The Little Giant Restaurant, tucked away in its niche off Mount Pleasant Street here, is the type of place filmmaker Andrea Hull used to love.
Emphasis on "used to."
It is a charming, dowdy place, steeped in ethnicity and grill grease. A nice place to go for a cup of coffee. A nice place period.
But on this morning, Andrea Hull does not think it's nice. She's here with fellow Washingtonian Doreen Moses to talk up their film "One on Every Corner," an illuminating look at Greek American-owned coffee shops in New York that opens tonight at the Biograph, and everything is off. It's hotter inside than out (a thermometer outside reads 92 degrees), and Hull's hair is wilting. A group of pubescent boys seated in the booth behind her are amusing themselves by sneezing violently.
"God," says Hull, leaning forward with conviction, "I've had it with these places."
After her story is told, Hull's aversion to Greek cafe's is understandable. Visually, "One on Every Corner" is exhausting. Shot on a $90,000 budget, it is a quick-cut, frenetic take on an often-ignored segment of society -- the small restaurant establishment -- that also delves into other areas of life.
"Like tradition and family and heritage," says Moses, the chipper half of the duo.
"Like bad food," answers Hull, the realist.
The idea evolved in 1981, shooting ended in 1983, and small releases began occurring around 1985. But even though the two are, after six years, absolutely steeped in the cafe' life style, talking about the experience of making the film ignites enthusiasm. Even if it is around 100 degrees in this place.
Hull: "Well, making this film was a harrowing experience, I tell you. We had to work around people's shifts, and of course the cafe' owners always wanted to show their places crowded, so sometimes we'd have to wait until the place filled up."
Moses: "Plus, we were sleeping on couches and floors when we were in New York. These people start working -- the cafe' owners -- at 3 or 4 in the morning! They'd be buying eggs on the outskirts of town, so we'd go there to shoot ..."
Hull: "And of course, not all the cafe' owners would cooperate. One day, for instance, we lugged our crew in this cafe' -- and the crew cost $1,000 a day -- and the owner said, 'Sorry, you can't film today' ... It was exasperating sometimes."
Moses: "Yes, it was."
Hull: "It really was."
As difficult as the filming was, the final product became, as they say, worth the effort. The film represented the United States at the International Documentary Film Festival in Bilbao, Spain, and won a CINE Golden Eagle award. The highest praise so far, however, came from the audience when the film was screened recently at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"They went crazy," says Hull. "We knew the film contained a comic element, but until that screening we didn't know how much. People were laughing and clapping and having a grand time. They'd clap when their favorite cafe' came on, you know? It was a real" -- she searches for the right word -- "rewarding experience to see that our work had touched people."
Hull and Moses explain that they originally believed "One on Every Corner" would have limited audience appeal because of its subject matter. Not so.
"Everyone can relate to this film," says Moses, "because everyone has a favorite cafe'. That we have found. Everyone -- even people in obscure places -- has a personal favorite. And most of those places are owned by Greeks."
The collaboration between Moses and Hull began -- literally -- over the fence. They were neighbors in Adams-Morgan, then friends, and when Moses proposed the idea about filming "these funky cafe's," Hull pounced on it. "It sounded like something I could really sink my teeth into," says Hull, who came to filmmaking "very late. I was 27 or so, and had spent a lot of time working on Capitol Hill. And mowing lawns."
Moses also came to filmmaking in an oblique way -- through her love of community. Her first big project -- "A Village in Baltimore," about the odyssey of four Greek women -- sprang from care and observation. "One on Every Corner" came about in the same way. Moses' family was involved in the restaurant business when she was younger, and although that connection was eventually lost, "the empathy survived."
"I can relate to these people who work 24-hour days for their families and for their heritage," she says. "I think most people can."
The funding for the film came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. With the money and their proposal in hand, the two women were off to New York. Soon after arriving, they would meet Ralph. He would change their lives and their film.
"Oh, Ralph," says Hull, eyes almost growing moist with affection. "Now he is what made the film."
Ralph, loud, boisterous and possessing one of those "great, great accents of New York," is the narrator for "One on Every Corner," the thread holding the ethnic tapestry together. Hull and Moses met him while hauling their bulky equipment from one locale to another. He was their cabdriver and inspiration.
"He asked what we were doing, and we told him we were making this film about cafe's," says Hull, "and he says to us, 'Wadda ya wanna do that for? There's one on every corner.' Ralph moves the film along. We decided almost immediately that we wanted to use him. He's a fascinating portrait who knew everything about the cafe's. And the great thing is, Ralph knows everything. He could talk all day about hookers or horse races, not just the restaurants."
Moses and Hull have now moved on to other projects. Hull's "Yin Yang," a black-and-white film about tai chi, will show this fall at the Hirshhorn; Moses is looking for financing for a film that will explore the development of urban markets. But the experience of making "One on Every Corner" will, as they say, always stay with them. That and the biggest lesson of all they picked up along the way: how to identify an authentic Greek cafe'.
Hull: "You can tell by the smell."
Moses: "By murals outside."
Hull: "And cups ... blue and white cups."
Moses: "And rice pudding on the menu ... and Greek salad."
Hull: "And lots of Greek accents."