Lori Felker’s uniquely blithe comic short films are always strange small delights, and in 2018, she debuted her feature-length doc, or “distorted portrait,” as she calls it, “FUTURE LANGUAGE: The Dimensions of VON LMO,” about an eccentric American singer-songwriter. Fall screenings after its June debut at Chicago Underground Film Festival are slated across the world, including Winnipeg and Barcelona. “I’m editing a short that’s more in the vein of 2016’s ‘Discontinuity,’ a simple narrative about a mother and child, featuring my daughter and I, that is expressed through choppy and interruptive editing. Motherhood is my big pursuit right now. Watching a child develop, and frankly, just watching someone all the time provides me with so many ideas and images. I take a lot of pictures.” She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an assistant professor, but Chicago remains home to Felker and her family. “It always feels so central to me. It’s in the middle of the country, it’s in between being too big and too small, and when you stand in the center, you’re surrounded by great schools and institutions that support filmmaking and creating. I have a lot of options here without feeling like I have to fight demons off with torches or compromise myself. Personally, I would love it if there were more of that sweet TV industry here. We have some shows, and we have some good shows, but we have a lot of shows I don’t care too much about. I wish we had more of the super-creative, unique, deep weirdo programming based here that gets a few seasons on Netflix or what-have-you. I could see myself dipping into that world if I felt there were enough opportunities.” Felker feels good about a different set of opportunities: “I feel the most optimistic about the city’s female and LGBT+ filmmakers and how they’re making their voices heard, getting their work made, and creating new systems of support and community. I’m hearing more and more about makers looking to work with women, asking for the names of female freelancers, and so on, to expand their teams.”
Kindling Group, headed by producer-director Danny Alpert, has pitched their recent efforts toward three projects, all rolling out this fall and in early 2019. “No Small Matter” is a feature doc with a community-impact campaign that redefines our understanding of what’s happening inside children’s brains and minds from birth to the age of five (a co-production with Siskel/Jacobs Productions); “Pulling The Thread,” a digital documentary series and engagement campaign that unravels some of America’s most popular conspiracy theories (co-produced with Independent Television Service); and a second season of “Veterans Coming Home,” a cross-platform public media campaign that bridges America’s military-civilian divide (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and partnering with fourteen PBS stations). “Kindling Group has always designed innovative engagement campaigns to maximize the impact of our documentaries,” Alpert says of the sixteen-year-old Chicago documentary production mainstay. “Given the huge changes in funding, distribution models, formats, audiences, longform is no longer the only way, or even necessarily the best way, to have impact. With these three projects, we leverage the full array of online storytelling tools and formats, from short, shareable videos to photos, multimedia and audio content. This allows distribution whenever and wherever our audiences already ‘live’ online, from Vox and Medium to YouTube and Facebook. It enables us to engage audiences on day one, collect a trove of viewer data, and use it to continually refine our approach. This approach is an ongoing experiment, one leading to wider audiences, new sources of funding and greater impact.” Alpert praises the filmmaking community and its potential with the diversity and talent of young filmmakers. “Plus, we have had the great fortune to partner with many great Chicago filmmakers: Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel and Rachel Pikelny of Siskel/Jacobs Productions, Rebecca Parrish, Suzanne Suffredin and Liz Karr.”
For his third feature, “Rogers Park,” which tracks four characters’ relationships across four Chicago seasons, Kyle Henry acted as his own distributor, making the unusual tack of opening at Siskel but also Chicago Filmmakers, the New 400 and the Beverly Arts Center. “The city of neighborhoods deserved to have a film that’s set in an iconic neighborhood like Rogers Park go on a mini-tour of the city,” Henry says. “It reflects my facility and background as both a publicist and film programmer. I don’t take no for an answer from gatekeepers, and I will find a way, if necessary, to build my own bridges to audiences and critics. I did it before with my feature doc ‘University Inc.’ [co-edited by Spencer Parsons]. When festivals didn’t bite, I toured to over seventy-five colleges and media arts centers in the early aughts, partially sponsored by filmmakers Michael Moore and Richard Linklater. Without these skills, ‘Rogers Park’ would never have gotten out into the world and been both a hit with audiences and critics alike. We’re 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes! This also reflects the DIY/punk scene I emerged from in the early 1990s. Slam dancing psychically prepares you for the rough-and-tumble of our broken distribution systems.” Henry is working with “Rogers Park” screenwriter Carlos Treviño again, on a thriller to be shot around the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Following the “devised” method of collaboration with actors that he used on “Rogers Park,” Henry is a year into development on another partially devised project, inspired by the process used by Mike Leigh. “Tentatively entitled ‘Eldercare,’ and co-written by Chicago-based Kenyan American playwright Philister Sidigu, it explores class, race and gender at the heart of the mounting elder care crisis,” he relates, tracking “an African-American South Side care worker’s relationship to a North Shore white family whose elderly mother, suffering from dementia, she cares for.” Henry’s position as acting director of the MFA in Documentary Media Program at Northwestern “reflects my background also as an award-winning feature documentary film editor, but also my deep desire to make authentic fictional works with deep and strong connection to the actual world. Fantasy has its necessary place in storytelling, but I’m drawn to directing as witnessing, where the actors, writers and I collaborate to create works that feel like the most heightened stories from the lives of ordinary people.” Chicago, he says, “has it all for me as an indie filmmaker, both as a production scene but also as a place where I can co-create stories that document an often-forgotten-and-condescended-to mid-America. I don’t make films about folks living in Williamsburg or Hollywood because I know nothing about the lives lived there. But Chicago has the quintessential problems that average Americans have to come to terms with involving race, class, identity and gender, so it is ground zero for essential witnessing. Chicago also has a great acting community willing to go the distance to make meaningful work in new ways. There’s always been a spirit birthed from improvisation, theater and art scenes that cherishes experimentation, which the film community is in conversation with. And besides, it’s an affordable city to live, which is essential.” Still, Henry says, “We’re missing a strong centralizing nonprofit filmmaker support organization. IFP Chicago and Chicago Filmmakers have stepped up their support work, but we still don’t have our galvanizing organization like the Austin Film Society, or Los Angeles’ Film Independent or NYC’s IFP. That takes a strong leader either from the film community to devote their prestige, time and attention, like Richard Linklater did with Austin Film Society, or a real whiz with nonprofit organization and fundraising to build capital underwriting, like the San Francisco Film Society’s leadership did to create their amazing grant and fellowship opportunities. I hope that leader will emerge, to build bridges to capital support, because that’s the real challenge of Chicago: a lack of public and private sector funding. I had to make ‘Rogers Park’ with private equity from Austin.” But he still sees it as the moment for strong work. “The times are driving artists to dig deep and tell personal, high-risk, socially relevant work. It’s not the time for safe calling cards when the world needs our full attention, passion and commitment. I’m inspired by those who are reaching out to give back to a younger generation of filmmakers, but also those who are opening the doors for stories to be told by a more diverse range of Chicago voices. Resistance begins at home, the personal is political.”
“I have always been scrappy in my filmmaking,” Melika Bass says. “I have been making medium-length and short films for fifteen years, and wanted to sink my teeth into a long film project,” she says of her current feature-length works, “Creature Companion” and the six-years-in-the-making-so-far “The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast” (due in 2020). “I’m focused on regionalism, and fabulism that’s specific to America. Often that feels like a layer of dark history underneath something everyday,” says the assistant professor in the School of the Art Institute’s Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation. Atop her spectral takes on historical fiction in her shorter work, the southern native is now creating stories “firmly planted in contemporary America. ‘The Latest Sun’ celebrates the American Midwest with a distinct kind of art-filmmaking that shifts genres, tones, performance styles, and points of view, weaving personal histories into fiction. My rock-turning sensibility—what’s underneath?—has links, too, to southern literature in Faulkner and O’Connor and McCullers, and folks like [photographer] Sally Mann.” Bass shows her work in both cinemas and art spaces in different forms that suit expectations of the venue, her immersive, fragment films tempt viewers with “the jagged spaces of the tales, to float associations and dream,” as she puts it. “Performance has become so important to me: staged performances of people being fictional versions of themselves in real spaces that I am speculatively hijacking to suggest something uncannily familiar. I grew up in a family of many pastors, and picked performers with their own unique religious family histories.” Her students are a creative family as well: “Teaching keeps the cine-ideas alive and bubbling,” she says. “Mentoring, dialogue, discovery, listening and critique, these are all interrelated between filmmaking in the world and working in the classroom. Directing a film and teaching share a lot of similarities—creating clear perimeters for people to do their own thing and expand into the space provided. I don’t think narrative has to be a prescriptive thing. People like putting pieces together!”
Gabe Klinger has two feature projects with completed scripts, some casting in place, financing in progress, “the usual,” he says. His feature debut, starring the late Anton Yelchin, played at over a hundred festivals and in American theaters in 2017. “’Porto’ seems light years away from what I’m trying to do now, which is grounded in the social justice realm. Making a small, time-addled film out of an encounter between two lost souls in Portugal helped me learn the tools of narrative filmmaking in a way that was relatively low-risk. It was my attempt at a European art-house movie from the 1960s, a tribute to all those movies that I grew up watching. We played at the Music Box in 35mm while ‘Phantom Thread’ was screening in the big theater in 70mm. That was so thrilling. But now that I made one of those, I can say goodbye to them and look to the future, happily.” That future includes his first one-hundred-percent Chicago film, a fiction feature about “the case of a girl who was accused of murder at age sixteen. I co-wrote the script with the young woman, who’s now twenty. It’ll be done on a fairly large scale: sixty speaking parts, as many locations, lots of action.” Klinger has other action planned in the wake of that untitled project: “With the help of several people, I’ve been laying the foundation for a program to teach filmmaking to at-risk youth. The starting point is simple: steer kids away from violence. The program would extend to young people in their late teens and twenties with felony records. If I can help to create high-profile feature and streaming projects in Chicago that employ dozens or even hundreds over time, why not offer training programs to felons and then employ them on film shoots, in post-production or as writers?” This is part of a larger philosophy: “As long as I live here, I find it essential to show solidarity with the people in the community who are the most disenfranchised. Offer every resource possible to try to help out. Demystify certain areas of the city. Talk to people. Maintain a sense of shock and not get jaded by the system, which is easy in a city like Chicago. The system is created by cynical people and it’s supposed to beat you down. So the goal is to not get beat down, to prevail. In a way, that’s why the story of this young girl accused of murder is fascinating to me.”
Jack C. Newell
While tackling multiple projects as an independent director, Jack Newell is also program director of the Harold Ramis Film School at Second City. A new partnership with DePaul begins as the school starts “offering an MFA in comedic storytelling, a BFA in comedic filmmaking as well as a minor.” The restaurant doc Newell began in 2013, “42 Grams,” was seen in theaters and is on Netflix. “Hope Springs Eternal,” which he directed was seen this fall in theaters and on video-on-demand. Newell is close to completing his doc series “How to Build a School in Haiti,” a seven-year effort, and will shoot his next fiction project, “Monuments,” later this year. Of improvements on the Chicago film scene, he notes “film investment is becoming demystified, allowing independent voices to make their films as they want. Compound that with the liberalization of the art form through technological advances, not only in production but also in distribution, and you have a perfect storm of making Chicago incredibly exciting. But I’m not entirely convinced we have a film community. Yes, we have people who are making films here, but do we consider ourselves a community? There probably are cliques of film communities but the overlap between cliques, I would wager, is small. At Second City/HRFS, we talk about the power of being part of an ensemble. To be a member of the ensemble makes every part of that group stronger—it’s not about everyone becoming the same, but it encourages you to define yourself more clearly. By nature, ensembles are better with more divergent voices. If we view ourselves in Chicago, or even in the world of film as a giant ensemble, diversity and inclusion isn’t something to do because it sounds or feels good: it’s mandatory.”
Filmmaker-anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki directed one of 2015’s most highly regarded documentary theatrical releases, the clamorously atmospheric “The Iron Ministry,” and his 2017 “El Mar La Mar” (co-directed with Joshua Bonnetta), an account of the Sonoran Desert, site of many treacherous border crossings, further dazzled documentary followers, with rave reviews in the New York Times and Guardian during its theatrical release at MoMA in New York and the ICA in London, where a multi-channel iteration was exhibited. (Its non-theatrical run continues.) Sniadecki is collaborating on an untitled project in southern Illinois, which combines the total solar eclipse above Cairo, and the figurative eclipse of the city through post-industrialism. Local residents work on vignettes with the filmmakers. “Despite economic hardship and a deep-seeded history of racial injustice, this film celebrates a vibrant community and its path toward resurgence,” Sniadecki says. He has other projects in progress in mainland China, where he maintains “ a close connection to the independent film community, despite the unfortunate hardships it has faced under Xi Jinping. My colleague Zhu Rikun (curator and filmmaker) is working on an annual small gauge—16mm and Super 8mm—film workshop that will operate completely independently of any government institution. We are planning to launch a pilot program this autumn and continue with a second iteration in summer 2019.” Chicago provides a haven to make this work around the world. “Chicago is a welcoming place and a supportive community, and artists can largely still afford rent here. The non-commercial film community of makers and cinephiles is strong and active, and we get a steady flow of visitors to the Block Cinema, to UChicago’s Logan Center, to Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Nightingale. Just as importantly, I love working with our amazing Northwestern MFA in Doc Media students who enter the program open to exploring film form and have been making marvelous works that are screening around the world and winning awards.” But all is not perfect. “Like it is in most of the country, it‘s hard in Chicago to fund non-commercial projects. It’s equally challenging to wrestle the notion of ‘nonfiction film’ or ‘documentary’ from the restrictive, infotainment influence of broadcast-TV journalism. I find it extremely unfortunate that the risk-averse gatekeepers of documentary funding seem to see only two possible forms for the genre: social issue doc or character-driven narrative. But the possibilities of nonfiction cinema are far greater than these two narrow, conservative and overused structures. Diversity is important, and diversity in terms of film form should also be included in our discussions and initiatives around this important matter. Time to open up to new possibilities!” Sniadecki sees possibilities daily. “In addition to the absolute joy I take in my own filmmaking process, what keeps me optimistic is the new energy and innovative spirit of key folks entering our community. Whether it’s a new curator or a newly minted MFA, there are indications that the stale straitjacketing that gatekeepers have tried to thrust upon the possibilities of film may soon have to step aside for fresh visions. I welcome that with open arms.”
Maria Finitzo, whose documentary subjects range from stem-cell research to Chicago girls’ high-school sports to strong young women, says “The Dilemma of Desire,” is her most challenging feature-length film, “both a vérité and essay film about female sexual desire and women’s equality.” The tagline is ‘There Is No Equality Without Equality of Pleasure.’” After traveling since 2016 from Chicago to Berlin to Mexico to Brooklyn to Georgia, to San Francisco to Salt Lake City, Finitzo began editing in August, for fall 2019 completion and a 2020 festival release. “If my team (Diane Quon and Cynthia Kane producing, Liz Kaar editing) and I do it right, the film will initiate a conversation about female sexual desire that will empower women to embrace and own their sexuality by giving them language to talk about their desire without shame and embarrassment. What’s allowed for men, must be allowed for women. I believe that’s where equality starts and is at the heart of the film.” Finitzo has taken a break from teaching to work as well on fiction filmmaking, to get “A Taste of Life,” her adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story, “Passion” financed and made. “I am also writing the pilot and show bible for a series for episodic television based on the intellectual property my company optioned, called ‘Cliteracy: The 100 Natural Laws,’ a dramatic comedy centered around the complicated world of gender politics. I’ve set the pilot in Chicago and it would be a dream come true to see it produced here. I live here. My roots go deep here and I can’t imagine living or working anywhere else.” Finitzo would like to see more opportunities for others, however. “Chicago has so much talent, but not as much opportunity as all that talent deserves. What’s missing is the serious financing that would enable all of us, makers of both docs and fiction, to get our work produced. It saddens me to say, but Chicago is still overlooked when producers with money go looking for talent and projects. As a director and producer, I can get into the ‘room’ in New York and Los Angeles and do fine. I would love for the ‘room’ to come to Chicago. There are so many creative people figuring out how to get around gatekeepers and get work done. There is also finally the recognition that it isn’t only white men who can direct. But more needs to be done. For any industry to have impact—especially the creative arts— it has to include diverse voices in every sense of the word. I would never say I was ‘optimistic’ about getting my work done. I’m too realistic for that. But I am tenacious and as long as there is breath in my body I won’t give up. It’s why I get out of bed in the morning.”
Aymar Jean Christian
Our 2017 Film 50 cover subject Aymar Jean Christian, noted for his pioneering analysis and productivity in the arena of web series via Open Television, suits this year’s roster, with a return to directing, his first pilot since 2015. “In ‘Hair Story,’ residents of an artsy black co-op tell wild stories to a drag queen, Gia, as she does their hair,” Christian relates. “These stories are represented as music videos or ‘Drunk History’-style narrated scenes.” Christian assembled a writers room of eleven to contribute characters to his pilot from shows they were developing. “The result is a series that, if produced, could lead to at least seven spin-offs, each totally different from the last. As a scholar-artist I view production as site for experimentation. ‘Hair Story’ is an experiment in queer series development, how to use one series to exponentially increase the number of black, queer and intersectional writers, characters and stories that bigger studios can develop.” In addition, sixteen projects have been released on OTV in 2018. “Chicago is a great place for emerging artists to find their voice and some institutional support, and I view web series, or indie TV, as a space for developing emerging talent in Hollywood,” Christian says. “There’s a clear sense of experimentation and sincerity in series written in Chicago, which gives the city an edge in the increasingly global marketplace for original stories. There are lots of writers in Los Angeles but Chicago’s artists are working in and with specific communities as they develop their practice, so the writing feels fresh, grounded and uninhibited by the pressure to sell.” But money does matter. “Funding, producers and training are desperately needed to take Chicago to the next level. We need funding for production and more independent producers who can organize quality work outside the traditional system, which remains exclusionary. Our artists are talented but less focused on professional development, and our distance from decision makers means that artists often don’t know how the industry works or all the work that’s needed to reach the next level. I’m heartened by the excitement for Chicago I hear from people on the coasts and abroad. Many people seem to understand that the city brings a different sensibility that has national, if not global appeal. People often tell me they or their bosses are seeking diverse voices. I believe they are sincere, but we need more than words, we need investment from people and organizations willing to take on the risk that is a necessity for long-term, sustainable growth. Diverse artists are getting deals, but mostly the ones who have been trying to break into the industry for many, many years. We need people willing to take on the less glamorous work of developing the next Issa Rae or Tanya Saracho. On my most optimistic days I believe I may have already met those people and they are working on marshaling the necessary stakeholders to make that happen.”
“Chicago and I are in a long-term long-distance relationship,” filmmaker Emily Esperanza says of her past year working here, in Los Angeles and Marfa. “This city introduced me to some of my closest friends and collaborators and grounded me in the importance of community. Chicago is the crux of the development of my art.” She continues to make shorts, including “Maiden,” “Hail Mary” and “The Love Story” as well as expanding her ongoing “Wretched Woman” series. Esperanza debuted her fresh, bawdy, brightly stylized mid-length “Make Out Party” in March at a two-night immersive event via Full Spectrum Features and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. “I am really interested in using screenings as events to facilitate community,” she says. “I’m the founder and co-curator of Wretched Nobles, an underground screening series that offers a platform for rebellious voices in cinema. There is inherent kinetic energy to watching a film in a room full of people and in the age of digital, and potentially self-isolating, cinema. The experience of watching a film and sharing space with other people is kind of radical.” Esperanza is working with Full Spectrum Features toward her first feature, to be made in Chicago. “Right now there is a focus in diversity in filmmaking, creating much-needed opportunities for people of color, women and LGBTQ+ filmmakers. And while this is great, there is still a long way to go. I want to get to the point where diverse filmmakers’ works are considered canonical and not specialized or subculture.”
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.