“My work is very different from a lot of people making experimental work in Chicago,” says artist, filmmaker and UIC adjunct assistant professor Zachary Hutchinson. “I try to have some level of accessibility in all my work so that my dad, a former factory worker who never went to college, can enjoy it as much as the most educated academic elite. I say this without qualification of these two kinds of people, but as a way to speak about the impenetrable wall of stuffiness and academic pretentiousness that keeps experimental film out of reach from people who might otherwise be interested. I’m not here for the film-history circle-jerk. That said, I think experimental film is actually everywhere, from advertisements to TikTok, we just aren’t using the language to define it and make it clear that it’s everywhere.” Hutchinson is in post on a short she shot at an ACRE artist residency last summer. “Lately, I’ve been writing narrative-directed screenplays, trying to break out from experimental. Because I come from a fine art background, so many film industry standards and systems don’t apply to me or I just choose not to participate. I don’t come from generational wealth, so being a filmmaker has always been risky as a nonbinary queer person, even when not in a pandemic. I hope to figure out how to receive funding for larger projects without using crowdfunding. This process has always been very opaque to me (intentionally so, I’m sure). I want to make a feature but I need financial help. That’s the reality and it’s terrifying because I don’t know where to start.” Teaching Intro to Filmmaking at UIC, she says, “Most of my students are first-generation immigrants of Mexican and/or Latinx families. It is SO hard to find filmmakers and video artists who look like them. Where are the brown indigenous Latinx filmmakers? So I tell them it’s incredibly important for them to fill this gap.”
“I am interested in how this time will take shape collectively in the work being made right now,” says Lilli Carré, artist, animator and co-director of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation. “I’m recalibrating and adjusting to some life changes, and letting myself make work directly in response to this moment of cultural, social, political and personal implosion and an attempt to process it in physical isolation.” In the past year, Carré finished a short animation, “Private Properties,” “a sort of forensic study of a domestic space. The linework combines quick representations, as architecture continuously collapses and rebuilds.” She also created “Night Watch,” a five-channel CG video in which characters performed and interacted silently behind sets of blinds. After the tenth year of the Eyeworks Festival the event was postponed while Eyeworks put out the first issue of “Hammerspace,” an artist book-journal on a specific theme in animation, and plans a second, on the theme of “Rails.” “I’m grateful to have grown amongst what I think are especially strong experimental film, comics, and art communities in Chicago, and found influential teachers and peers here in each of those worlds,” she says. “In lockdown life, I’m working on a hand-drawn animation and weaving projects, for a show next fall at Western Exhibitions. I feel lucky to work in mediums that are meditative and well-suited for social isolation in such a fucked moment.”
“Whether I like it or not, my works are shamelessly private, sentimental and intimate,” says filmmaker and educator Danièle Wilmouth. A teacher at SAIC and Columbia, she says, “For years I’ve been making experimental films with deeply personal themes, as well as quiet social issue documentaries about grief, trauma, aging and disability. In the past, women artists were condemned when they adoringly painted their children, or filmed a housewife in real time peeling potatoes for twenty minutes. Perhaps it’s the advent of #MeToo, or the fact that I’m finally old enough not to care so much about what others think. I embrace the personal, the sloppy sappy struggles and events of everyday life. The ordinary is extraordinary, the static can be ecstatic. I’m interested in the slow burn of hyper-reality as well as the messy romanticism of hyper-humanism.” Wilmouth is in post on the nonfiction dance short “I’m Fine,” which addresses “midlife existential questions” in collaboration with dancer-choreographer Peter Carpenter. “Deeply exploring the body-mind connection, the dancers shift from rigorous dance choreography, to improvised nonfiction accounts of personal suffering in the form of both words and physicality.” A second work is “a posthumous collaboration between my parents and myself,” “7.5 inches per second,” which combines 16mm film, stop-motion animation, HD video and reel-to-reel audio recordings “to explore the humanity of objects, home as archive, the labor of grieving, family archeology and cloud storage as a postmortem forwarding address.” “7.5 inches per second” also questions “the ongoing trend to eradicate the physical object or body, and move toward purely intangible modes of storage and preservation.”
An Iranian-born interdisciplinary artist, Pegah Pasalar has made shorts titled after a day of the week; after “Saturday,” “Sunday” and “Monday,” each of which takes place over the course of one day following a woman with very contemporary concerns; she is developing “Tuesday” as a feature. “’Tuesday’ follows an Iranian girl in four different ages of her life. It has so much painterly imagery and is very intimate. But it’s not only about Iran. It’s about the struggles of womanhood. The struggles of mis-fitness. The struggles with patriarchy. This story is what makes me wake up early every day.” During lockdown, Pasalar began a personal project, “Exodus Pathology,” an experimental hybrid documentary that narrates the story of her own immigration. Exploring “utopia and national boundaries,” Pasalar knits reenactments, visual diaries, imaginary cartography, moving image paintings, and virtual and online conversations “to depict the alienation of leaving one country with difficulty, only to find oneself in another.” “I am just an intuitive person with so much passion for people and life and my dog. I do care about having a better world that is more just and equal. I think there are very different approaches toward that, some people use their bodies in protests, some people use their wealth to support other people and mine is through my art. We need the collective of approaches. There is no ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ We need it all. I really miss gatherings and surprise encounters with people in film communities, screenings. These encounters spark hope and let me celebrate my moments of being an artist. Being an artist and sustaining it is difficult. One phrase, one sentence, one discussion, one debate, one gaze can change one’s life.”
Interdisciplinary video artist and documentary maker Kirsten Leenaars, associate professor in Contemporary Practices at SAIC, draws on performance, theater and nonfiction strategies in her work. “I make my work with a hopeful yet critical consciousness,” she says. “I foster an intentional porous process in which I invite others to participate to create the work. Through this collective creative process I am committed to thinking about the political, social and personal possibilities of living a life together.” Current work includes “(Re)Housing the American Dream,” a cumulative performative documentary project. “This experimental multi-year documentary project follows a group of American and refugee youths, growing up in the time of Trump, through the collective making of performative video work and interviews, exploring the construct of the American Dream as it intersects with their own lived realities. I just finished shooting our latest iteration.” Directly in front of her is the completion of “Imaginary Homelands,” a documentary she made via Zoom during the past few months, about “notions of home, belonging, community and citizenship.” Leenaars says she is “both super-excited and intimidated by the process of editing all the footage from the past four years of the ‘(Re)Housing the American Dream’ project into one film.” She thinks globally and locally. “I always want to see more deeply, I want to understand physically, emotionally, relationally, historically, politically the world that I am part of in deeper ways. In some ways perhaps not being from the U.S. helps in this pursuit. My work is community-based—and often rooted in Chicago—hence having an understanding of the local is key. Reality is permeated with dominant fictions, individual longings and collective imaginings. We choose what we believe about what we see and experience. We construct narratives to which we refer in order to make our way through life. In my practice, I explore the nature of these narratives. I look at our ways in which we understand and perform our daily lives and explore possible ways of relating to each other.”
Filmmaker-artist-curator Daniel Eisenberg, making films and video at the edges of documentary and experimental media for three decades, has been with SAIC for twenty-six years, and is a professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation. “In my teaching I am motivated by forming strong support for individuality in the context of community,” he says, “which means exactly that the individual artist and student must articulate subjectivity in the context of a deeper understanding of community, of its essential importance, and value. We have lived in an extraordinary era of fetishized individuality, and we have all suffered from its cultural dominance. It’s time to reassert community as a motivating economic and social force.” Chicago is a place of “chance… ease…,” Eisenberg says, “It’s international and local at the same time.” In his media work, he values “exploration of form, of time and duration, and is invested in the idea that knowledge is not only linguistically produced, but sensually as well. My work is about producing knowledge through the senses, and a complex articulation of time and space. That sounds abstract, but it’s what motivates an exploratory approach to working—trusting the eyes and ears to lead, and the ways our senses are curious.” Recent work includes a 2018 international symposium on work and labor at SAIC, “Re:Working Labor,” which was mounted in 2019 as an international exhibition. Eisenberg finished the second hour of a “modular and protean” three-hour film, “The Unstable Object II” in the form of hour-long factory portraits that can be seen as separate films.” The factories are the world’s largest prosthetics factory in Germany, a small hand-made couture glove atelier in southern France, and a medium-sized distressed-jeans factory in rural central Turkey. “There is, of course, a large conceptual structure to the work, but the work also functions on many levels so can easily be reformed to specific contexts, conditions and forms. The unstable object refers to the meanings and value we place on things in an era of non-materiality, but of course the most unstable object of all is media itself.” Optimism, he says, “is something I cannot afford right now in the current economic and political climate. I am vigilant and wary, and remain active in my commitments to economic justice and I think many other forms of justice including racial justice flow from there.”
Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman and Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter (not pictured)/Photo: Sandy Morris (Sally Blood)
A decade on the scene, Manual Cinema has crafted and mastered their own audiovisual vocabulary, reaching as far back as the silent era, to present theater-animation-film experiences that contain gorgeously stylized films created live, in real time. The quintet of co-artistic directors—Julia Miller, Sarah Fornace, Drew Dir, Ben Kauffman, Kyle Vegter—made a startling impression on a larger world when a trailer for Nia DaCosta’s 2021 “Candyman” dropped in June, drawing from the shadow animation they had created. The past two years also saw premieres of two theatrical productions, “The End of TV” and “Frankenstein.” Half of each year is usually spent making film and video, in collaboration with other artists or institutions like The New York Times or Topic Magazine, and the other half touring their original shows around the world. The pandemic canalled Santiago and Edinburgh engagements, leaving the group to shift gears to film, video and virtual live programming. “We’re working on an adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in our first-ever virtual theatrical run,” Julia Miller reports, with live performances streaming nightly December 3 through December 20, which “features our signature cinematic shadow puppetry with hundreds of paper puppets, miniatures, silhouettes, multiple camera feeds and a live original score in a reinvention adapted specifically for the 2020 holiday season.” Drew Dir says that the five “come from disparate backgrounds, including music, experimental theater and visual art; none of us studied or trained in film. But all of us apply our respective backgrounds to working collaboratively on a film project; for example, Sarah and Julia’s background in circus arts comes into play in our silhouette movement work, or Kyle and Ben’s experience with experimental and new music provides them with innovative approaches to composing a score.” He continues, “We feel like outsiders to the film community; we originated in the music world and the theater world, and so we’ve stumbled into film through the back door. So we haven’t really been here long enough to know what’s missing! But we also know that we’d love to find more folks who have taken non-conventional routes into film. The mission remains the same—how do we create the experience of cinema in a way that feels handmade, intimate and theatrical.”
“I don’t think anybody can make the animations that I make,’ says Laura Harrison, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the department of Film, Video, Animation and New Genres. The 2017 Guggenheim fellow is working on “The Limits of Vision,” “either a long short or featurette—depending on how much more money I can raise to keep animating!—featuring a madly philosophical, lonely housewife. Coming unstuck, she goes on fantastical journeys into the universe of dirt and decay, archeological digs in the Gobi and rides on the Beagle with Darwin. It’s about art, transformation, decay, white feminism, class and race power dynamics. It’s also about language and slipping the bonds of what holds us.” This city has been freeing for Harrison. “Chicago has been transformative for me. Since moving here, I got a third MFA. I got married. I got my first real job. I was treated like a real artist by my peers. At the same time, reckoning with my limitations has been part of the challenge of living here, transforming my animation and teaching practice, making me much more conscious than ever before. This is a place to do hard work of all kinds—psychological, spiritual, political, relational.” She’s saddened that “animation is still considered a bit of an outlier. I know film people who I respect who dismiss animators as ‘crazy’ and generally tend to think of it as a medium not to take seriously. It is seen not so much as an art, but as a type of film, made for children or sentimental and precious, and that is a shame. There are so many wildly diverse animators in Chicago: Jim Trainor, Chris Sullivan, Joel Benjamin, Lilli Carré, Peter Burr, Lisa Barcy and Selina Trepp, and none of them make childish, sentimental work and none of them are crazy.”
“I’m not a superhero and don’t have a special power. But I did work professionally for ten years as a feature film editor,” says filmmaker-Northwestern associate professor Kyle Henry. “For my features ‘Rogers Park’ and ‘Eldercare,’ a group of actors helped shape character through research, improvisation and ongoing screenplay feedback, where beyond a general story arc that I helped shape, writers were free then to bring stories to life. So perhaps radical collaboration, even on personal and intimate work, is my superpower after all?” Henry is halfway through production on an essay film, “Trace of Time,” “about my family archive’s relationship to twentieth and twenty-first century American history.” While his mother, who suffered from dementia is its heart, the narrative follows Henry’s struggle to see her before she died in an upstate New York nursing home, “including a harrowing final road trip,” with diversions into aspects of history and contemporary struggle: the toxic environmental fallout from the creation of celluloid via an investigation into Kodak’s history of pollution in Rochester, New York, where his mother’s nursing home was located; how his family benefited from white privilege post-WWII; his mother’s stifled art career and her history of surviving workplace harassment and discrimination. It’s slated for 2022, Henry says, “after I finish editing the 100,000-plus photos and 2,000-plus hours of archival and filmed footage. It’s mostly an archival essay documentary, so COVID hasn’t slowed me down.” Henry works again with writer Carlos Treviño (“Rogers Park”) on “a chamber piece eco-thriller set on a Great Lakes island in the near future of 2050. We’ve visited practically every island in the Great Lakes and have slogged our way through the consciousness-shifting scientific research of what our world will probably look like after the next major cascades of climate change hit, so it’s full-stop writing drafts this apocalyptic fall and winter.”
“Being in a Midwest metropolis and the Great Lakes area puts me in a unique position as a cinematographer,” says Christopher Rejano, whose recent work includes Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin,” which debuted at the Berlinale and Tribeca and recent debuts “Dreaming Grand Avenue” and “Tom of Your Life.” “Living in Chicago keeps me rooted in the realities and inconsistencies of city life. The divisive nature of race, wealth and location are factors that as an artist you cannot ignore if you live in Chicago. On the flipside of that, having grown up in a suburb of Detroit, I can appreciate the beauty of a lone barn as it deteriorates in a long-forgotten field just as well as I can appreciate a graffiti-covered car that’s been abandoned under the El tracks. The ability to see the sometimes-dark beauty of living in a big city and overlaying that with the rich skin of Midwest rural bleakness is very much a part of my persona as well as an essential part of my quiver as a cinematographer.” As well as shooting several shorts, Rejano was second-unit DP on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” pilot, and right before lockdown, shot additional scenes for the Jordan Peele production of Nia DaCosta’s take on “Candyman.” “If I’m being brutally honest, I want to be the go-to person when they think of a Chicago cinematographer. If a commercial is going to shoot here I want to be up for it, if a film is being shot in Chicago I want to be up for the job as cinematographer!” Still, says Rejano, the local film community is missing “validation.” “Chicago is full of talented people yet we still have to fight hard to get big shows to shoot here. Our independent film scene is tight, but I feel that given the proper light, we could have a bigger presence on streaming networks. There also needs to be more backing and funding for LGBTQ filmmaking and shows and more POC and women directing projects in Chicago. There should be more women DPs, camera operators and gaffers. Until we can all work together to get these things in place, then the idea of community is still just an idea.”
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.