'One Million American Dreams': Film Review

Fine Point Films
Haunting.
2/8/2019

Sam Rockwell narrates Brendan J. Byrne's documentary about Hart Island, the potter's field for New York City.

There are few cemeteries in the world more haunting than the one profiled in Brendan J. Byne's documentary One Million American Dreams. Not because of the beauty of its setting or the historical importance of its occupants, but rather just the opposite. Hart Island has been the potter's field for New York City since 1869, serving as the final resting place for those citizens who didn't have the money to pay for funerals or whose bodies went unclaimed. As the film's title suggests, approximately one million people are buried there; the film delivers a moving elegy for several of them while providing fascinating information about a place of which even most New Yorkers are unaware.

The 101-acre cemetery is located on the East River, less than 16 miles from midtown Manhattan. It is run by the city's Department of Corrections, which means the burials are carried out by inmates of nearby Rikers Island who currently earn 50 cents an hour for their labor.

"Hart Island represents a city that spat out a million people," comments a historian. The film provides the stories of a handful of them, including a Cuban man who moved to the city to send money back home and eventually succumbed to dementia; his family members were unable to travel to America to claim his body. A Bronx woman lacked the funds necessary to bury her baby, whose burial records were subsequently lost. A devoted husband and father suffering from drug and alcohol addiction went missing and later died; his body was offered to a medical school for dissection (a practice mandated for unclaimed bodies by NYC Law) and then buried anonymously on the island. The city later claimed that it had been unable to locate his family, but a journalist seen in the film was able to track them down with one phone call.

The documentary details the history of the cemetery, which became increasingly necessary as the city's population swelled with immigrants. An animated section depicts the transportation and burial practices as conducted in the late 1800s, accompanied by excerpts from a New York Times account as read by Sam Rockwell, who also narrates. (The film doesn't mention that one of the cemetery's inhabitants is former child actor Bobby Driscoll, star of Disney's Song of the South, Treasure Island and Peter Pan, whose then-unidentified body was buried there in 1968 after he was found dead at age 31 in a deserted East Village building.)

Gruesome details are provided. We learn that the cemetery's trenches, which each contain up to 150 plain wooden coffins, are refilled every 25 years after everyone and everything in them has fully decomposed. The 1980s produced a slew of dead "crack babies" whose bodies were interred in tiny boxes. There are no markers, and family members are only given a general location as to where their loved ones are buried.

In the documentary, author/historian Luc Sante vividly describes the cemetery as "part of the great digestive system of the metropolis," while a city official labels it "Dickensian." There has been a movement in recent years to transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island (which is currently off-limits to the general public) to the city's Parks Department. One Million American Dreams makes a valuable contribution to the argument that the city's forgotten people surely deserve better.

Production/distributor: Fine Point Films, Kew Media
Narrator: Sam Rockwell
Director: Brendan J. Byrne
Producers: Brendan J. Byrne, Trevor Birney
Directors of photography: Stephen McCarthy, Ross McDonnell, Mark Garrett, Jake Swantko, Charlotte Kaufman
Editor: Paul Devlin
Composer: Edith Progue

90 Minutes