ANAHITA GHAZVINIZADEH AND ZOE SUA CHO
Tehran-born filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, who took a workshop with Abbas Kiarostami as an undergraduate in Iran, has gone from her observant gorgeously shot short, “Needle,” about a young girl getting her ears pierced, made at SAIC, to her first feature. As she told Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay, “Being [Kiarostami’s] 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.” (“Needle” won the Cinéfondation prize for best student film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 from a jury headed by Jane Campion.) Ghazvinizadeh is in post on “They,” which she and her production partner, Zoe Sua Cho, both recent SAIC alumni, have been developing and financing for several years. It was shot in August in Chicago. (The Cinéfondation guarantees a premiere in Cannes, Cho says.) Cho says, “We both came to Chicago as foreigners for graduate school. What stood out to me about the city was the community and the abundance of support from other filmmakers and artists. I was able to find my collaborators here, and you find people are always eager to be involved. Chicago allows space and support for filmmakers to really explore and experiment, and it feels like a no judgment zone.” Of their work, she says, “Anahita’s films often deal with themes of childhood, family dysfunction and queer/gender identity,” Cho says. “Her voice as a filmmaker brings these issues together to create contemplative cinema that is unique in its own right. I’m interested in producing works that have strong authors like Anahita. Getting our work made independently and making sure we have all the creative control is very important.” Of her role, Cho says, “My work starts with an idea or a filmmaker that I can be passionate about. Then it’s helping to actualize the vision and driving it home. Prior to coming to Chicago I worked in production in television and commercials in different parts of the world and produced a couple of short films, but I also come from an art background and make personal films myself, which informs my decisions as producer. That involves facilitating between the artistic vision and the practical, financial world.” Collaboration is important to Cho. “It’s integral to both the success of the film and a healthy working environment, because there are so many moving parts to the entire process, and it takes a lot of trust. It means a lot for both of us to invest in each other. For me to put my life in the film, and the director to trust me and put the film in my hands. I am there for every step of the process of the realization of the film. Many people have and will continue to work on the film with us, and I think collaborations can be truly exciting in the way they shape the film. I met my collaborators at SAIC during grad school, but in hindsight, my time there as a filmmaker and student allowed me to reinterpret filmmaking as a producer as well. Art schools encourage singular artistic expression, and I took this away as a producer as well. Collaboration is a huge part of it, of course, but in an industry where money plays a major part in the art. It’s important that we do whatever we can to continue to support individual artistic voices, especially in film where we should be constantly trying to dissect, and create new ways of speaking (and understanding) a language through cinema.” Website. “Needle.” Ghazvinizadeh on Bresson’s “Mouchette.“
The consistently idiosyncratic range of work by Melika Bass, who is a filmmaker, installation artist and assistant professor at the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute, continues to impress. Bass is completing two projects, one medium-length, and the other a film co-produced by Film 50 2014 alum Dave Tolchinsky and Block Museum’s Dan Silverstein, and inspired by the writings of radical psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich. Languorous excerpts were incorporated into “Sick By Seven,” an incubator show of plays and films showcased at A Red Orchid Theatre in the summer. A found-footage film, “Turn the Garden,” with music by Coppice and commissioned by Chicago Film Archives, premiered in May. Bass’ previous film, “The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast,” which will be incorporated into a larger, ongoing project, premiered in 2015 at the New Museum in New York and was part of a multi-channel installation and solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. Bass shot the newest section of this “expansive, episodic film” in summer 2016, describing it as a “a slow-burning saga of two rogue ministers and a vagabond who drift from anxious solitude into an entangled, enigmatic psychodrama.” The Siskel Film Center’s “Conversations at the Edge” program will showcase a solo program this winter, and in spring 2017, Bass will conduct a public screening and lecture series there. She says she’ll also continue “to champion Chicago filmmaking as a hotbed of vitality and invention.” Website.
The most Chicago movie of 2015 was Spencer Parsons’ horror gem “Bite Radius,” a poisoned comic bonbon of the worst day after the worst date ever that pretty much begins with bathtub dismemberment and snakes downward from there. (Parsons also has an acting cameo in the most Chicago movie of 2016, Joe Swanberg’s “Easy.”) The Austin-educated Northwestern University associate professor has made two features, as well as several shorts. He’s currently on two larger-scale projects he’s superstitious about discussing, but he hopes this fall to shoot “To The Void,” a romantic thriller “somewhere in the neighborhood inhabited by Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ and Andrzej Zulawski’s ’Possession,’ about how true love can be a benign form of murder/suicide…until it turns not so benign. Malign spirits, hot sex, melting flesh and the stench of death. We’re going crazy casting it right now, but Forager Film is on board.” The other is a hush-hush anthology series drawing on “Bite Radius” as a model, of which he’s loath to say more until deals are done. Parsons has been shooting interviews for the Arrow Video box set of work by the recently-deceased pioneering indie Chicago pioneer (and gore maven) Herschell Gordon Lewis, as well as with John McNaughton for Dark Sky Films’ forthcoming “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” restoration Blu-ray. He says that he’s not the only movie person staying with Chicago. “I’ve noticed more filmmakers are sticking around, and good crew members are getting more work in all the TV shows, from ‘Easy’ and ‘Exorcist’ up through the ever-expanding Dick Wolf empire. I think it’s a good time for independent directors, producers and writers to make even small-budget projects with these highly skilled and enthusiastic collaborators. More fledgling filmmakers are staying rather than moving to L.A. or New York, and there’s a growing sense of community among filmmakers in the city compared to when I first moved here. Additionally, local organizations like IFP and the Chicago International Film Festival have been able, in the last few years, to step up and support local filmmakers with greater resources and events that connect artists and businesspeople.” Bio.
Lyra Hill is prolific in multiple artistic pursuits. “I make experimental films, underground comix, performances, rituals and radical combinations thereof,” she says. “I prioritize audience experience because it fascinates me, and also because I believe deeply in caring for others, be they assistants, administrators, collaborators, rabid fans or curious passerby. I tend toward complicated analog technologies, which I try to push in new ways. My work is often about sex, magic, unconscious drives and/or death. And I regularly employ humor as a means to deeper feeling.” Of the origins of her rich tapestries of vivid imagery (often captured on Super 8 and 16mm), Hill says, “I was raised in a pagan eco-activist community in California, and began teaching and leading rituals at a young age. For years, I viewed this as unrelated to my art productions, until, through organizing and hosting live variety shows, I realized that the real expertise I was drawing on was my priestessing ability. At the same time, I identified and embraced the drive I feel to guide people in and out of transformative emotional experiences in a really hands-on way—another skill acquired primarily through magical training. Since then, I have united my ritual and artistic practices in a variety of ways. The intimacy of these efforts still unnerves me—a good sign—and has proven to be the most popular—and powerful?—work I’ve produced. I expect I will spend many years if not my lifetime exploring this synthesis. I’ve begun teaching Ritual Structure Workshops to mainly groups of creative people seeking open-ended spiritual empowerment. I learn a lot from my students.” Along with starring in Jerzy Rose’s upcoming “Neighborhood Food Drive,” Hill’s radio show, “Magic Chats,” is on Lumpen Radio. A 16mm print of the final version of her film “Uzi’s Party” will screen at the Northwest Chicago Film Society in early 2017, and she will perform at underground series Helltrap Nightmare, Zine Not Dead and Cool Girls Show later this year. “I’m from California, but Chicago has shaped my modes of production and collaborative methods more than any other place,” Hill reflects. “I feel like a broken record stating the obvious but the communal power on display in this city, visible in myriad social justice movements, art collectives, alternative education models and under-the-radar arts spaces and events series is breathtaking, and unique. Chicago’s physical location in the middle of the country, and our precarious but still comparatively affordable economy make it possible to truly hold the good of the collective above the good of oneself. This means that people teach each other stuff selflessly all the time. This is how I learned to shoot the kinds of film I like to make, how I’ve been able to show my work and the work of others, how I’ve been able to borrow equipment and favors from people with enough flexibility in their lives to lend it to me. This is how the kind of stuff I champion, which mixes materials from all different scenes, all different technologies, can thrive: because people are open to experimentation outside of their norm, outside of their regular hustle. I’m moving away soon and this is the quality I will miss the most, I’m sure of it. In regards to the future, my strongest hope is that the callous inequality and privatization of public services fails here in the face of our collective power, so that the community ethos which defines and elevates Chicago can continue to shape generous agitators of all kinds.” Website. A 2016 performance of “Pervert in the Workplace.”
Twenty-six-year-old Lexington, Kentucky native Alex Thompson calls his production company “Runaway Train,” and why not? Partnered with cinematographer Zoe Lubeck, Thompson has produced two low-budget features with Chicago casts: “Our Father” and “King Rat,” both of which are currently in post. He says making two features for (collectively) under $80,000 was a scary thing to realize one could do. “The possibilities of low-budget filmmaking, and the necessity of exceptional storytelling and narrative at every level,” says Thompson, “these are the things that are informing my work.” Two shorts, “Bedrooms” and “Calumet” are making the rounds, the first a dance film with choreographers Erin Kilmurray and Josh Anderson and musician Quinn Tsan. “Calumet” was Thompson’s introduction to actor-director Austin Pendleton, who’s since appeared in every film Thompson has directed or produced. He’s also executive producing a TV pilot, “Drive Slow,” which is described as “a ‘Freaks and Geeks’ of the South Side” following a group of middle-class high-school students. More? Thompson optioned and developed “The Humbler,” a pilot from A Red Orchid Theatre’s Brett Neveu, which is now shooting, with choreographer Ryan Bourque, Eddie Jemison and Bradley Grant Smith. “It’s a show about a guy —Brad—who gets paid to have the shit beat out of him.” And, to catch his breath, Thompson intends to direct and produce the mid-budget “On the Beach” in Greece, starring the protean Pendleton. But first? He hopes to direct a low-budget feature this fall, “Brother Sister,” a “nearly no-budget feature” set in Chicago and Kalamazoo, Michigan, about low-income siblings struggling to overcome their pasts, starring Brad Smith and Kelly O’Sullivan. “Intention every step of the way is the only way I’ve found magic happens, though there are some happy accidents between those intentions,” says Thompson. “I’m a director by nature, and that can mean I’m a very good producer, (which I have been, in two cases on feature films), or a very bad one (which I have been, in many moments and stretches, on the same two features). I love discovering new talent and helping it along. I love finding out what I can do to help. But right now my skill set and resources are best used as a director and creative producer.” Thompson also works with Chicago Tracks as a mentor, which he connected with through CTVN, another after school media program. He sees outreach as essential to the future of the city as a film capital. “Chicago’s a great home for filmmaking because it is literally a place where one can afford to take risks. Rent and living aren’t distractions in the way they are in New York, and because the community is smaller, the desire to bind together is stronger, too. When I think of the filmmaking community in Chicago I think of a growing group of artists and technicians, in many cases folks who have been tested by the very unforgiving fire of network television set-life, finding their legs with the very present help of others trying to do the same. This is true at every level, too. It’s not yet like, there are the kids and the grown-ups—the kids and grown-ups are, in many cases, working concurrently on similar projects, in scope or size. And there’s plenty of work. I’d like to see more programs like Free Spirit Media’s Chicago Track. In this weird industry, it’s so important to get on set. Mentorship can be a great tool, and a more formal process of vetting and pumping production assistants and other department interns and assistants into the system here in Chicago will keep the ecosystem going. We’ll have more Chicago assistant directors, more Chicago department heads and they’ll get younger and younger. The film industry is a massive industry. What I love about it, from an economic standpoint, is personified by the end credits of ‘The Martian,’ some title card comes up saying, ‘this film employed 5,000 people,’ or something like that. Whether that film flopped or killed, it employed X number of people who are all moving on to the next job, based on their own ability to manage the pressures and needs of a set. I think that’s an exceptional model, and one that Chicago should think about when directing young people toward industries for work. It’s quite a track, and it doesn’t have a ceiling.” Website.
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.