Aymar Jean Christian
Founder, Open TV
An assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, as well as founder of Open TV, Christian’s recent work includes Fatimah Asghar and Samantha Bailey’s Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls,” which debuted on Elle.com in February and is in development as an HBO series. His name comes up often for his commitment to pushing boundaries of digital incubation and storytelling, as well as to an independent film community that creates and sustains opportunities for intersectional and queer television. See more in the Film Leader of the Moment conversation with Christian.
Milos Stehlik, Charles Coleman, Mary Visconti
Founder and Artistic Director, Director of Facets Cinematheque, and Executive Director, Facets Multimedia
Moving toward its forty-third year, not-for-profit Facets Multimedia soldiers forward from its west Lincoln Park storefront, notably in its rangy theatrical programming under the restless curatorial eye of Charles Coleman. It’s a bristling, unparalleled mix, drawing from the broadest spectrum of world releases, including modestly scaled American independent work, full-frontal international fiction features, occasional retrospectives and strong documentaries. Tough topics alternate with movies of lyrical, challenging delirium in the dozen or so attractions each month. Despite Chicago’s wealth of venues with their own full-to-bursting calendars, Facets manages to surprise and edify. The bounty of summer film camps for kids extended to fifteen this year and into the suburbs, including Hitchcock Film Camp and Horror Film Camp. Facets Kids debuted as the world’s first curated streaming platform of live action and animation shorts and features for kids, with close to 1,000 films from over forty countries. And Facets Videotheque, one of the last video stores still standing in North America, still rents holdings of over 50,000 films by their most recent count on Blu-ray, DVD, and even VHS, many of which are inaccessible or out of print.
Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, Cameron Worden
Co-Conspirators, Chicago Film Society
“After six years we finally have buttons!” Chicago Film Society “co-conspirator” Julian Antos says of the entrenchment of the “deliberately non-hierarchical” celluloid-cinephilic group that also includes Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal and Cameron Worden. “’Co-conspirators’ is definitely better than any titles we can conjure,” Westphal adds. “Our tastes align in some instances and diverge in others, but we never settle any dispute by anyone asserting, ‘Because I said so!’ If we can’t convince each other that a film is worth seeing, we’ll never manage to convince an audience to show up. Every calendar is a collective effort.” Antos continues, “We still offer an eccentric and eclectic program presented entirely on film and still believe strongly in that wonderful, untouchable magnetism that comes from seeing film projected in a room full of strangers. We’ve started doing some programming at the Music Box. We’ve also added to our film collection, which we loan out, such as our print of Jane Campion’s ‘Sweetie’ playing at Lincoln Center. We’re working on lots of film-preservation projects, including the 16mm work of Fred Camper and the 35mm industrial about the Chicago Daily News, ‘The Editor’s Notebook.’” Westphal says Chicago Film Society is “in a better place than we’ve ever been. If anything, celluloid evangelism has gotten easier as 35mm disappears. When we began in 2011, the studios only had a handful of repertory titles available on DCP [digital], so advertising a 35mm screening was hardly unique. Now it’s always an event, and that awareness has been helped by newer releases on film, like ‘Son of Saul’ and certainly ‘Dunkirk.’ Even if the audience can’t always recognize the difference between a 35mm print and a DCP or a Blu-ray, we make a point of emphasizing the broader context: a film print is an object with a physical history, worked over by human hands. Every print has its story to tell.” Classics were a major part of the earlier programming, but, Westphal says, “certified classics” are not the least popular shows. “Our audience trusts us to dig up films and they take it on faith that our selection will be interesting, even if they’ve never heard of it. We even have regulars who lament the atrocity we’ve just shown, and then tell us they’re looking forward to whatever it is we’re showing next week. That’s the most gratifying endorsement! ‘I think you’re nuts and I’ll see you again next Wednesday.’”
Programmer and Artistic Director, Chicago Underground Film Festival
The definition of “underground” for Chicago Underground Film Festival, the largest program of IFP/Chicago, celebrating its twenty-fifth year in June 2018, has resolved itself by remaining unresolved. “When Jay Bliznick and I started CUFF back in 1993, we didn’t have a clear idea of what this festival was going to be,” co-founder and artistic director Bryan Wendorf relates of the influential, local filmmaker-embracing annual event. “We were fascinated by a strand of post-punk DIY filmmaking, an outgrowth of the Cinema of Transgression, John Waters and the films covered by Film Threat. Over the years, the sort of ‘underground’ films people submitted changed and were more poetic, thoughtful and experimental. I’ve tried to keep the festival open to all the different definitions. Ultimately, my goal in programming is to highlight the best films that aren’t widely represented elsewhere, and bring quality experimental, documentary and narrative work to audiences who are open to new ideas and techniques. Going into our quarter-century, we’re going to look back over the festival’s past while keeping our focus clearly on the future.” But the twenty-five years still weigh. “We never had any long-term master plan. It has been more of a happy accident than anything else. The key thing with something like CUFF reaching an anniversary is to recognize our past and how we got here but to focus more intently on the present and the future.” CUFF isn’t a market, Wendorf says, in the way many larger festivals are, “but we are a marketplace of ideas. Film festivals should be places for discovery and should always be looking for new and exciting ideas, films and filmmakers. CUFF might be more like a swap meet of ideas. An anarchic and sometimes unruly place, where filmmakers at different stages of careers, working with wildly differing styles and techniques, can meet and openly exchange ideas and information. Back in our early years, the late filmmaker [and 1990s independent film icon] Sarah Jacobson referred to CUFF as ‘summer camp for filmmakers.’ I think that is still a pretty good ideal.”
Executive Director, SAG-AFTRA Chicago Local
“There’s an amazing amount of film and television work being produced in Chicago as a result of the state production tax credit, but also the great infrastructure we have built in this city to support the industry as it grows and matures,”the SAG-AFTRA performers’ union executive director says. The ultimate goal of the Chicago local “is to see manageable and steady growth that transforms Chicago from more than a great location, to a production center that creates, produces and markets its own original content to the world. We need to have homegrown production, financing, training and support to match the talent level of the people who call Chicago home. We are focusing on creating infrastructure for performers and broadcasters. We need to continue to create the ‘value-added’ amenities of other centers of film and television production. My priority is that Chicago becomes more than the sum of its parts. We have members who wake up and fight every day to be part of this business. It’s a challenge to make ends meet for many people, and that holds true for many of our members. I feel inspired by their determination to make a living in the entertainment industry here in our city. It’s so gratifying to see the amount and quality of work increasing. We just have to put the right pieces into place.” As part of its fifteen-percent growth in membership over the past two years, SAG-AFTRA has extended to public media as well.
Executive Director, Video Data Bank
“VDB is busier than ever, and I’m often struck by the ever-increasing interest in video art,” executive director Abina Manning says. Video Data Bank, founded at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1976 at the inception of the media arts movement, remains a quiet Chicago powerhouse after celebrating its fortieth anniversary as a distributing organization that represents and supports video art and artists. Their collection includes the work of more than 600 artists and 6,000 video art titles. “It’s really a mirror of the relatively short history of video art in the United States,” Manning says, “with video created by artists from an aesthetic, political or personal point-of-view, made available through a far-reaching and comprehensive international distribution program.” Six of the ten film/video artists featured in the Whitney Biennial are distributed by VDB: Basma Alsharif, Kevin Jerome Everson, Sky Hopinka, Dani Leventhal, James Richards and Leslie Thornton. “Several of our younger artists are doing particularly well this year, including Sky Hopinka (Whitney Biennial, Sundance, New York Video Festival, TIFF), Martine Syms (MoMA and ICA London solo exhibitions), and Ben Russell (who curated Hallucinations Live Cinema Festival in Athens as part of documenta). We’ve just completed digitizing all 6,000 video titles in the VDB archive,” Manning adds, “the majority originating on some form of video tape, meaning that the collection is now safeguarded for future digital users. We are currently developing a streaming video website that will enable us to supply video art directly to educational subscribers, allowing students to watch work at their leisure, both on and off campus.” “Alternative Histories, Alternative Archives,” an October symposium at Co-Prosperity Sphere with guests including South Side Home Movie Project, Experimental Sound Studio, Black Film Center/Archive, Chicago Film Archives and artists Marc Fischer and Josh MacPhee will dig deep into big ideas about “the archive,” its control, legacy and ability to withstand and survive change.
Curator and Co-Director, Nightingale Cinema
“I don’t think I realized how busy I have been until I wrote everything out!” exuberant young curator Emily Eddy emailed back when I asked for a list of recent doings. “Basically I’m a filmmaker and curator, co-director of the Nightingale Cinema, assistant director of Video! Video! Zine (an online video curation, screening series and archive founded by Zachary Hutchinson), and I work as the distribution assistant at the Video Data Bank.” Recently, Eddy has curated screenings and exhibitions locally as well as in Los Angeles, Portland Oregon and Reykjavík. “This year I’ve also toured with a screening-curation, ‘How To Fight Like A Girl,’ comprised of highly political camp or theatrically inspired video and new media work made by femme-identifying artists.” In 2016, Eddy curated a screening in Iceland, “Weird Movies From the Middle of America,“ which highlighted contemporary experimental cinema and new media from the Midwest. Eddy started helping out at the Nightingale in 2013, right after graduating from SAIC, and now runs the space and curates events along with Christy LeMaster and programmers including Raul Benitez, Sara Holwerda, Jesse Malmed, Kat Sachs and Aaron Walker. And in September, Eddy was in Iceland shooting and doing preliminary research for an experimental documentary project surrounding Icelandic rap and hip-hop. ”I just want to find new and better ways to curate moving image and time-based work. The past year has been an explosion of opportunities for me, with the support of my community, and I’m so excited to see what’s next!”
Patrick Friel and Kat Sachs
Cine-File began in 2007, and veteran film programmer-instructor Patrick Friel has been managing editor since 2010, with Kat Sachs, Ben Sachs and Kyle Westphal, longtime contributors, added this year as associate editors. (Friel also maintained the Onion City Experimental Film & Video Festival from 2001-2015, and was program director at Chicago Filmmakers 1996-2007.) The weekly Cine-List newsletter is an invaluable piece of work, sustaining awareness for the significant breadth of cinema shown weekly in Chicago, even as newspapers, magazines and websites have reduced coverage. “Cine-File has two primary functions,” Friel relates, “as advocacy for films our contributors value or recommend. We allow them to select what they write on, rather than giving out assignments.” The two top sections of the site and newsletter, Crucial Viewing and Also Recommended indicate their advocacy. “We don’t do negative reviews,” Friel says. “If a contributor doesn’t like a film or doesn’t feel there are reasons to recommend a film, they don’t write on it.” Contributors are encouraged to “invoke their own voices.” But Cine-File is an information resource. “While we don’t list everything, we do make an effort to find and list screenings and other cinema-related events that are more likely to be off the radar of many people. So, microcinema spaces, gallery screenings, museum screenings, screenings in other non-traditional spaces. We also have the luxury of catching things last minute. We make an effort to list exhibition formats. Celluloid projection is important to us, so we want people to know what’s on film.” There’s a long tradition of idiosyncratic Chicago film criticism and advocacy, hollowed out since the turn of this century. “I’m not sure that Cine-File continues any kind of tradition,” Friel says. “While we have and have had outstanding writers, I don’t want to compare ourselves to Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fred Camper, B. Ruby Rich and others who are generally interested in the same non-mainstream films, and with whom we share sensibilities. I’d leave that for others to decide. We have a lot of different kinds of writers—in style, approach and writing ability—that lessens the possibility of a coherent overall sensibility, but it adds a richness and fruitful eclecticism.” “I value Cine-File as a way to remain disciplined in my ongoing study of cinema,” Kat Sachs says of her five years of contributions and year as associate editor, contributing to redesign and other digital efforts. “There are few greater pleasures than discovering a new love for a film and its director. Working on Cine-File also makes me feel closer to my community. We have such a great scene here in Chicago—I’m often giddy with excitement about upcoming screenings!” Sachs also programs under the moniker Beguiled Cinema with her husband, Ben Sachs, a contributor to the Chicago Reader as well as Cine-File. “I have a few ideas for screenings in the fall, but nothing on the calendar. Our biggest accomplishments are 16mm screenings of Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Permanent Vacation’ and Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Near Death.’”
Michael W. Phillips, Jr.
Executive Director and Programmer, South Side Projections
The “Alternative Histories of Labor” series was the most successfully sustained series in the seven years of Michael W. Phillips’ nonprofit South Side Projections series. Working with a community grant from Illinois Humanities, “We were able to do something bigger than normal.” Phillips told South Side Weekly in December. “Normally our way of doing things is we’ll do a bunch of one-off screenings that aren’t particularly related. “After programming CIMMfest for five of its first six years and the late, lamented cinephile secret Bank of America Cinema for its last three years, Phillips decided to bring programs of interest to underserved neighborhoods at locations around the South Side. Recent events have included screenings and trademark extended discussions at Co-Prosperity Sphere, the DuSable Museum of African American History and a screening in August on the Floating Museum, a mobile art and performance space on a barge in the Chicago River. October sees a screening with the Hyde Park Art of Manfred Kirchheimer’s New York City symphony “Stations of the Elevated,” accompanied by a discussion with Chicago graffiti legend Gabriel “Flash” Carrasquillo, Jr.
“I got involved in film because it’s fun and you meet interesting and intelligent people collaborating on making art,” investor Joe Klest says. Coming from three decades practicing law, largely in personal injury, including helping abuse victims, Klest observes, “As a trial lawyer, there is no collaboration and someone is always trying to screw up your work.” A Chicago native and son of a Chicago Public School teacher in a family of seven, Klest worked in construction while working through law school, seeing sides of the city that way. Of one of many recent investments, he says, “I worked for the attorney who represented John Wayne Gacy, and a lawyer buddy got together with Gacy’s lawyer and they published a book called ‘Defending a Monster.’ A film producer buddy thought it would be a great doc. We just finished it and Jim Belushi did the voiceover. I’m happy with how it turned out.” Klest’s investments in around fifteen recent films and pilots include “Some Girl(s),” “Addicted to Fresno” and “Signature Move.” “I think the film industry is taking off in Chicago,” he says, almost with a shrug. “And it’s about time! I’ve been to every major city in the U.S.A., and Chicago has the most diversity and interesting cultures, and all the interesting neighborhoods. I did HVAC work before I went to law school and I have worked in every neighborhood, they are all very different from each other. Being in Chicago is like being on vacation! You walk four blocks in one direction and experience a different culture, walk four blocks in another direction and experience a different culture. I feel like I am on vacation 24/7.” And the film scene? “The film people here are collaborative, as opposed to L.A. or New York where everyone is trying to use you to get to your connections. And I always have a great time on set. I love acting and I can usually get a role as an extra with an occasional line thrown in!”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.