, with a reform mayor and an activist community seeking to become an urban center for a modern generation.
Five-Finger Discount documentary will be structured around Stapinski’s first-person narration, coupled with vérité footage, still photographs, home movies, news stories and images and contemporary interviews. It will be an engrossing, insightful and original film, perhaps one of the first documentaries to tell a story of ethnic politics and political corruption from a woman’s point of view. The film will follow Stapinski as she navigates a life still marked by a childhood of ingrained criminality and tough love, but one where the importance of family survives to this day. It will also chart the history of political change in Jersey City, and by extension an important part of America’s immigrant history and perhaps, a view of the urban renewal future so many cities are striving for.
Five-Finger Discount: The Documentary
Click here to watch an 8 minute sample of the film in progress…