Representation of femininity is at the fore of director-video artist-curator-DIY space maker-photographer Emily Esperanza’s work. “I’m interested in soundscapes, the tension suspended between extremes, nostalgic sensibilities, themes of exile and displacement, the subtleties of eroticism, guerrilla approaches and lo-fi/discarded aesthetics,” she says of her bold, boldly designed work like “Spider & Fly” (2014) and “Necessity/Luxary” (2016). “This past year or so I’ve been working on a body of short videos, now grouped under the title ‘Wretched Woman.’ Each video is a series of tableaus that feature quiet rooms and environments, often occupied by solitary women. The works investigate duration, atmosphere, and archetype, specifically relating to representations of femininity and female sensuality.” Esperanza, who attended SAIC and the Prague Film School, took “Wretched Woman” on tour this summer in Chicago, Brooklyn, Seattle and Oakland, as she’s “tired of paying for festival submission fees.” The pieces are designed to function flexibly, “either as video/art installation or in a more traditional sit-down-in-a-dark-theater-shut-up-and-watch setting.” What’s next? “I have two larger-scale projects I am in the midst of—a lo-fi featurette, ‘Make Out Party,’ which will begin production in November, and my multimedia feature film, “El Culto de la Muerte” (Cult of the Dead), shot in Chicago, Illinois and Oaxaca, Mexico, which is stalled as I seek more funding. On the programming front, I am about to launch the ‘Wretched Nobles Filmmakers Fund,’ a modest grant for Chicago-based makers to create a short work that will premiere through the screening series of the same name. When I started this series four years ago, I was deeply frustrated by the work I was seeing presented in the independent/experimental film/video circuits—work was being heralded as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘avant-garde,’ but was really a lot of the same old, same old.” She was in art school at the time, and says,“I would sometimes encounter works by peers that were, if not technically perfect, conceptually or aesthetically new and exciting. However, because generations of youth have grown up hearing ‘everything has been done before’ and ‘there is no new art,’ I would see these works get cast aside for pieces that were ‘conventionally avant-garde.’” Wretched Nobles will shine a light on this overlooked work. “In my six and a half years in Chicago, I have met a multitude of incredible makers, programmers, collaborators and supporters,” she says. “There are radical artists in this city that make art every day, not for fame, money or recognition, but because they have to. In a city with systems in place that actively work against independent artists, the DIY scene in Chicago is resilient. In the midst of rapidly changing neighborhoods, brutal winters and rising taxes, I have encountered some of the most innovative, honest and inspiring cinematic works in the attics, basements, living rooms, garages, lofts and backyards of this city. For the future of Chicago film, look to the underground.” Website.
“I’ve been really impressed with Jim Vendiola’s work since I first encountered him about ten years ago when he was contributing to films produced by Split Pillow,” says Bryan Wendorf, artistic director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. “From the beginning, Jim’s work stood out due to his atmospheric sound and elliptical editing.” Vendiola’s recent 1970s-inspired psychological horror short, “Violets” won the audience award at CUFF 2015 before hitting the festival circuit. “Violets” has been well received, Wendorf adds, “despite being too arty for the horror/genre crowd and too dark for the art-house crowd. Jim handles mood and atmosphere very well, balancing dark subject matter with subtle humor.” While a feature is in the offing, Vendiola is in preproduction on a new short, “Library Hours.” “Its working tagline is ‘a love story about books and bondage.’ It’s an unconventionally structured, queer romance that partially unfolds as an epistolary story, with dark yet hopeful undertones, and allusions to Malick, Resnais and Sappho. The hugely popular alternative-fetish model Camille Damage is the co-star, and the film will be shot entirely in Chicago with the assistance of my up-and-coming producer, Erin Miller,” says Vendiola. What does all this work have in common? “My work of the past five-or-so years has largely explored darker subjects. I have a deep interest in all things true-crime-related, including serial killers and, in a broader sense, human behavior that’s motivated by mental illness or other deficiencies. It’s a fun and at times frustrating challenge to find the latent humanity in otherwise ‘bad’ or dubious characters and to paint them in ways that are believable, complex and worthwhile. My feature-length script, ‘Sunny Days,’ is a pretty harrowing coming-of-age story about familial abandonment. The Black List praised it as ‘raw and unsettling,’ while Gigi Pritzker’s OddLot Entertainment called it ‘dark and heavy,’ and ‘extraordinarily powerful,’ I think in part because of the universal nature of its theme.” Chicago music is important to Vendiola’s work as well. “It’s funny, because one piece of indie film advice that’s been around for years basically warns, ‘don’t use your friends’ bands on your soundtracks, because they suck and you don’t realize it.’ But Chicago has such a huge music scene that many of my friends and acquaintances are really talented musicians, making it a no-brainer. Seth and Kevin (formerly of Mannequin Men) created the weird score for ‘Violets,’ and without it, the film’s intended tone couldn’t have been achieved. Further, that collaboration was less formal and business-like, and was more about friends just making cool shit together.” Vendiola is a proponent of keeping underground work alive. “I’d really like to see the underground, experimental, DIY stuff we make here in Chicago further influence the bigger, more widely consumed commercial productions. We need more interest, opportunity and support of things like Joe Swanberg’s ‘Easy’ and less of the seemingly endless non-variations of ‘Chicago Fire,’” Vendiola says. “Do people really even watch them?” Website.
Margaret Byrne’s long-in-the-works “Raising Bertie,” a behaviorally rich and visually ravishing, five-year immersion into the largely African-American North Carolina farming community of Bertie County, follows the lives of three young men approaching adulthood. “I love vérité filmmaking and telling stories that leave the audience asking questions,” she says of her observational knack. “Having trusting relationships with the people I film is the foundation of making a story that honors their experience and is authentic. I worked on ‘Raising Bertie’ for seven years, so those families and that community are very close to my heart. I’m not interested in making easy films, I want to challenge myself and I want to challenge audiences.” “Bertie” is at the end of a festival run, and will screen at the Chicago International Film Festival and play the Siskel Film Center in November before a 2017 national broadcast. Byrne’s new doc, “Any Given Day,” follows the lives of three participants in Cook County’s Mental Health Court, a voluntary probation program that serves individuals who are suffering from mental illness and have committed crimes of survival related to their illness. “Many of the participants have cycled in and out of jail for years because of their illness and now, for the first time, they are getting treatment through this program and turning their lives around,” she says. A grant through Illinois Public Media will allow filming over the next twelve to eighteen months. Byrne is also producing a fiction feature, which is based on a true story. Byrne describes that in 2012, an estimated forty-one undocumented migrants were abandoned in a box truck at the height of the brutal Texas summer. Six died. “’Three Sisters’ tells the story of one of the survivors, her journey from southern Mexico to Chicago, and what happened inside the truck on that fateful night,” Byrne relates. She’s also found a broader perspective on her own work. “The last couple years I’ve learned a lot about how to utilize film to create social change. Our producer, Ian Robertson Kibbe, and I have been working on the impact campaign for ‘Raising Bertie’ for over a year, building important partnerships and receiving funds from the Ford Foundation to support outreach work.” Still, Chicago remains at the core of her work. “Chicago is a great place to be if you want to make films, especially independently. There’s still this perception that you need to be in New York or L.A. to get anywhere in the film business. At least that’s what I thought when I was younger. I love seeing the industry grow here and it’s going to keep growing.” Bio.
Sam Bailey, director, writer and self-described “general dissenter” tells stories of communities of color from within. Her “Brown Girls,” a fictional web series, follows two young women of color in their relationships in Pilsen. “I tell stories that allow women of color to be flawed, a little unruly and kinda mediocre,” Bailey says of her work. “Which means they’re real; they get to be human. That’s a luxury only straight, cis-gender white men get to possess. I’m interested in exploring these stories because I don’t think there are enough of those representations in the media and I want to add to the narrative of what black and brown women are. ‘Brown Girls,’ as well as my other series, “You’re So Talented,” puts women of color at the center of their own story. Brown Girls,” which follows the friendship between a Pakistani-American woman and her best girlfriend who is black, wrapped in August, with plans for an early 2017 release. Aside from postproduction on “Brown Girls,” Bailey says “I’m in the super early stages of preproduction for a feature about a failed 1960s Chicago record label. And I’m writing a pilot.” The casting of her crew is also important to Bailey. “As much as possible, I really try to make the crew working behind the camera reflect the stories we’re telling in front of it. I’ve found a group of people, who happen to be women, people of color, queer, or a combination of these, who are hella talented and really believe in that sort of filmmaking, which has been very helpful. I was born and raised in Logan Square, so feel a responsibility to showcase Chicago in a way that is authentic to me, which means the community around the film has to be vibrant and inclusive as well.” Bailey only came to filmmaking a couple of years ago. “It’s already drastically changed my trajectory as an artist. I come from a theater background and that Chicago sense of ensemble has trickled over to the film community. When I watch other indie films and web series being made that ensemble energy seems to be catching on. And as more support pops up, from places like Periscope and Chicago Filmmakers, more filmmakers will stay here and create work. But the support, particularly financial support, has to be there.” She adds, “I hope more filmmakers decide to tell their stories here because it’ll add to all of the things Chicago is beyond Wrigleyville, the Sears Tower and the Bean.” Website.
Thirty-year-old filmmaker Joe Houlberg, in his second year as a grad student at SAIC in the Film, Video, New Media and Animation department, is in an unusually accomplished position. He’s already made his first feature, the fine, atmospheric “Sed” (Thirst), which premiered at the Chicago Latino Film Festival and was made in his home country of Ecuador. It’s a tense tale of two couples, including a blind woman, in increasingly strange circumstances in a country house. A three-week shoot that went through three years of post-production, “Sed” is much more than a calling card. “Why am I here?” Houlberg says. “Many reasons… needed a change in life, wanted to study and found SAIC and Chicago the best for what I wanted.” Houlberg especially appreciates being able to shape his studies to his needs. “I’m starting many new projects. This summer was important for me because I premiered ‘Sed’ in Ecuador and I finished a short film called ‘A,’ which was just selected for the Biennale of Moving Image in Geneva. While ‘A’ is in the process of distribution and application to different festivals, “Sed’ is going to a festival in Argentina and another one in Guatemala. I´m working on two new feature scripts and also in two interdisciplinary projects that mix all kinds of media.” Chicago is fertile ground. “Yes, I have met many very interesting friends, faculty and artists since I got to Chicago and that has definitely influenced how I see art and film today. My new projects are also a result of all these experiences that I’ve gathered my first year in the Windy City. There is a great interest for art and I love how people here are very open to share and assist to the events. I feel that the art scene, or the one that I’m more interested in, is very independent and with a very big sense of community, which I think, is essential for art as well as artists. Chicago, for me, is like having a new pair of eyes. I feel that the fact that I’m living in a different city, country, culture/weather, time, space and speed has made me see art with a new first sight. It is as if I was a kid again, very curious and playful, but learning so much that I also feel that I’m growing a lot and becoming wiser each day. I feel Chicago is in a constant transformation, it is always ahead in what art is or should be, very avant-garde…I feel many of the things happening in the present of Chicago will become the future in other parts of the world.” Trailer for “Thirst.”
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.