Watch ’12 Years a Slave’ Breakout Lupita Nyong’o In Her Film Debut ‘East River’

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2013

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

We can add this week’s Short Starts selection to last week’s list of Movies to Watch After You’ve Seen 12 Years a Slave. There, I included mention of In My Genes, a documentary about albinos in Africa directed by Lupita Nyong’o, the breakout star of the new Steve James film. Now I’d like to share her only prior film acting gig, an award-winning silent short called East River. It was made by Israel-based writer-director Marc Grey and follows the inter-borough travels of a man (Tommaso Spinelli) who has just arrived in New York City. Nyong’o plays a Brooklyn photographer he encounters and may or may not have a real relationship with.

The confusion is more mystifying than frustrating. The simple synopsis that comes with the short offers little help: “An interloper wanders uncommon spaces and fashions deceiving relationships amidst the industrial ruins of Brooklyn.” The plot is not as important as the semi city symphony that arises out of the man’s wandering. In Manhattan he visits Central Park, Times Square, Chinatown, a downtown club. Over the title waterway he bikes over each of the three bridges to get into Brooklyn on different days, and once there he can mostly be spotted in Williamsburg, Gowanus and Red Hook, which is where he spots Nyong’o’s character for the first time.

As an ex-New Yorker, East River left me a bit homesick, especially thanks to the way that it’s true to the spaces it depicts and navigates through. When the man rides over the Williamsburg Bridge and down to the Red Hook Bait & Tackle, I could clearly identify the course he was taking through Brooklyn. I don’t know why a film like this wouldn’t be shot in such an authentic way, but it helped my enjoyment anyway.

As for Nyong’o, she’s not in it enough to comment too much on her performance and how it might relate to her brilliance in 12 Years a Slave, but she sure is stunning here. East River won a prize at the Strasbourg International Film Festival for its cinematography and I’d like to think she deserves some credit for providing the film with some of its most beautiful visuals. She radiates on the screen.

Watch her in the 17-minute film below.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.