“When I was a freshman in college, I discovered two dead bodies in a ravine. I notified authorities, but to my knowledge it was never in the papers or on the news,” writer-director Jim Vendiola says. “Twenty years later, I still carry an unusual heartache for those two anonymous strangers, whose stories I’ll probably never know. I’m barely part of their story, but they’re part of mine. It’s in the back of my mind, subconsciously inspiring my unique and empathetic approach to otherwise macabre narratives. I wonder what my work would have been like without that encounter.” Vendiola’s short work, including “Library Hours” (2017), blooms and broods with hothouse atmosphere, and his interest in the ongoing vogue for true crime material suffuses his soon-to-shoot first feature, “Homesick,” a supernatural thriller he and co-screenwriter Shelley Gustavson began writing in late 2018. (Newcity’s Chicago Film Project will produce; the project was part of Chicago International Film Festival’s “The Pitch”) Vendiola describes “Homesick” as a blend of “youthful abandon, haunting dread and multi-era murder mystery. “Through its serial killer antagonist, it’s also a contemporary examination of predatory men, male fragility, and toxicity that subverts popular media’s frequent depiction of these killers as brilliant, methodical criminal masterminds, whose ability we’re meant to envy on some level.” He intends to continue in the true crime lane. “My girlfriend and I are immersed in true crime media, so that bleeds into my work! She falls asleep to crime podcasts every night, and we watch so many of the docs and programs, and read books and articles. We’ve seen all 406 episodes of ‘Forensic Files,’ and habitually rewatch them. Other times in my life, as a Filipino-American, my mom has made me the de facto videographer for the open-casket funerals of some of our relatives. The footage is meant for extended family back in the Philippines, unable to attend. So it’s functional, but still a very strange, morbid thing to have to participate in, even if I am right for the job. It almost feels foolish to be optimistic about anything these days. But if and when things stabilize a bit, I am completely psyched to let it rip on my first feature, and on future projects. In the event I get to keep doing what I’m doing in some future iteration of these dark times, I like to think my creative voice stands a fighting chance.”
Independent producer Nevo Shinaar, co-founder of SITE Collective and producer at Free Spirit PRO, has been involved in over ten short documentaries, produced in the U.S. and internationally, “which have allowed me to create new relationships and learn more about the rapidly changing distribution landscape for shorts.” Shinaar is also a co-producer on Sebastián Pinzón Silva’s in-production feature debut, “La Bonga,” as well as developing both documentary and fiction films and interactive projects. Working at Free Spirit PRO as a mentor and producer since 2017, he says, has taught him more about the South and West Sides of Chicago “while supporting young adults as they learn to become professionals in the field.” A 2017 graduate of Northwestern’s MFA in Documentary Media program, the shorts he has produced have premiered at festivals like Sundance and SXSW. Before moving to Chicago, he spent several years in community development in rural Nepal “and have vowed to prioritize that focus on community over anything else.” As a relative newcomer to Chicago, Shinaar finds an embracing city, discovering collaborators during his time at Northwestern and while interning for Media Process Group with Bob Hercules and Keith Walker. While 2020 is challenging, he sees the documentary field “growing exponentially as viewers become more interested in real-world experiences and wanting to affect change in the world.” Shinaar is also “fascinated by the overlap between culture and technology,” and hopes to learn more about interactive technologies, specifically AR and VR. “And as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Shinaar hopes “to see increased diversification in our field, shifting focus to assure access of marginalized communities to resources and opportunities while tackling systematic racism in the field, both in this country and worldwide.” Chicago’s potential is “endless,” he says. “With the infrastructure of a major city, a plethora of people and stories and a strong network of non-profit media organizations, academic programs and an increasingly vibrant and diverse community—I am confident its best days are ahead.”
Grace Hahn produced Stephen Cone’s “Princess Cyd” right out of undergrad at Northwestern University; 2018 was the year that first feature film landed on a major streaming network. “That changed the game for me,” the creative producer says, “providing perspective on the life of a project when it leaves your hands, your city, and starts a life of its own. I knew at that time that I wanted to be deliberate in what I say, do, and make.” Since then, Hahn completed a number of short films and music videos as well as another feature, “Once Upon a River,” by writer-director Haroula Rose, which has its virtual theatrical release this month via Film Movement. “Spending the past couple of years in the post-mortem phase of production and the listen-and-learn phase of distribution, I’ve been insanely lucky to experience diverse audience reactions to queer stories, native stories, plotlines involving abortion, abuse, gaslighting and resilience. I am so proud of seeing the impact of these films, for better or for worse, and not because they employ good buzzwords, but because they represent someone’s reality. I’m knee-deep in development for three features at different phases of readiness, but all supporting this goal of mine to interpret stories with care and audience in mind.”
“I grew up beneath a waterfall of industrial entertainment—TV, video games, movies, trash,” says Peter Burr, visiting artist at SAIC’s Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation. “I remember when I first went to art school a couple decades ago and began learning how to use digital tools to sample and repurpose this material, it was really exciting. It felt like grabbing hold of the firehose that had been spraying me for so long and turning it around, spraying back. And doing so with purpose! It was cathartic and liberating, but also it was not my voice. It was the voice of the vessel that I grew up in, but it’s easy to get lost in there.” Burr is devoted to “exploring the concept of an endlessly mutating labyrinth.” “My most recent work has been a very deliberate turning inwards—eschewing traditional techniques of collage and sampling and instead using the mechanisms that produced the industrial images I grew up on to create new feelings and images and situations that are difficult to express any other way. However, virtually none of my work is made in a vacuum. Whether it’s a punk community in Portland (where I lived a decade ago) or a community of artists interested in ambient music or an academic community as I have here in Chicago, humans are important to me and my practice. The traditions of cultural production may change as I move through the world, but the baseline is an interest in working with people who are kind and sensitive and also like to build the world from their own imaginations. I think we need more of that in Chicago right now.”
“Here’s the thing. Anyone can do what I’m doing, and that’s the beauty of it,” filmmaker Zanah Thirus says. “You’re not talking about wanting to make films, you’re making films. What I do isn’t special, it’s logical. Write a $500,000 script and beg people to fund it, or write a $1,500 script and shoot it in two days with my friends? I’m choosing the latter. Chances are it’ll wind up at the same festival as the $500,000 film, because I’m just that good!” Thirus has produced fifteen films, several of which can be seen on Amazon Prime. “Outside of my full-time day job as a content producer in the ad world, in the past two years I’ve written, produced and directed a short, ‘MeMaw,’ written and produced another short, ‘Demons,’ and produced and directed two documentaries, ‘Black Feminist’ and ‘Unlearning Sex.” I’m in preproduction for my first comedy short, and in development for my next feature doc, both shooting in 2021. I also launched a microbudget film podcast on Apple and Spotify.” Thirus isn’t stopping. “I’m really optimistic because of my approach to filmmaking. I’m a microbudget filmmaker who self-funds the majority of my projects for under $5,000. It hasn’t limited me with distribution, film festivals or awards in any way. Making films with your friends is best. I write, produce, edit and direct most of my films, so I can run with nimble teams. The pandemic has shown people that everything doesn’t need to be a blockbuster. We’re going to see some incredible projects come out of 2020 and 2021. There will never be a time where what I’m doing will go out of style. I’m fifteen films in at this point and I don’t plan on slowing down.”
“What I do, everyone can do. But do they do it?” asks award-winning filmmaker and film educator Marco Williams, a professor at Northwestern’s Department of Radio Television and Film and member of the Academy. His extensive filmography includes 2017’s “Crafting An Echo,” capturing the process of a dance commission on deadline for the Martha Graham Dance Company”and “Inside: The New Black Panthers” (2009). In post: “Murders That Matter,” a broadcast doc feature that follows across four years an African-American, Muslim mother who moves from being “a victim of trauma and violence into a fierce advocate.” Further down the road are “Chicago Lawn,” about a community of working Latinx and African-American residents and the economic stresses and the systemic racial inequities they face; and an exploration of the making of “Eyes on the Prize” and African-American filmmaker Henry Hampton. “Chicago has a great history that celebrates the lived existence of African-American communities,” Williams says. “The contribution and the impact on the Black Chicagoans, as well as the Latino community continue to compel me as a documentarian. I don’t rely on optimism or pessimism. I just do the work. Through the ups and downs, I just do the work. I am more sculptor than painter.”
“I don’t know anyone who makes experimental-documentary-narrative-horror-feminist-children’s films about death and ghosts, but if there’s someone else like me I want to meet them,” says filmmaker and DePaul University associate professor Shayna Connelly. Her weird world is being discovered in other parts of the world, a spectral place where the merely commonplace holds secrets. “I’ve had the expected ups and downs since 2018 that every filmmaker faces.” While a pair of scripted shorts awaits production, in the past two years, Connelly has released an essay film, an experimental film and a documentary character portrait as well as filming an observational documentary on cemeteries, which she is editing. “Along with that, I have two amorphous written entities to wrestle into shape. One is a feature-length horror script, which may only make sense to me when it’s done, but its imagery will scare the crap out of anyone who watches it. The other thing seems to be book-shaped. Despite the non-cinematic medium, parts of it can be mined for a series of shorts. And I have the usual smattering of other ideas percolating and footage to sift through. When you engage in a practice because doing it sustains you and not doing it makes you miserable, it becomes a logical conclusion to release the work into the world before moving on to the next thing. This is not just my plan for the next five years, it’s my plan for eternity. Maybe I’m less of a filmmaker and more of a meanderer.” She’s created her own edition of our city. “The Chicago-specific pursuit affecting my filmmaking is walking in cemeteries. I live near four, but one contains more messy beauty and history than the others. Cemeteries are monuments to love and relationships and remind me that death needs to be continually acknowledged as a part of life since culturally we work so hard to deny its existence. This obsession unites all of my cinematic doodlings, and if someone misses that, my films look like a series of non-sequiturs, which may not be a bad thing. Because I’ve been walking in the same cemetery for six months I’ve seen it change with the seasons, I’ve made friends with its deer and goose residents, seen new graves appear, new tokens left behind for the dead and after the storm this spring trees topple gravestones from the 1800s. It’s a place of wonder.” As is Chicago. “Chicago is full of folks who operate creatively in a similar way as I do. Folks here have an easier time making sense of my cinematic eccentricities and accepting my cinematic banalities. I like being removed from the business of filmmaking and its alienating set of rules for how things should be done.” Yet money matters. “The big thing missing here is more grant funding for film, since it is such an expensive art form. That feels decadent to say when so many people are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, but creating and engaging in art changes lives. We don’t give the arts and artists the support they deserve. Still, film and art make me optimistic, though in other areas of life I tend to be pessimistic and curmudgeonly. But change is inevitable and it’s also exciting to see the future as an opportunity to rid ourselves of bad habits. I’m keeping an image of the future open, hoping it is much better than I can imagine.”
Filmmaker Paige Taul, who teaches at University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been making works about “Black identity expression and my experience of these expressions as well as works exploring my familial relationships” for “myself and others in the diaspora to experience.” Taul is exploring the relationship between her mother and aunts. “My mother has lived in California for the last twenty-five years and it’s been many more since her and her sisters have lived in the same city. I’m interested in the whiplash that comes from being forced to make space for each other.” “She tests the limits of identity and self-identification as an African American,” an observer says, challenging “notions of racial authenticity” and “observing environmental connections and concepts tied to race-based expectations and intraracial othering that takes place within the Black community.” What does Chicago need to encourage work like hers? “An abundance of funding opportunities.” Still, she says, “I’m eager to make space for myself and become part of the ebb and flow of the abundant arts scene here.” “Routine is crucial right now,” Taul says. “I feel a sense of urgency to make work and keep deadlines while balancing the overwhelming desire to slow down. It is hard to focus sometimes due to the looming unknown that is the next few years of the world’s fate; but I do what I can.”
Director-writer-actor Derek Dow, a Chicago State University professor and prolific independent filmmaker, has twelve films to his credit, including feature “L.A.A.P Presents Family Values,” “Shotgun Wedding,” “Growing Pains,” “Mama, I Made It” and “Coping.” “We call him ‘Mr. Black Harvest,’ the Siskel Film Center’s Barbara Scharres says, “because he’s had so many films in the festival. If I could name just one filmmaker who started his career at Black Harvest who I think should be directing features, it’s Derek. He’s grown to an artistic maturity that demands a chance at a mainstream career.” A digital series, “I’m Trying” and a Chicago-set script, “Care Package,” are forthcoming. “Everything I do is about Chicago. The city is in every fiber of my being. I go to places that are considered paradise and ask the people there, ‘Have you ever been to Chicago?’ That type of love never goes away. It creeps into my work somehow. It could be through dialogue, setting, or style of dress. For a kid from the South Side, Chicago just has this aura that I can’t find anywhere else. The smells, the energy, the sense of community. The people carry this sense of pride, and the city offers you so much from history and hidden gems. I want to bring eighties-nineties comedy back for my community—that ‘The Breakfast Club’ type of stuff but with a little color on it. We just need to keep telling stories that feel good to us in the place they originated from.”
Documentarian and director of photography Ashley O’Shay, a Kartemquin Films associate, has shot a range of shorts and projects throughout Chicago in the past couple years “with the intention of illuminating marginalized voices.” She filmed and co-produced the Chicago episode of KQED’s award-winning series, “If Cities Could Dance,” and her work appeared in the Lifetime series, “Surviving R. Kelly.” O’Shay’s focus of late has been on her debut feature, “Unapologetic,” a doc that “looks deeply at the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago, through the experiences of two young, Black queer women, Janaé and Bella, a love letter to the movement, and a piece of archive that will serve for years to come.” Building experience in the community, she says, “So much of who I am as a filmmaker began when I was a teen, at a youth-led public access show in Indianapolis. I want to create those formative spaces for other Black creators, whether through my work or intentional education. Quite frankly, being a Black woman with the talent to wield a camera is a superpower in itself. The convergence of those identities will keep me energized for many years to come.” Image is paramount: “As I entered film school I became obsessed with how visuals worked in tandem onscreen. As a cinematographer, I have the ability to control how and through what lens we see the world around us. This becomes especially important when depicting vulnerable populations, given the surplus of negative depictions throughout media historically. Chicago is such a beautifully diverse city, and I work very hard to portray that complexity.”
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.