By Ray Pride
The inauguration is done, the march has passed.
On advancing the narrative, E.M. Forster wrote about “what happens next,” that the only thing that will stop the reader is for the storyteller to fail to make them wonder what happens next. I asked Chicago filmmakers for reflections on where their work fits into our world today, in Chicago today, in their life. Something more than mottos, not quite manifestos.
What happens next?? “I believe what will happen next is filmmakers will turn away from celebrity and pop culture pieces,” Forager Films partner Peter Gilbert says. “It is time that we focus our stories back to social issues of the day. We have to tell compelling stories that further our own unique point of view. It is time to take sides.”
“Not sure I can be optimistic,” Chicago filmmaker-in-residence Daniel Nearing says, “but I hope this is constructive. Recent events made me go back into the trenches on the script for ‘Sister Carrie,’ an adaptation of the proto-feminist Chicago novel published in 1900. I thought I’d finished, but now feel like beginning again, with more hurt, more anger, more conviction. I’m not sure where the revisions are headed, but I’m learning that what they say is true: a period piece says as much about the time in which it’s made as the time in which it’s set.”
Documentary maker Ruth Leitman’s instincts are in the present moment. “If there was ever a time that would affirm all my years of hard work with little financial reward as a documentary filmmaker, it would be this moment,” she says. “There is no better way to move people than through the power of nonfiction film and, especially, now when the integrity of the media has become questioned, our work as documentary filmmakers comes to the fore. With our durational commitment to social justice issues, we observe and capture evidence that the foot soldiers of change will need to deliver the message for change. Honestly, November 8 gutted me to the core. All around me were my daughter and her friends, voting for the first time, and my students, who looked for reassurance that something like this could not happen. This is not normal. I feel a tremendous responsibility to make work that is infused with the power of our democracy and the values of who we are, as a beautiful mix of all people. After this horror sunk in, I began work on a project to highlight, educate help to mobilize people around women’s reproductive rights. I started a new film at the Women’s March in New York City, that will follow the most impressive, fierce group of activists, working to protect reproductive rights as we enter this new battle to protect Roe v. Wade.”
Leitman also conveys “half a manifesto”: “Keep your camera rolling on local politics and stay on top of your elected officials more than ever to do as they say. And march and get loud. The local marches in Chicago and places outside of D.C. have tremendous meaning. Keep it up. My favorite story was one about a bunch of ten-year-old girls who planned a march in their cul-de-sac ten miles outside of Atlanta. This is what we are talking about when we talk about activating a new generation of activists.”
Jennifer Reeder, who is preparing her second feature to shoot in a few months, has a twenty-year history of shorts about a generation of young women. “I have always considered my filmmaking a form of social justice, and I am prepared to amp it up,” she says. “In the current political climate, I anticipate film-loving audiences will expect more agenda-based, thoughtful and socially engaged content.”
Tim Horsburgh, communications and distribution director of the fifty-year-old Kartemquin documentary production house, cites their recently codified motto, “Democracy Through Documentary.” “When ‘Hoop Dreams’ was released, Gordon Quinn was taken aside by a suit and told, ‘Stop using those two D-words so much,’ because they would scare viewers away. Now, those words might be under threat like never before. Which is depressing. But we refuse to be scared. Right now, Kartemquin is producing films about racial segregation, education policy, police brutality, the impact of Illinois’ budget impasse, sexual equality and marginalized people and cultures fighting back against years of corporate and governmental abuse. There’s a surge in people pitching us ideas, and in calls for projects and new initiatives from industry gatekeepers. We’re trying hard to meet demand by expanding and enhancing the ways in which we can amplify a greater array of diverse voices all interested in speaking their truths and spreading greater empathy through film. In the world of alternative facts coming from the top, we remain optimistic that artists will be recognized as the true purveyors of the news.”
Stephen Cone, in post-production on his sixth fiction feature, takes a longer view. “More important than cinema tied to the times is cinema untied to time, which is not to say non-specific,” Cone says. “That’s where the soul dwells, and how movies have survived, are surviving, will survive, perhaps thrive.” Experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman, whose most recent release was the highly regarded “Illinois Parables,” keeps it direct: “Film is the multi-tool of mediums, it’s got accessories for leveraging anything and everything.”
Bob Hercules, whose “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” (co-directed with Rita Coburn Whack) is currently in release, says that he feels a responsibility to use his talents “to be part of the wider resistance movement over the next four years. It’s especially incumbent upon us documentary filmmakers to take up the mantle of investigative and informational journalism with the decline of news media. By maintaining our independence we can take on issues such as distortion of truth (‘alternative facts’) and a lack of transparency. Trump’s election is, in a way, a wake-up call for all of us cultural workers to use our skills and storytelling abilities to represent those who are most vulnerable. As Marshall McLuhan said, ‘Artists are the antennae of the race.’”
Producer Nicole Bernardi-Reis, who is also executive director of the Independent Filmmaker Project Chicago, says, “Since the election it has become abundantly clear that independent media and diverse stories are going to take on an even more crucial role in society. The inauguration and recent actions by the current administration—calls to defund the NEA, public broadcasting and the NEH—indicate hostility to media narratives that present varied viewpoints. Locally, it’s even more important to support fiction films and media that tell different narratives. In uncertain times, or even downright hostile times, people look to entertainment for relief. Inclusive media is a powerful refutation to the idea that only certain experiences are American.” One current IFP Chicago initiative is the Illinois Film Tour, produced with Full Spectrum Features, taking independent work to Illinois communities without regular access to such films. “Media doesn’t just reflect society; it creates it. We want to harness that power and get people talking to each other. We are an industry in the midst of a massive evolution, so we’ll get the message out there. I know what needs to get done and I’m excited and energized by the artists working around me. They are fighting the good fight and doing it with hope, joy and humanity. And that is what’s needed right now. That’s something the arts will always be able to provide.”
“Diversity isn’t about filling in spaces on the stage with color and difference, but allowing the central story you are telling to be voiced by people who are different than yourself,” prolific young filmmaker Alex Thompson says of his hope for work through his Runaway Train production company. “If storytelling is about empathy, film is the ultimate medium to bridge cultural and political divides, and to combat the fear-mongering that’s got us into this mess. I can intellectualize diversity and inclusion, but I haven’t been entirely successful leaning into these practices through my own work and collaboration. Diversity isn’t about throwing bones here and there. Movies can be progressive without being about progress. I think about the new ‘Star Wars’ films, which feature two kickass female leads and diverse, inclusive casting. It’s not a ‘message’ film, but it sure delivers one, and sets a precedent, too—it’s not hard to look beyond the expected, or the normative. In fact, it’s quite exciting. It’s always important to ask ‘Why this story now?’ But it’s clear now more than ever that this is a different world that begs a different kind of art-making.”
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.