Usama Alshaibi is studying for his MFA in the “mellow college town” of Boulder, Colorado, along with the likes of filmmakers Phil Solomon and Alex Cox, but the director of “Nice Bombs” and “Muhammad and Jane” is still in the midst of promoting his fine, fierce long-in-the-making family history “American Arab.” “Oh man,” he says when asked about any lessons from its ongoing release. “Identity is fluid and Arabs are still having a tough time in America. But, I also learned that I am comfortable in my own skin. I don’t need to apologize or answer to anyone.” While Alshaibi’s experimental shorts and features can readily be described as transgressive, his current work, co-produced with Kartemquin, earns that label in its own right. “Every time the United States bombs Iraq, it triggers these impulses in me. Of course these triggers have always been there, and much of my early work came from that primal place. There has to be some desire, some rage, some passion that makes me want to pick up the camera and start creating something. I never saw there being a line between my more experimental, transgressive work and the documentaries. A real Muslim Imam in Iowa and his story, in contrast to a fictional Muslim sex worker in Chicago—both of these narratives are interesting to me. In one, I may take a more straightforward approach and, on the other side, I can let go and dive into a psychedelic realm. I can explore moods and tones, something more poetic. I’m comfortable with being called a transgressive filmmaker. It’s who I am. I’ll wear that badge with honor.” Alshaibi’s current projects include “Baghdad, Iowa,” “my nightmare-love project. A fictional home. A place that cannot be found but is. It’s based in real events but dipped in LSD and death.” And Usama and his filmmaker wife Kristie are working on a doc called “American Dominatrix.” Still, despite the identity issues his work is steeped in, Chicago is key. “I would not be who I am today without Chicago. I’ve made life-long friendships in Chicago. From my days at Columbia College to the Chicago History Museum and Chicago Public Radio and my cinema family at Kartemquin Films. And of course the community around the Chicago Underground Film Festival. We all have our tough days in Chitown, but it is the city where I met my wife and really figured out how to live and make it. Chicago lives in my blood.” Website. Vimeo. Twitter.
Filmmaker Melika Bass is very much a Chicago filmmaker, and one with an increasing international profile. Her day job is teaching film, and she says “there are many young, burgeoning filmmakers right in front of me, to get excited about while I’m at work.” She’s working on two films, “At once!” she says, laughing, “and shooting on film for both.” The first is a “sprawling,” episodic film called “Summerstock,” which incorporates installations, short films and a long film. For the project, she’s incorporating what opportunities may come, making it “an additive thing that builds as I get funding to make a film, or an invitation to do a gallery show. Each part expands the universe of characters and places and situations.” The first two episodes have been shown at the MCA in their November 2013 “Outside the Screen” as well as the show “The Presence of Absence” at the Hairpin Arts Center. Then three new shows premiere in a solo show at the Hyde Park Art Center, in a multi-channel video-sound narrative, which will become a linear feature film that should land at festivals in 2016. But is that all for the recipient of a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship for Media Arts? (“Thank you, taxpayers.”) Nope. “My first international co-production is in the works, a musical fable set in Croatia, shooting in summer of 2015.” But Bass is still about Chicago. “Chicago is a great place to make films, with a plethora of talent, performers and crew alike. Relative ease of access for shooting in the city as an independent-experimental filmmaker. Evocative landscapes (urban, rural, suburban). Affordable housing. Vibrant and varied film communities—narrative, doc, animation, experimental, scholarly. People actually go out to screenings, work on each others’ films, give each other feedback. It’s productive and nurturing in that way, but it’s also Chicago, so if you want to hole up and just work in isolation all winter, you can do that too.” Website. Vimeo. Films. “Varðeldur,” for sigur rós.
Kevin B. Lee
Kevin B. Lee’s stature as one of the country’s leading practitioners of the “video essay” form took a leap this year when the media, including the New York Times, took notice of “Transformers: The Premake,” constructing a version of the then-unreleased Michael Bay epic drawn from fan footage taken on locations around the world. “It was interesting to see different audiences making sense of just what it was,” Lee says. “I call it a ‘desktop documentary’ since neologisms are something they teach you at art school, but it’s been labeled as a found footage remix, a video essay, experimental computer art, viral video. Forbes called it a ‘fan trailer’ and thought it was just promotional material for the movie. I think putting it up on YouTube instead of submitting it to film festivals also disrupted the normal ways to label or assign value to it. But I think it was worth tweaking those conventions because that’s really what I see as endemic to twenty-first-century film and media culture. When a whole generation is watching movies on their laptops or mobile devices, or creating their own versions of those movies, the conventional notions of film are increasingly unstable. And when Shia Labeouf calls it ‘the best video essay I have ever seen,’ I can’t complain.” Lee is also studying for an MFA in Film Video New Media and Animation at SAIC, as well as an MA in Visual and Critical Studies. “Combining the two sides, artistic creation and scholarly research, perfectly suit my background as a filmmaker-critic, and is very unique to what SAIC offers as an educational institution.” Of his chosen art form, Lee says, “it seems that essay filmmaking is fully coming into its moment. I think its prevalence has something to do with how people are becoming more accustomed to speaking through images and video. If Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are the new ways of writing postcards and letters, then it follows that prose essays have their twenty-first-century visual equivalent as well.” And why Chicago? “Chicago is my favorite film city because it’s big enough to have a variety of interesting things going on: Hollywood productions and indie collectives, festivals and microcinemas, university programs and art galleries, and legions of avid cinephiles and critics. And yet all of it feels within reach, in ways that are not true for New York or Los Angeles. Like Rich Moskal of the Chicago Film Office lending me an hour of his time and all the info I requested in researching the ‘Transformers’ filming; his New York City equivalent probably wouldn’t have given me the time of day. SAIC is a bit of a microcosm of that fulsome diversity, because it entertains so many types of creativity; the interactions I have there on a daily basis have taught me to appreciate the potential for discovery in every encounter. Because of that, I’ve come to see both my school and my city as equal parts learning lab, civic plaza and playground.” Website. Vimeo. Twitter.
Longtime Chicago music scene stalwart Joshua Abrams literally got a call out of the blue to become a composer for film. “The first full-length score I worked on was for Steve James’ ‘The Interrupters,’” the noted improviser says. “I received a call from editor Aaron Wickenden out of the blue, they had heard some of my music and wanted to meet up. I met with Steve the day before Thanksgiving and watched the rough cut that weekend. December was a blur but we managed to finish in time to premiere at Sundance in January.” But Abrams had listened closely to movie music before then. “As a musician I’ve always taken note of how music functions within whatever films I see. Film allows for an open quality in music that I’ve often appreciated even when making music that is not for film. The music has to leave room to be completed by the image.” Abrams completed two diverse scores in the past year, a sometimes jaunty, sometimes melancholy score that’s integral to the pace and elusive structure of James’ “Life Itself,” and a dense, intricate, lovingly detailed one for Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” “I think the most important skill for a film composer, aside from the composing itself, is communication, particularly with the director,” Abrams says. “I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing directors who have been open to new musical ideas while maintaining a clear vision of what they wanted for their respective films. Each has their style and approach for direction in terms of the music. The collaboration is the exciting part, it pushes me into new musical areas and it gives insight into how the music I make is understood within a broader context.” Abrams just finished work on a short by James about the minimum wage, and he’s on tour this fall with his group, Natural Information Society, as well as other musical collaborations. As with the music scene, Abrams embraces “the quality of the work and the communal spirit” of Chicago-based filmmaking. Bio.
How’s this for a Hollywood story: graduate from DePaul, start acting in Chicago and join Shattered Globe Theatre ensemble. Hit rock bottom with a heroin problem and start living in a car by the Lincoln Park Zoo. Somehow pull out of it, get cast as the Joker’s deranged sidekick in “The Dark Knight” filming in Chicago and suddenly find yourself playing a myriad of character roles in film and television, so you move to L.A. and live happily ever after. Except this is a Chicago story, and Dastmalchian wrote the screenplay based on his life, teamed up with another expat Chicagoan, Columbia College grad Collin Schiffli, and brought the whole production to Chicago last year, where they filmed “Animals,” the SXSW darling (Dastmalchian, who also stars in the film, was awarded a special jury prize for “courage in storytelling”) that is the most discussed Chicago film of the year. It plays the Chicago International Film Festival next and is expecting a distribution deal imminently. Right now, Dastmalchian is filming the future Marvel blockbuster, “Ant-Man,” as well as a new project in Sweden from Axel Petersen (“Avalon”). Website. Twitter.
Dana M. Kupper
When Dana Kupper left Columbia College about twenty-five years ago, she reminisces, she “was a camera technician at a rental house, and transitioned to being a first camera assistant on commercials. I joined the union, worked on TV shows, feature films. I loved that life, it was like being part of the circus, and being in the camera department meant we had the cool machines with the shiny buttons. I still consider those crew guys from back in the day like family, even though I haven’t seen many of them for years. We went through the wars together, and spent many tough hours in the cold rain, laughing the whole time. I’m glad I found doc shooting though, I left that part of the business at a good time. I would like to do what I do now forever.” Kupper’s work includes Steve James’ “Life Itself.” Of a recent award to that film, she recalls, “I wanted to make my friends at Kartemquin laugh, when I went up for the award, so I said ‘For any beginner cinematographers out there, just some advice: ‘When in doubt, zoom out!’” Teaching cinematography-related classes at Columbia has given her a wider angle on her work and made her a better shooter, she says. “It’s been great for me to have to break down why I do the things I do when I shoot. The great thing about documentary shooting is that it is so instinctual, but now I know to go deeper than that, and to be smarter about the choices I make. I also think that my documentary experience helps the fictional shooters because I encourage them to leave things a little messy, let things breathe, and not to squeeze all of the life out of their images in a search for perfection.” In other films, often years in the making, including James’ “Stevie” and “The New Americans,” Kupper says she’s best at vérité shooting, “handheld, some people call it ‘fly on the wall’ or I call it ‘day in the life.’ Sometimes it’s not the extraordinary that we are capturing, but the ordinary observed. I get a real rush from filming things that will never happen again. It’s a lot of pressure, because if I screw up, all is lost! The cameraman who taught me so much is the super-talented Peter Gilbert, and he used to say, ‘Dana, you and I aren’t interested in beautiful shots. We are like the anti-camera camera people!’ What he means is that ‘beautiful’ shots can be empty, but we love the powerful, emotional shots.” She adds, “To decide to make a documentary film is deciding to give birth to a monster. The monster must be fed. It doesn’t care that you are out of money, time or people’s good will. It doesn’t care.” Bio.
Tehran-born filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh may be one of the best acknowledged of major young filmmaking talents arising from the Chicago scene. The twenty-five-year-old masters graduate, now working on a feature, was included in Filmmaker magazine’s prestigious “25 New Faces of Film” cover story in 2013, in no small part because of her gorgeously shot short, “Needle,” about a young girl getting her ears pierced, made at SAIC, which won the Cinéfondation prize for best student film at the Cannes Film Festival last year. As an undergraduate in Iran, Ghazvinizadeh took a workshop with Abbas Kiarostami. As she told Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay, “Being his student motivated me to make films. Mainstream cinema is about cutting to the character’s close up to feel the character emotionally. He never does that. The way that I’m showing emotions in my films, my camera does not want to go inside.” Jane Campion has become a champion of her keenly observant, clever films as well, comparing her to Lena Dunham. “I couldn’t be luckier!,” Ghazvinizadeh told the UK’s Dazed digital magazine. “Jane Campion is extremely supportive and generous. Being encouraged by her was the main source of confidence for moving to the writing of a feature film, which I’m working on now.” Currently in an art residency in Houston, Ghazvinizadeh intends to make more work in Chicago, as well as back in Iran one day. Bio. Vimeo. “Needle” in its 20-minute entirety.
“’Algren’ is an amazing story but it is very difficult to raise money for a biopic about an author who has been dead for thirty years,” says Nicole Bernardi-Reis (a former Newcity contributor) about Michael Caplan’s five-years-in-the-making doc that debuts at the Chicago International Film Festival. Along with regular gigs as a producer for A&E, E!/Style, VH1, HGTV, DIY and the Science Channel, Bernardi-Reis is three years into work on Rebecca Parrish’s “Radical Grace,” about larger themes about women and power evoked by the Vatican’s censure of American nuns. “We had a solid structure and were looking for an ending when Pope Benedict resigned. It changed the entire arc of the story. The question now is how to finish a film where the story is still evolving? This project has become about something much bigger,” potentially “a great example of how a doc can have a social impact.” She muses, “Of course, you also wonder if you’ll ever truly be finished.” Bernardi-Reis believes money is tighter for docs, with funders making issue films their priority, “which makes sense. Film is a powerful catalyst for change. A movie literally can change the world. Then as a producer, you have to broaden your parameters of your project. You have to consider audience engagement and impact in much deeper ways than in the past.” Her other activities include longtime involvement with the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Independent Feature Project as well as part of the Chicago team for VH1’s new reality show about transgender women. “Chicago is a great town for mentorship,” she observes. “The people in the business are very supportive–it doesn’t matter if you’re a doc filmmaker or the narrative world, TV or the web, or if you do what I do. The person I learned the most from is Thea Flaum, the legendary television producer who put Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on TV. You can see her in Steve James’ beautiful film ‘Life Itself.’ She’s amazing.” Another facet of Chicago history informs her producing philosophy, “which I borrowed from the improv community. I call it, ‘Yes, and… if—’ It’s always about developing the story, pushing the vision forward in a creative and supportive way, within the bounds of your resources. I love this city and its community. It’s becoming more possible as a filmmaker to live and work here. Local funding is something that still needs development, but there is movement there as well.” Bio.
Park Ridge native Scott Dummler’s early interest in filmmaking came at an early age, including being considered for the role of Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” After studying film at Northwestern, Dummler worked for more than twenty years for Luminair Film Productions on work in over twenty countries around the world. (He started his own company, Mint Media Works, in 2013.) Dummler’s best known as the producer, director and editor of the Emmy-nominated PBS cooking show, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” with Chef Rick Bayless, currently in post-production for its tenth season, which begins in January 2015. In 2010, he directed the pilot of “Ebert Presents: At The Movies,” as well as covering film festivals from Cannes to Marrakech with Chaz Ebert. Dummler is also developing additional television series, not limited to the culinary realm. “I travel quite a bit,” he says, “and you can certainly find excellent, professional crews around the country. But back home, here in Chicago, not only are the crews topnotch but the film community takes pride in the projects created and shot here. Productions here in Chicago reflect the city itself more than something shot on the coasts. I think it makes us all the more invested not only in the projects we work on ourselves, but also in other projects around town.” Website.
Chicago-born Prashant Bhargava was dubbed “a poet of cinema” by no less than Roger Ebert for his feature “Patang (The Kite).” The born South Sider’s homegrown production was shot in Ahmedabad, India, against the colorful backdrop of an immense kite festival that rakes the skies of the city and brings color to the dreams of its people. Bhargava has a background in commercials and other hyperstylized short forms, but the visual intensity he brings to the semi-improvised “Patang” suggests a manner of vibrant filmmaking more expected from the Hong Kong of Wong Kar-wai than Chicago’s customary down-to-the-streets storytelling. When the film was shown at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival, Ebert enthused, “’Patang’ looks almost like a cinéma vérité documentary of this family, surrounded by the city and the kite festival. Although it was years in the making, many key shots were obtained during the festival itself, and we see the skies over the city filled with thousands of dancing, dueling kites, as every single rooftop is occupied by people.” If Bhargava can extend the seductive structural craft and visual raptures of the cosmopolitan curiousity of “Patang” to a Chicago setting, who knows how much more beautiful our city will look? His debut feature isn’t just promising; it’s a promise of much more goodness. [Bhargava passed away in 2015 at the age of 42.]
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.