Angel, Francois, Nelson and Jason appear in the documentary film "Tree Man." Photo credit: Ellen Dubin Photography
For many New Yorkers, it isn’t Christmastime until the tree goes up at 30 Rock and the tree salesmen set up shop on the street.
A new documentary film explores the world of tree sellers in the city. The movie, “Tree Man,” follows François, a Christmas tree seller from Montreal who spends five weeks each year selling trees on the Upper West Side.
“What Christmas really means is the arrival of François and hundreds like him, and how they transform these barren sidewalks into Santa’s village,” said Jon Reiner, an Upper West Side resident and one of the film’s directors. “For the five weeks that they’re here they transform the city, and for people like me they’re the Christmas spirit in a secular way.”
The film, which screened at DOC NYC in November and will show at JCC Manhattan at Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street on Dec. 8, travels with François from his family’s country home in Quebec in late November, as he makes his way to Manhattan in his 20-year-old white van named Elvis, which becomes his temporary residence when he parks on 102nd Street and Broadway. (He prefers only to be identified by his first name.)
Reiner, a writer and first time director who, though Jewish, celebrates Christmas with his wife and children, was François’ longtime customer and brought him food, and gifts for his children, as other residents have done. While working on a film adaptation of his memoir with fellow resident and filmmaker Brad Rothschild, whose children attended P.S. 166 with Reiner’s kids, the two discussed the annual arrival of the tree sellers in the city, prompting a new project.
“I’ve never had a Christmas tree in my life. For me this is all new,” said Rothschild, who’s also Jewish and directed the film with Reiner. “I’ve seen these guys on the street forever…it never really occurred to me that there’s a whole universe of Christmas tree sellers in New York City.”
Outfitted throughout the film in a red jacket and tool belt, with a graying beard, eyeglasses and an earring in his left ear, François had been approached by other filmmakers previously, he said, but turned them down because their angles, mostly about the economics of the business, didn’t interest him. But Reiner and Rothschild were more curious about him and the other tree sellers who take up temporary residence in New York each year, and their relationships with the community.
“I realized that this was a whole ecology, this was a whole world that was being put together for a month,” said François, who returned to his spot on 102nd Street and Broadway shortly before Thanksgiving.
On a recent Sunday, François sipped a cup of coffee in the office at his stand, constructed from two-by-fours and plastic tarps and surrounded by the fragrant trees. Shears, scissors, and canvas gloves pepper the wooden shelves. Behind the stand, Elvis sits, parked.
“I feel at home here. It’s my place,” said François, who, at the end of December, will have spent about a year of his life living on this small section of Broadway. “It’s easy-going. I know my clientele by heart. I’ve seen these kids from the stroller up to carrying trees. It’s pretty cool.”
Now in his tenth season at the location, François employs a local crew, including Jason Dominguez, his delivery manager, who started working with him at age 12.
“I asked him twice and he said no, and then I just hung around because I live right around the street,” said Dominguez, now 22, who appears throughout the film. He’s been with François ever since.
“It’s one of the most genuine business relationships I’ve had with anybody,” said Dominguez.
Dominguez’s friend Nelson also works with François, as does his mother’s friend Angel, the night manager who, in the film, tends to the trees while François sleeps. Jason’s girlfriend, who François calls a “sun ray,” has since joined the operation.
“Tree Man” is truly a neighborhood production. Most of the crew lives on the Upper West Side, and met on the P.S. 166 playground where their children attended school.
The soundtrack includes music by Loudon Wainwright III, Laurie Berkner and Erik Della Penna, among others, neighborhood residents who wanted to contribute to the film.
“I didn’t even ask them,” said Reiner. “They volunteered.”
Shot on a modest budget in 2013—the overall cost of the film was around $100,000—the crew filmed François with his wife and three young children at their home as he prepared for his annual trip to Manhattan (François now has a fourth child). In the documentary, the children sob as they say goodbye to their father, who’s never home to decorate the family tree, one of the greatest heartbreaks of the job, he said. François returned home on Christmas with Reiner and Rothschild, a trip that gave the Upper West Siders a view into what François’ life is like the other 11 months of the year.
“Only when we arrived there and saw his home and family did I realize, wait a minute, here’s a guy I know as my Christmas tree salesman,” said Reiner. “Here I am at his home, with his family and this is crazy. How many people meet their Christmas tree salesman and go to Canada with them?”
The film also opened up aspects of François’ world in Manhattan that remained a mystery to his family. When the film screened in Montreal earlier this year, François’ children saw the challenges of his life at 102nd Street and Broadway, like the tearful moments when François’ misses home, and their father’s mentorship of Jason and Nelson, whom they’d never met but whose names were familiar, and who François hopes will take over for him when he decides his tree salesman days are done.
“I don’t come to New York to sell trees,” said François. “I come to Broadway to sell trees.”