Berlin Hidden Gems: Howard Brookner Doc Is a Hidden Life Unearthed

Uncle Howard Still H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Uncle Howard Still H 2016

Director Aaron Brookner set out to make a doc about his filmmaker uncle and, thanks to William S. Burroughs, discovered a man he never knew.

Amid a recent surge in documentaries that emerge from the discovery of once-thought-lost film footage, few can claim to have a history as eye-catching as Aaron Brookner’s touching Uncle Howard, made possible thanks to an archive stash buried in William S. Burroughs’ near-mythical New York residence, located in a converted YMCA swimming-pool locker room and affectionately dubbed "The Bunker."

It was in this near-windowless Lower East Side apartment — featuring two large marble urinals in the bathroom, spices on the spice rack dated 1978 and Burroughs’ own handgun in the dresser draw — where Aaron found five years’ worth of footage stored by his uncle, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner.

Howard died of AIDS at age 34 in 1989, shortly before the release of what would have been his breakout feature Bloodhounds of Broadway (featuring the fresh faces of Madonna and Matt Dillon). Worried that the memory of the man who inspired him to get into filmmaking was being lost and that he might "die a second death," Aaron set out to discover more about his uncle.

His first route was a "wild goose chase" for anything connected to Howard’s 1983 film Burroughs: The Movie, the only doc to be made with the full participation of the legendary writer. This eventually led to “stacks and stacks and stacks of [film] rolls” he uncovered in The Bunker that revealed more about Howard than they did about Burroughs.

"It was like Howard and his story had been frozen in '89 and suddenly it was reawakened just by the act of looking for this Burroughs film," says Aaron.

From these stories, a life unraveled that Aaron had no idea his uncle had ever lived. "As a film student, Howard worked as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera House, while at the same time he was scoring dope on the Lower East Side, while at the same time he was working for a big Italian land-owning family in Little Italy renting out apartments," he said.

It was through this work that Howard landed indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch his first apartment, on Elizabeth Street. "Meanwhile, he was helping out a friend who was writing porno books and, actually, he and Burroughs co-authored a porno book," relates Aaron, who says his uncle’s adventures extended outside the U.S. "I go into a bookstore and start reading the memoir of Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, and there’s a chapter called 'Howard Brookner' about Howard in Paris with the Burroughs film. There were all these incredible different sides to the guy."

The very first discovery Aaron made before developing the doc was a letter to Howard’s parents, written when he was ill and exclaiming that he had done more with his life than most people who lived to be in their 80s. Says Aaron, "When I started to find out what he did, I realized it was absolutely true."