Whispers in chorus: the sixth annual Film 50 assembles the wise words of fifty individuals or collaborators or collectives who shape the Chicago film scene as filmmakers of one kind or another. Does two years constitute a generation in accelerated media time? Twenty-six entries recur from 2016’s filmmaker roster; twenty-four entries embrace new faces. A total of sixty-five individuals. Nineteen represent partnerships or collectives. (We’ll give you your Chicago fire.) Freshmen alongside the experienced, industry cheek-by-jowl with art: the young, thine experienced, each finding their moment, this moment. Filmmakers are under the radar, sounding the sonar, nearly surfacing, not yet surfacing, then breaking onto the scene. Remember, overnight success requires at least ten years of preparation: Chicago is a succession of bushels, with light kept under them until suddenly, as with our cover subject, why had more of us not heard of Bing Liu?
Many of the figures in these entries find inspiration and nourishment from family and friends, grants and groups, collectives and collaborations, academic employment or connections, but all have a home-away-from-home (along with mostly modest homes). As we asked variations of the “Why Chicago/How Chicago” question, most responses came as representative of a complex of edifices rather than the century-long edifice complex that fashioned our skyline. When you find headquarters, when you find home, you can shelter and fashion the world that will take you down the path to the rest of your life.
Sally Blood photographed the Film 50 at the headquarters of Kartemquin Films, the Roscoe Village fount of creativity and progressive impulse the group acquired in 1975. The modest site is an emblematic location to meet these makers. Its decades-long communal vibe matches what these individuals share with us: a sensation of urgency and of necessity, that change and transformation is not only necessary, but imminent. Each and every person suggests that collaboration and community, love of work and love of each other will sustain. None of the filmmakers are as blunt as Auden, who wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939,” “We must love one another or die,” but let’s look around the corner and listen, shall we? (Ray Pride)
All photos by Sally Blood with photo assistance from Marisa Adame.
Shot on location at Kartemquin Films.
“When ‘America to Me’ began, we were planning a total of six episodes and hoped to submit to the Toronto Film Festival in 2017,” documentarian Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”) says of his longest film ever, a madly ambitious, wildly successful chronicle of a year at Oak Park River Forest High School. “But knowing my history of, um, expanded works, few on the team believed either of those possible. As we dove into editing, it quickly became clear that we would need eight hours, then ten hours. Wr still managed to convince our co-producers Participant Media and Starz that a ninety-minute finale was a good idea. We premiered the first five episodes at Sundance 2018, and then worked like crazy to finish the whole series in time for the late August premiere. Editorially, it was a massive undertaking: the equivalent of trying to keep more than a dozen plates—the kids’ stories—spinning narratively as we go along. This was personally the hardest, most demanding thing I’ve ever done, despite having had the most stellar team of editors ever in Leslie Simmer, David Simpson, Alanna Schmelter, and Rubin Daniels, Jr..” James had specific needs for his crew that would infiltrate the 3,200-strong student body. “Well, I’m no spring chicken, as you know. We would be following stories of kids, and it would be not only practical to have serious help, but have a younger, diverse team of segment directors and producers who could more easily connect with the kids and relate more personally to their experience.” James’ home base for decades allows this freedom. “Kartemquin has become an even greater force in the world of documentary filmmaking that extends way beyond the borders of Chicago. KTQ has become a hub defined by the work of an increasingly diverse group of filmmakers. But KTQ is, at its core, a philosophy: defined by a belief in candid, incisive, complex and empathic nonfiction storytelling. Those kinds of stories are needed more than ever. The business model works but is always a challenge to maintain. We need more Kartemquins in Chicago and around the country. Let’s start franchising!”
Aaron Wickenden’s essential work as an editor and co-editor speaks for itself—“The Interrupters,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal”—and in 2018 alone, “Generation Wealth,” “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” and the $22.5 million-grossing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (That translates to about 2,400,000 tickets.) Wickenden, newly inducted into the Motion Picture Academy, is a cinematographer and producer as well as co-director of 2014’s bittersweet doc, “Almost There.” Wickenden edited the three films back-to-back. “I came back to Chicago thinking I would take the summer off but realized that for me editing is like being a musician, and I can’t imagine it would be fun for someone like, say, Mr. Rogers’ pal Yo-Yo Ma, to take a summer away from his instrument.” Wickenden’s slate of new work includes producing and co-editing an animated documentary, “Feels Good Man,” “about the bizarre journey of Pepe the Frog from laid-back stoner to hate symbol and back again.” Wickenden makes time to give feedback and mentorship on rough cuts for local filmmakers, and says his personal work benefited from access to DCASE funding, and that “it would be wonderful to have more access to grant funding.” Still, he says, “Being in Chicago allows me to have a relatively low cost of living, which in turn allows for the highest amount of optionality with my work.” Wickenden cites venues like the Music Box and Logan as “vibrant places to hangout as online viewing platforms steer viewers away from the communal experience of witnessing a film together.” Of his own work, he says, “It’s exciting to witness the increasing recognition of the role of the editor in feature docs as being integral to the content creation process. It’s a unique artistic practice that is so different from those scripted gigs.”
Vigilant, diligent Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone rose to national attention—finally—with the international release of his 2017 “Princess Cyd,” the latest in his warm, attentive dramas, after a run at over forty festivals around the world, and which made best-of lists in multiple national publications, and prompted career features in the Los Angeles Times, IndieWire and Out. Cone had an early career retrospective of his features at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, and a partial retrospective at Unknown Pleasures Berlin. Newly represented by ICM Partners, Cone plans to shoot his largest-scale film to date, “Nudes,” a Southern family drama, in the fall or winter. He’s also directing two episodes of Sundance Now series “This Close.” “I’m still proudly teaching as a lecturer in the department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University,” Cone says. “Chicago has been my personal and creative home base for over fourteen years. As ever, it provides me with a supportive and nurturing environment in which I can make the work I want to make when I want to make it, aided by hundreds of folks ready to jump in and lend their talents, enthusiasm and expertise at the drop of a hat. Chicago is an artist’s wonderland, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.” Can it be sustained? “This is a tough one, and I’m not quite sure how to answer it. To be honest, the first answer that came to mind was: filmmakers. There continues to be a strange lack of Chicago-based filmmakers making work that’s seen on a national and international stage. To me, this speaks to a continued disconnect between Chicago’s educational institutions, arts and arts funding organizations, programming and cinephilic interests. Further, perhaps this lack is a byproduct of Chicago’s thriving but isolated communities of comedy, theater, television, independent web series and independent film. One could add to this a lack of connective tissue between Chicago and the rest of the nation’s film culture—going both ways—and also an individual lack of inspiration which could itself be due, in part, to living in a town with so many disparate communities and not knowing where one belongs, what one is capable of, etcetera. Part of this is the natural flow of things. It’s not a tragedy. I’m likely dancing around an answer that doesn’t, and perhaps need not, exist. Despite all of that, Chicago remains a town where anyone can make anything they please, in the way they want to make it, with tremendous support systems, and have it turn out very, very strong. That’s the short and the long of it, and by comparison, there is little to worry about.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Joe Swanberg, with at least eighteen features behind him, has turned his hand to the Netflix series, “Easy.” “That has been the big project for the last three years, and will take me through the end of this year,” Swanberg says. “I love making the show, but I’m exhausted, emotionally worn out from the process, ready for some space to have a life for a while before I make anything else. But I’ve said and felt that before and ended up diving right into something, so who knows?” Swanberg crafted six features in 2011, so the production of eight half-hour episodes per season in the last three years could be a comfortable cruising speed for the easygoing director. The format of “Easy”—standalone episodes of comedic-to-weary romantic revelations of disappointments, with changing cast—makes for a visual mini-history of Chicago of this moment. Swanberg’s gun-and-run production efficiency, even with exponentially larger crews since his 2005 debut, “Kissing on the Mouth,” allows for an expansive, even kaleidoscopic chronicle of the public (and intimate) spaces in neighborhoods across the city. “Chicago provides the opportunity for a normal life that isn’t dominated by the film industry,” he adds, “I’m sensing less brain-drain. A lot of young people who are moving here say it’s because they want to live in Chicago, not because it’s a cheap stopover on their way to somewhere else.”
Twenty-nine-year-old filmmaker Bing Liu is having one of the best years in Chicago film, at least in terms of visibility. While Liu worked as a camera assistant on Chicago-made productions like “Easy,” “Sense8,” “Empire,” “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Chi-Raq,” he was refining his debut feature, the personal essay, “Minding the Gap,” for about a decade since he began offhandedly chronicling his best friends as they skateboarded around Rockford. After producer Diane Quon took up the project at Kartemquin Films, Liu joined the collaborators on Steve James’ ten-and-a-half-hour epic assay of a year at Oak Park River Forest High School, “America to Me” as one of four segment directors. Liu describes his path in the Film 50 Filmmaker of the Moment feature.
Innovative film and video artist Deborah Stratman finished the highly regarded “The Illinois Parables” since her 2016 inclusion in Film 50, and has since made a four-channel, sixteen-monitor video piece called “Siege,” which was installed at New York City’s Columbus Circle MTA station as part of the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Shaping Space with Sound” exhibition. Comprised of optical illusions used for hypnosis, meditation and hallucination, the piece was intended “as a hack of the public screens, normally used for advertising.” Other shorts getting festival play include “Optimism” and “Teaching an Alphabet the Plants.” Larger projects including a film collaboration with pioneer filmmaker Barbara Hammer, using material she shot in Guatemala in the 1970s. “And I continue slugging away at ‘Hello Ladies,’ a hybrid doc I’m working on in Ethiopia. I’ll be there shooting this November and December.” This level of activity is nothing new for the widely hailed and exhibited filmmaker, who also teaches at UIC. “I like being in motion, especially bicycling and paddling. I just finished building a kayak with my guy, Steve Badgett. He’s the one with the know-how. I just follow his lead. It’s been pretty cool to build my first vehicle, though. And I’m an audio junkie. That factors into everything I make. Pentatonic grooves are one of many impetus for the Ethiopian project.” But Chicago remains the base. “It’s an unpretentious, vibrant cultural hub with two airports, a great music scene, bike lanes, a diverse radio landscape, four seasons, a backwards river and a giant lake. Winter-schminter! I don’t miss anything except for the film labs that used to be here. We’re overstuffed with cool film venues and programming: Conversations at the Edge and the Siskel, the Nightingale, Black Cinema House, Chicago Filmmakers, the Film Studies Center and the Logan, Doc Films, the Block… it’s a surfeit of options.” Stratman sees Chicago as rich with the possibility for change. “Change makes me optimistic. When I’m feeling demoralized about humanity, I read Studs Terkel interviews. His curiosity and outrage never stop inspiring.” (Stratman is also a 2018 Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow.)
Gordon Quinn/Photo: Sally Blood7
Kartemquin artistic director and co-founder, producer-director Gordon Quinn, completed a long-long-term Chicago-set doc, “’63 Boycott” in 2017, and has another in the works with Leslie Simmer, “Left-Handed Pianist.” “I spend significant time in the edit room with the filmmakers,” Quinn says of the recent Kartemquin crop, which also includes: “America to Me,” “Minding the Gap,” “Edith+Eddie,” “All The Queen’s Horses,” “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “Stranded by the State” and “Raising Bertie.” “It has been quite a year for awards,” he says. “Other work I do: most is connected to documentary filmmaking and my role at Kartemquin. I do classes with professors at most of the Chicago film institutions: DePaul, Northwestern, U. of C., Columbia College, and also with youth media organizations like Free Spirit Media, CTVN and also CANTV.” The social-change veteran remains an optimist after more than fifty years as a filmmaker. “What makes me optimistic in these times is seeing local emerging documentary filmmakers get involved and take leadership in the organizations that represent our field like the International Documentary Association, and other organizations that are playing a role in opening up the field to minorities and women. New organizations and production entities are doing exciting work and venerable institutions like Kartemquin and Chicago Filmmakers are thriving.”
While the secret weapon of documentaries produced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films is intense collaboration, its secret secret weapon is the scores provided by Joshua Abrams. From “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” (2013) and “Almost There” (2014) to 2016’s “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” and “Unbroken Glass” and this fall, the epic series, “America To Me,” Abrams brings nuance and grace to the smallest human moments in hs bristling marvel of a score for “America to Me.” Abrams watches the moment; he anticipates the future, the possibility of change, the possibility of tragedy, and so many grades of emotion. His score is stealth: patient, suggestive, eager to surprise. Abrams’ imagination is always fiercely applied to filmmakers’ ambitions. Entrenched in Chicago’s jazz and improvised music communities for over twenty years, Abrams works as a sideman, in collaborative improvisational groups and tours internationally with his own band, Natural Information Society.
With season two of his globe-girdling Amazon spy series “Patriot” in the can, Chicago’s most ambitious working episodic auteur, writer-director-showrunner Steve Conrad is set to conjure a limited-series modern film noir, “Our Lady, LTD,” for MGM television. “Patriot” took at least seven years from conception to reality; the road is less bumpy for Conrad now. His new series stars Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”) as a disgraced firefighter-turned-grifter who meets his match in the form of a pastor played by Ben Kingsley. Contests of male ego are sure to follow once more. Conrad plans to direct six of the ten episodes in Santa Fe. Although Conrad is a plainspoken proponent of telling Chicago-set stories, scheduling of crews (outside of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” series bubble) can change those plans: much of the second season of “Patriot” was shot in other cities, including Paris. Still, there’s Chicago flavor, not limited to the presence of Conrad perennial Tony Fitzpatrick. “The opportunity is fleeting,” Conrad told the Tribune as the first season was shooting, “Trying not to coast creatively is the thing that gets into all the corners and all the down time.”
Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
While the feats of speculation and imagination in the works from Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachows, as ever, remain undisclosed at their Ravenswood studio, Netflix did finance a final, 151-minute episode of “Sense8,” the time-and-space-fracturing, globe-hopping science fiction epic that had come to an abrupt and unseemly end after two seasons on the streaming service. Showing the film at Music Box in May as a benefit for Emily’s List, Lana Wachowski wrote in advance that the public event would demonstrate the “open-hearted connectedness that is so prevalent in the people who love this show.” Lana also made an open, winning appearance at the theater in June during the annual Cinepocalypse fest to talk about “Bound” before its Blu-ray release. “I was trying to think of a film set in a genre world where an LGBTQ character won and got a happily ever after,” she said at the event. “So, I said ‘I’m gonna make it!’”
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.