Frédéric Moffet, chair of the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation department at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also provides fresh visions as a filmmaker. “I love SAIC, the main reason why I live in Chicago. My students are my main source of energy, they are brilliant. They come from all over the world and they all have such different approaches to media making. Because we are an art school, we teach cinema differently; our focus is more on singular voices than on hierarchical ways of working.” Moffet’s two recent shorts, “Fever Freaks” and “The Magic Hedge” have shown in over fifty international film festivals and special screenings in galleries, museums. (“The Magic Hedge” explores a Montrose Harbor bird sanctuary that was once a lakefront missile site, but is now a cruising area.) “My work is intensely experimental, queer and difficult so it’s always a nice surprise when the work connects. It is important for me that my work can exist in multiple venues, that it can cross borders and reach different audiences.” A recent event struck the native Montrealer: “At the premiere of ‘Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 4’ at the MCA, it was wonderful to stand on stage with the other directors because four of them were former students from different periods of my teaching life. It is important to understand that by teaching and sharing your experience, you can help shape the community that you want to be a part of. Chicago is a great place for experimental filmmaking. You don’t have to continuously explain to people that you are not interested in working in industry, that you are not making short films because you hope that one day you will make a feature. There is less pressure here, which means there is more freedom to create.”
Laura Ann Harrison
Laura Ann Harrison’s intricate animations about difficult matters are shown at fests around the world, including a 2015 New York Film Festival slot for “The Lingerie Show,” a few months after winning the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s Best Made In Chicago Award. A more recent award: a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship. Harrison has worked as an experimental animator for only seven or so years, with twenty-five years of work as a painter behind her. “Her eclectic, propulsive story telling style—derived in part from her painterly hand and narratives dealing with difficult subjects—was novel in its tactility and forcefulness, offering entirely original content,” the Guggenheim Foundation cited. As an example, CUFF described Harrison’s 2016 “Little Red Giant, The Monster That I Was” as “A story about transformation through trauma [when] Anna, an unhinged artist, goes berserk at an academic’s barbecue. Her German Studies boyfriend, Klaus, mansplains to her about what her art should look like, Clair, a back stabbing comp lit chick, talks smack behind her back to Katrina, the science writer from MIT, and no one wants to hear about her art. Anna winds up in jail where she is finally given a sympathetic audience to the story about her ‘Forever Wolves’ art.” Harrison received a New Artist Society Scholarship in 2014 from SAIC to complete “Little Red Giant” and a second MFA, in Film, Video, New Media and Animation. Harrison is working on a feature-length film, “The Limits of Vision,” adapted from the novel by Robert Irwin, planned for a 2020 release. “I taught animation at UIC this past year and I write and paint,” she says. “All of these elements find their way into my work.” As does her new-ish home, Chicago. “There is a fervor for film here that I’ve never experienced anywhere else,” she says. “A lot of support has come my way. The resources available, screening venues, fiscal sponsorship and enthusiasm of my peers has been great. Maybe more of an experimental animation community? I’m always gratified that I’m in dialogue with other filmmakers and an audience. What gives me hope about my work is that in these increasingly atomized times, I’m actually connecting to people. What gives me hope generally are the midterms.”
“A poem that’s a joke that’s a joke that’s a poem that’s a protest sign with citations and then it’s really loud and then it’s really quiet and sometimes I’m in it and sometimes you are too. They’re texty and talky with lots of ideas but also an attention to the bodily and sensorial experience of cinema” is how Jesse Malmed describes his brainy, funny work in film. “A number of my most recent film works have been much more paracinematic: ‘Excerpts from Alfabet City’—at Spertus this summer—was a speculative reconstruction of elements from the archive of the apocryphal late-1960s radical children’s show. Think Bert and Ernie, but Brecht and Kovacs.” This summer, Malmed and Nellie Kluz wrote a fanfic spec script for the HBO show “Dream On!” which was cancelled in 1996. Malmed also made an actor-less play “Light Play (Jogging My Memory, Running My Mouth),” “a luminous little romp starring the beam of an apparitional spotlight, and had its only physical instantiation at the MCA last year; it’s predictably difficult to find cinemas or galleries with ambitious, theatrical lighting situations.” While teaching at UIC and in Chicago Public Schools through CAPE, Malmed is preparing a new film called “Sighght,” which carries through on his interests, not limited to “language, time, comedy, poetry, diffuse sourcing, politics, history, conversations between sub-, counter- and popular culture, with a particular fascination with the spaces between and within seeing, looking and reading.” Malmed curates and programs at the Nightingale, where he’s organized screenings for five years, and in other, mostly artist-run spaces. “We can look forward to more of those on the horizon. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of work with my genius friends Andrew Mausert-Mooney and Kera MacKenzie of ACRE TV. This year I’m also working with a group of UIC students to produce a multi-event time-based art festival and symposium for next spring—it’s student-driven so I can’t say more about it yet.” Collaboration matters to Malmed. “I value and believe in the heady feedback loop of making art, talking and teaching about art, writing about art, platforming and enabling others’ art,” he says. “I also find that my own practice benefits from a lot of activity—small things, big things, my things, your things, our things.” And Chicago is a big thing. “We never intended on staying in Chicago so long, but it’s great here. It’s an old saw, but it’s what I see: Chicago is the best city to be a young-ish artist in the country—the mixture of institutions, schools, history, give us global context and access but it’s at the artist-run scale that we do our best work: it is rigorous, vigorous and playful. While I have pangs of envy when I see screenings and series in other cities, Chicago has an incredible circuit for exhibition. Certainly more and easier access to funding for experimental projects would do wonders, but I’m not holding my breath. Even though I don’t use much celluloid in my practice right now, I’ve been elated to see so many new independent and artist-run film labs popping up—I’m sure that would be a boon for Chicago.” And Chicago is also a place to be rowdy and philosophical: “A few days ago I was able to live one of my dreams, playing Tuli Kupferberg in the Fugs cover band, The Fucs, with Eddy Crouse and Eric Watts, at Co-Prosperity Sphere for the show Nick Wylie curated about the legacy of 1968, so maybe I’ll leave it with something Tuli said years ago dealing with our endlessly accelerating political and ecological dystopia: ‘Nobody who lived through the 1950s thought the 1960s could’ve existed. So there’s always hope.’”
Shayna Connelly has shepherded five more of her dreamy, haunting (and haunted) short films into the world in the past two years. “Three of them are part of the collection, ‘A Memory Palace for Ghosts,’ about the ways hauntings plague us. This summer I completed the final two and will screen them individually while gearing up to tour all eight shorts as a group.” The collection is thematically related, but the films also work against categorization, she says. “It’s been interesting to see the reception to my work over the past two years, depending on whether a film is labeled experimental, documentary, narrative or a ‘poem film.’ Hauntings and horror cinema are about transgressing boundaries, which runs contrary to siloing through labels. That fascinates and bothers me.” She’s embarked on what she dubs a “palette cleanser.” The film is “about the boundary between home movies and documentary and the intersection of my personal and professional identities. If nothing else, it’ll be my first comedy because the subject—my daughter—is bonkers and hilarious.” Most of her time, she says, is spent producing or directing in some capacity, blending life and art. “Teaching, mentoring female filmmakers and parenting—aspects of my life that go beyond filmmaking—also feed it. The pressure on women to sacrifice themselves for their careers without being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them is paralyzing. In all my chosen roles I value exploration and discovery over checking off milestones. Culturally, we focus far too much on ‘done’ over ‘doing.’” Chicago, Connelly relates, “ has everything I need: a welcoming community of filmmakers, an enviable arts scene, plus it’s affordable and convenient to get around. Transportation and geography make it easier to recharge and find inspiration while allowing me to have a family and a job. Not all university environments are created equal and I feel fortunate to teach at DePaul.” As for that community, she says she “would like to see higher audience turnout at screenings and a wider array of grant opportunities for filmmakers. There are so many incredible micro-cinemas and film festivals here. I keep challenging my students to go to festivals instead of choosing the multiplex or streaming. They are stretched thin and competition for their attention is fierce, but it’s essential to experience new voices, alternative venues and to understand what resonates with programmers and audiences. Even a microbudget film is not free. My approach to filmmaking means I can either crowdfund, apply for grants or self-fund. Funding is hard to come by and while I can do a lot with a little, over time it is exhausting to rely on reduced rates, favors and hope to get a film done.” Others around her inspire her. “There’s solidarity among filmmakers, playwrights and musicians that I draw from to keep going. The fact that so many people are using art to make the world a more equitable and beautiful place gives me hope. Teaching also reaffirms my faith in humanity. If I weren’t in the classroom I would be more despondent at the state of the world, but hearing what’s important to young adults lets me know we are on the verge of something beautiful. It’s our obligation to get them to the point where they can take charge. “
A new generation of cinematographer is rising in Chicago, and one of the busiest, and most accomplished, is Christopher Rejano. ”So much has happened since 2016,” he says. “When we filmed ‘Signature Move’ I had no idea how great of a festival run it would have. After premiering at South by Southwest in 2017, it took a life of its own. I’ve worked on Chicago network and streaming shows as a camera operator and second unit DP, and have also shot commercials, another independent feature and a few short films as well as the great, new web series, ‘The T.’ And I work with Jennifer Reeder a lot. Our most recent works are the short film ‘Shuvit’ and a music video for the Chicago hometown heroes Joan of Arc. We also spent the better part of the summer prepping and shooting Jennifer’s second feature, ‘Knives and Skin.’ I’m very proud of this film. Every cast and crew member poured their hearts into it, and it shows. I can’t wait for the world to see it. I’m in pre-production for [Hugh Schulze’s “Dreaming Grand Avenue,”] another feature that begins this fall, and another short film to follow right after. Keeping busy is best for me.” [Newcity’s Chicago Film Project is the producer of “Signature Move,” “Knives and Skin” and “Dreaming Grand Avenue.”] Of cinematography, Rejano says, “This is it. I try to be the best that I can at what I do. There are thousands of cinematographers out there and I strive to stand apart from the crowd. Whether it’s trying to watch movies on my day off or trying to keep abreast of new tech and new equipment, it’s all relevant. Recently I have been approached by some non-profit organizations to lead some camera workshops with high school kids.” So Chicago’s the place to do it all? “Chicago allows me to be me. There is a community that recognizes me as a reliable camera operator or second unit DP for studio or network productions and then there is the independent film community that knows that I can lend a specific vision and run a set that is creative, inclusive and ultimately gratifying. This is a creatively rich city and everyday I feel excited to be able to contribute to the films being produced here.” What does Chicago need more of? “Inclusivity,” he says plainly. “I see so many sets that are dominated by norms that have been in place since the beginning of film. This is a time in which we can break down barriers, remedy exclusion and change stagnation in the industry. We need to try harder, this business is big enough for everyone. There are so many stories not being told and if they are, they’re watered down. Every person in charge of a department has the ability to include anyone when staffing up. Every producer has the choice to select a director that can offer a different point-of-view. There is nothing to be scared of, it’s just change. We all need it. We’re all better for it. I am impressed by the amount of young and diverse filmmakers that Chicago has to offer. It’s safe for me to assume that the crew that works for me and with me have the talent to sustain a strong film community for years to come. It’s a creative time in Chicago and that pushes me to up my game. As for myself, I’m always optimistic that a film that I have photographed will inspire or move a viewer somewhere along the way.”
Michael Glover Smith
A full-time film studies instructor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Harper College in Palatine and a sometimes film journalist with extensive filmmaker interviews in Time Out, Michael Glover Smith also is in post-production on his third low-low-budget feature. His first, 2015’s so-Chicago morsel “Cool Apocalypse,” was noted as having “hopeful investment in conversational cul-de-sacs, the tension-filled banter of classical local improv” in Newcity. His 2017 sophomore feature, “Mercury in Retrograde,” a more ambitious, dialogue-rich vehicle, took top award at Tallahassee this year, had a run at Siskel and will play out the year in other cities. He finished mixing the sound for his latest, “Rendezvous in Chicago,” at the end of August. Smith is also producing Rob Christopher’s documentary “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago,” consisting almost entirely of archival footage and narrated by the “Wild at Heart” novelist himself, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. (Lilli Carré is creating three animated sequences to get the project to fine cut.) Smith’s key programming outlet is the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival, which he founded five years ago. “Even though my budget is small, I’ve brought the likes of Kris Swanberg, Melika Bass, Stephen Cone, Jennifer Reeder, Gabe Klinger, Frank Ross and Brandy Burre to the school to do Q&As after screening their work.” Jacqueline Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” one of the year’s best, will open. He finds all these activities necessary: “Teaching, writing, programming and filmmaking are interrelated. Even though I majored in film production at Columbia College in 2000, I drifted away from filmmaking because shooting on film was so cost-prohibitive and resource-heavy at the time. What brought me back to filmmaking is the way digital technology has brought down the cost and democratized the process. Also, teaching film got me excited about the possibility of making films all over again. When I teach and write about film, I always pay enormous attention to form. I ask my students, ‘What are the filmmakers doing with mise-en-scène, camera, editing and sound—and how do these aspects of film form create meaning?’ Talking and writing about film in this way has fueled my own filmmaking endeavors.” It’s possible to make film anywhere, right? “Yes, independent filmmaking can be done anywhere and it breaks my heart to see friends and collaborators move to New York and Los Angeles. I love Chicago and the ever-expanding local film industry. We have been on the verge of a ‘Chicago New Wave’ for the past few years. Chicago is also a great city when it comes to arthouse and repertory programming but I would like to see more local journalists covering that programming. This is, of course, not so much a local problem as it is a problem with America under late capitalism.”
Shengze Zhu, Zhengfan Yang
“We focus on filmmaking,” Shengze Zhu says of collaborations with her partner, Zhengfan Yang, under the Burn the Film banner, “not only just making films, but also producing. Zhengfan and I never co-direct, but serve as producer for each other’s work.” Since 2016, Zhu and Yang have completed two feature documentaries, one experimental short and one fiction short. Their immaculately observed body of work is branching out from Asian subjects, but their international outreach starts in Chicago. “I have lived in Columbia, Missouri, where I attended the Missouri School of Journalism at UMC for more than two years,” Zhu says. “Almost every time I traveled abroad and then returned to the United States, I’d stop in transit at Chicago. I loved the Art Institute and the architecture of Chicago, and I feel somehow emotionally connected to this city. As for Zhengfan, he has been a big fan of the Chicago Bulls, back in the 1990s when he was a teenager in China.” When they decided to leave China three years ago, “it was not difficult for us to choose Chicago as our next new home, especially given that both of us were admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and we both received the merit scholarship.” Their 2016 experimental doc “Where Are You Going” examines Hong Kong through a taxi driver’s windshield with thirteen different encounters, and premiered at Rotterdam. The structuralist film “Another Year” captures thirteen dinners of a Chinese migrant worker’s family over the course of fourteen months. Beginning and ending around the Chinese New Year, the meals unfold in real-time through static, long takes and shows the rhythm of a family’s life on the margins of urban society. “With rigorous formal constraints, the film captures subtly shifting family dynamics and unveils how the mundane can appear mysterious and beautiful with the passage of time. It proposes an unflinching depiction of this working-class family to see deeper into China’s economic boom and massive urbanization,” they write. “Now we’re working on two projects: Zhengfan’s second fiction feature, ‘The Stranger,’ and my third documentary feature, ‘Present. Perfect.” The former is ten different stories that take place in ten different hotel rooms in Beijing. “The latter adapts an unconventional shooting approach,” she says. “It’s about a group of little-known Chinese live-streamers who struggle with real-life relationships and have difficulty in face-to-face social contact. The documentary is composed of footage filmed and broadcasted by these live-streamers themselves in various parts of China, but all recorded here in Chicago.” Their latest short, which premiered at Venice in September before screenings at Busan and the New York Film Festival is “Down There” (co-written, and directed by Yang and produced by Zhu) is a single long take that “observes the collective psychology of an apartment building after a quiet night is interrupted by the sound from downstairs.”
“As an independent producer in Chicago, I work with a small and nimble group of collaborators,” Harvey Moshman relates, “rarely shooting with a crew larger than three or four.” He learned this technique on his first professional film job on the “Candid Camera” show, working as film loader, PA, grip, walk-on actor and guy who runs after people to sign the release form. “In those days, Alan Funt, Mr. Candid Camera himself, did not go out on field shoots. Nameless producers and crews shot those pieces. When I approached an unsuspecting participant who had been the butt of one of our hidden camera gags to sign the release, their first question was always, ‘Where’s Alan Funt?’ I pointed to any van in the immediate area and explained: ‘He’s in the van.’ They always believed me. Four decades later, I’m still chasing people with release forms, persuading them to sign!” His current projects, slated for distribution through PBS stations, are wildly dissimilar: “The Eastland Disaster,” a historical documentary about the deadliest day in Chicago history, and the series “Wild Travels,” seeking quirk in offbeat and unusual places across America. “I can keep the projects straight in my head, but occasionally I’ll mix up the shots in Avid with unintentionally amusing results.” Local talent is key to his work: “The talent pool for crews and voice-over actors in Chicago is deep. I can’t imagine a better place for an independent filmmaker than Chicago, for the camaraderie, support and pride in the work.”
Rocco Cataldo, Mary Kay Cook, Mike Kwielford
Potenza Productions creates branded content for clients in their day-to-day business, “but we’re filmmakers at heart, and are always looking for opportunities to stretch,” Mary Kay Cook says for the group. They collaborated with a ballerina, Emily Sarkissian, creating the Emmy-award winning dance film, “Emergence.” “That validated us getting out of our comfort zone,” she says. A first feature, “Static,” to be shot on mixed film formats and accompanied by a transmedia element, is on its way as they take the next steps in securing funding and strategic partnerships. “Our many years of working together has resulted in a creative shorthand that we hope will serve us well on this next endeavor.” Potenza Productions is also a sponsor of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, whose monthly event is produced by Cook. “We are Midwesterners, and Chicago has a singular work ethic and sense of community that is unique, versus the coasts. It’s the city that works.” Still, she adds, “a robust long-term system to develop and fiscally support homegrown creatives would be ideal.”
Northwestern associate professor Spencer Parsons made the black-on-black super-Chicago horror comedy “Bite Radius” in 2015, and two shorts since then, the precise slices of perversity “Alpha Waved” and “Commodity/Fetish,” while working at longer-form projects. “I’m skeptical of features as a workable form,” Parsons relates, “and I remain unconvinced by the golden or platinum age of TV or whatever it is. I have stuff I care about in the works, but honestly? I’m pretty gun-shy after the last couple years, and I hesitate to speak of any project that isn’t in the can for fear of jinxing it. I’ll say that I’m working on an ongoing true-crime thing that’s kind of inspired by Buñuel and Pasolini, and hopefully that’s just specific and just vague enough to credibly apply to whatever projects I complete in the coming year.” He’s still uncertain of the right way to tell stories. “I factor in the day job, of course—my teaching schedule—and increasingly, I’m thinking about other ways to tell stories and keep in practice besides making film. While focusing more intensely on shorts—because I can better guarantee they will happen—I’m also thinking about how to get practice in the disciplines involved in filmmaking, how to tell stories with or without a camera.” Chicago is a lab for his experiments. “It’s where I am. It’s certainly more city for the money than other places, though I see cranes on our horizon, and I start to worry about the gentrification that ruined cities like New York and San Francisco for anyone not super-rich. Within our current economy, it’s practically punk rock to aspire to maintaining a middle-class life in the face of grotesque inequality, rather than to aspire to billionaire status and vote for the billions you’re on the verge of making. Chicago’s still okay for that.” Chicago could use more of a film community, he adds. “We need to spend more time with each other, not at artificial industry mixers and networking opportunities, but in the everyday as friends and colleagues. I’ve gone bowling with film folks a few times, and I’m hoping that can become a thing. Chicago needs a filmmaker bowling league.” Parsons chooses to be optimistic. “What is optimism? Whether in it for business or personal expression, we have to see the current state of things as an opportunity, as countless artists have done before during bad times or when change was cataclysmic. That’s only optimistic if we keep in mind how grim things really are and what sacrifices are necessary to take advantage of opportunities. That’s a lot of work on top of trying to make commercial entertainment or art or whatever, especially for anyone from a community that’s deliberately ignored in our culture. For the last twenty years, we’ve experienced highly touted and debated paradigm shifts, but when that kind of radical change happens every ten minutes, as it does, that’s not actually a paradigm shift; that’s a shiny object. In a way, all the change is an irresistible force, and it behooves us to be immovable objects, to stick to our own essential purposes that are fulfilled by making what we need to make, regardless of how smart that looks, or how hip, or how marketable. I see a show like ‘Atlanta’ where Donald Glover and Hiro Murai hijack the resources of a network to make exactly what they want, no quarter. That’s a success. But then there’s Chicago’s Frank Ross, who has made remarkable work in recent years, on his own terms, and it’s gone criminally unseen. If we’re going to take the opportunities offered by our genuinely dire moment and demanded by systemic failure in our government, we can aspire to be Donald Glover or Josephine Decker or Sean Baker, but we have to be ready and willing to be Frank Ross, and we have to risk that in cultural and economic solidarity—seriously, a lot of us have to do this, all at once—almost like going on strike by making movies nobody sensible would want us to make and forcing everyone to deal with us. That’s optimism.”
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.