Veteran documentarian Danielle Beverly, an assistant professor at Northwestern University and Northwestern University in Qatar, recently brought her filmmaking back to Chicago. Her feature documentary “Dusty Groove: The Sound of Transition” (2019), completed its fourteen-month festival tour. “Dusty Groove” follows Rick Wojcik, a used vinyl record buyer, as he enters the lives of people selling once-prized possessions—their record collections. Each seller is facing a life transition. “It’s about much more than records, although vinyl nerds dig the film,” Beverly says. “I had hoped to take it on a grassroots outdoor screening tour this summer but did not feel it was safe enough. I’ll do that next summer.” In her past work and projects to come, she says, “I’m interested in people and places in transition. Each of my observational documentaries has explored individuals who are reinventing themselves, or communities who are facing change. Certainly, Chicago is a place that loves its own history, yet is also constantly reimagining itself. There is definitely another Chicago-based documentary in my future.” She calls Chicago home because of multiple “formative stints.” “My twenties were spent stomping around Wicker Park during its heyday, while I studied documentary at Columbia. She got her first freelance gig with music video company H-Gun Labs, picking up garbage on the Public Enemy-Anthrax shoot for “Bring the Noise.” “I was immediately hooked!” Later roles included associate producer at WTTW, and directing her first feature documentary, “Learning to Swallow,” about Chicago artist Patsy Desmond. Intervening years spent in San Francisco, New York, Athens, Georgia and Qatar led eventually to a role in the faculty in Northwestern’s MFA in Documentary Media program. “I own a home now in Rogers Park, so I guess that’s putting down roots!” She’s an optimist in other ways: “I’m optimistic about the revolution for Black Lives. Even though my documentary work has race embedded in the narrative, with Black and white voices in conversation, as a professor I’m best able to contribute to this revolution. In the classroom I include films by BIPOC makers. I assign journal articles that contextualize those films, allowing students of different identities and lived experiences, to enter into conversation. Going forward, I’ve committed to advocating more forcefully for change, by speaking out about inequity in my workspaces, and the documentary space at large.” Of other pursuits, Beverly adds, “Roller-skating with old-school skates on the Lakefront. I don’t see too many others doing this.”
Filmmaker James Choi says his enterprise is in “making quality and successful films for less than what is traditionally thought possible. Isn’t ‘tradition’ and filmmaking a paradox?” asks the co-producer of 2019 festival favorite “Saint Frances” and instructor at the DePaul School of Cinematic Arts. “If it’s not, it should be.” Beyond the SXSW audience award and a special jury prize for Breakthrough Voice, Choi hopes for end-of-season Spirit Award nominations after its “healthy” U.S. and U.K. theatrical runs. Current work includes a doc short, “Engage Earth,” about Brazilian artist Denise Milan whose work with stones deliberates on the metamorphosis of crystal quartz. Choi also shepherded “Sun King,” a student-produced microbudget feature through DePaul’s Indie Studio. Choi is writing and directing a transcontinental mother-son dramedy—Chicago to Seoul—delving into his Korean roots, and as a good producer, multiple projects in search of financing. Choi has “a couple great potential projects in the works” with “Saint Frances” director Alex Thompson. A decade as an educator at DePaul, working with the next generation, is “integrally linked” to his approach as a filmmaker. “I’ve always been drawn to the power of cinema as a way to engage people in our commonalities thus directly or indirectly promoting empathy and kindness toward one another; something we desperately need now. As a person of color, the stripping of our country’s aged, old facade has been long overdue and while the struggle is ongoing, the changes I’m seeing in the industry feel optimistic. An Asian-American story five years ago would have been overlooked, but here we are today with more diversity, niche content platforms, and a South Korean film winning an Oscar for Best Picture. Despite being inundated with divisive messages on the news and social media that could convince us that the world is hateful, I believe there is more good out there than bad. It’s a constant battle where we must be diligent and focus on our purpose and truth for the art and business of cinema. The light is there. I see its glimmer.”
Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross
“We Believe in Dinosaurs,” which premiered on PBS’ Independent Lens in February after a healthy festival run, is the six-year project of co-director and co-producers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross and their science-based nonprofit 137 Films and their “incredible collaborator” Amy Ellison. (Their collaboration began in the MFA film program at Northwestern.) “It’s a film about creationism, small-town USA and America’s very complex relationship with science,” Brown says. “A creationist organization in Kentucky set out to build a life-sized Noah’s Ark as a way to ‘prove’ the Earth is only six-thousand-years old, and that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. We didn’t intend it to take six years, but it did! We’ve spent the last sixteen years exploring that bizarre, fuzzy boundary between science and belief. Our method of following subjects for years to get the whole story makes us unusual, and we find ways to explore America’s weird and complex relationship with science in ways that no one else notices.” Ross creates experimental shorts “exploring women and memory,” often using found footage to create short films and performance art with Chicago as both place and character, and recently “donated part of my large home movie collection, purchased at estate sales in Chicago and surrounding suburbs with views of life in Chicago over decades, to the Chicago Film Archives. I use found footage from the collection to create new work, both short films and performance art, where Chicago becomes both a place and a character.” Brown says that he has “always been fascinated with the ways in which science plays into our thoughts and lives: my narrative work has explored science fiction, historical science, or folks whose obsessions with science bring them together. Lately though, like many, my work has turned toward themes of division, isolation, anger and fractured cultures, trying to make sense of what is happening around us.”
“Everyone else can do what I do!” director of photography Jason Chiu says of his highly regarded work. “I’m fortunate and had lucky breaks that gave me valuable experiences.” (“Jason takes chances on first-time filmmakers,” one observer offers, “and always makes something beautiful.”) Highlighting his CV is Stephen Cone’s luminous “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” (2014), where he met director Marty Schousboe, for whom he DPed seasons one and two of “Joe Pera Talks With You” on Adult Swim. Alongside commercials and indie shorts with Chicago-based directors and production companies, he’s been on Alex Heller’s “Grizzlies”; Dani Wieder’s “Cool for Five Seconds” and Abby Pierce’s “Eat Your Heart Out,” as well as working with Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member Alana Arenas for the last four years on a doc about Black theater in Chicago. “Before the pandemic, my life was pretty closely tied to my profession. A lot of filmmakers feel the same way: our hobby is our profession. My pursuits in life have been to be a better cinematographer: To have a better eye for lighting, movement and framing in relation to story and theme with the tools and budget available. To follow and understand the ways that cinematography is always changing—what looked good three years ago now looks dated. What’s missing from the film community are more paid opportunities for DPs and a production support system for indie filmmakers. Some truly special films get made through the process, but a lot of people end up working for free or for very little and filmmakers themselves go broke. My five-year dream would be to be a DP on another series for a network or streamer, while living in Chicago. Another dream: I’d like to DP a sci-fi version of something like ‘Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party’! Make it look like ‘Dune’ or ‘Blade Runner,’ but it’s just a story about a kid trying to find their way in life with their parents embarrassing them along the way.”
“Fifty years a filmmaker!” veteran filmmaker and retired SAIC teacher Tom Palazzolo reports. “There’s nothing I can do, that others can’t do better. But I can usually do it cheaper than anyone else.” A lavish book of Palazzolo’s photography of lost skid row “Clark Street” was published last fall, and he is still hard at work. “Whatever falls in my lap will determine my future work. I don’t have preconceived ideas when starting a project, I want situations to unfold spontaneously.” The coming year should see the premiere of “Lee Godie: Chicago French Impressionist,” a feature documentary about the late street artist with filmmaker Kapra Fleming. “Still pursuing my interest in video documentary, still photography and painting. Doing video interviews and incorporating stills and 16mm footage. Chicago will always be the focus of my work. My roots are deep. I am optimistic about the future, but know we will need the pandemic to end before things return to normal and new opportunities arise. In the next five years, I hope to continue experimenting with the documentary format, and collaborating with other video makers. I want to continue collaborating with Media Burn and Chicago Film Archives, as well as any person, place, thing that would like my input. I make it happen by reaching out to friends for suggestions. Much of my film work came about as a result of their ‘You should do a film about…’ I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“I have a unique set of life experiences as an award-winning filmmaker, producer, educator and industry visionary,” says Yvonne Welbon, filmmaker, producer and founder and CEO of the nonprofit Sisters in Cinema. “I have demonstrated my dedication to sharing what I have learned with Black women, girls and gender non-conforming media makers throughout my career-long Sisters in Cinema project. Once we open the Media Arts Center in 2021, we believe we will be the only organization of its kind in Chicago and possibly in the entire country. We envision a world where all Black girls, women and gender non-conforming media makers and storytellers have equal opportunities to create and thrive. I’m working with my community to make that happen.” As an award-winning filmmaker, and member of the Academy, Welbon has produced and distributed dozens of films including “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100” and “Sisters in Cinema,” a documentary on the history of Black women feature film directors. Upcoming projects include “The Spies Who Loved Me,” an exposé on surveillance drawn from six years she lived in Taipei, Taiwan and “American Pride,” a Black lesbian coming-of-age series set in the early 1970s on the South Side.
Filmmaker-anthropologist-professor J.P. Sniadecki, director of MFA in Documentary Media program and associate professor, RTVF Department, Northwestern University, continues his dense but disarming documentary practice after successes like “The Iron Ministry” and “El Mar La Mar.” Sniadecki released “A Shape of Things To Come” (co-directed with Lisa Marie Malloy), “an unsettling vision of eco-terrorism” and “postmodern borderlands Western, speculative fiction” that follows Sundog, an herbalist-hunter-homesteader who lives off the land in the Sonoran Desert. Sniadecki says the film raises “provocative questions about humanity’s relation to the environment, and to itself, amidst the specter of global collapse.” “Cairo, IL Project” in the works since 2017, is a collectively authored work set in “the overlooked yet historic town of Cairo, Illinois, a former industrial and agricultural empire at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers” that was also a nexus for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, with protests against racist policies, violence and oppression there led by figures like John Lewis, Reverend Charles Koen, Hattie Kendrick and Preston Ewing Jr. Peopled by “an indelible cast of Cairoites,” the project celebrates the vibrant community spirit. “As a multiracial and multigenerational team of locals and allies, we are driven by the principle of inclusion,” Sniadecki says, “and seek to dismantle existing hierarchical structures which have long imposed limits, biases and barriers in the film world. We embrace a collective ethos: authorship is shared, stories are woven together in a multivocal collage, and our team works together in a collaborative manner.” The group’s collaboration with community leaders extends to bringing down abandoned homes for more gardens, creating economic opportunities for locals and launching initiatives like Cairo Media Art Center. Sniadecki is working on another project in China, as well as a 16mm film workshop in Beijing that teaches celluloid filmmaking and hand-processing, “although it obviously has run into some obstacles with COVID-19 and geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.”
Bing Liu, the 2018 Film 50’s “Filmmaker of the Moment” and director of “Minding the Gap,” says “I’m interested in telling Midwest stories.” It’s important to him not to take “the privilege of being a working filmmaker lightly—remembering the difference between entertainment and art is that art strives to challenge the status quo.” Liu, who is working on a feature-length documentary about two organizations working to reduce gun violence on the South and West Sides, has been in California since lockdown, but looks forward to his return to the city. “Chicago has art-house theaters, Midwestern-focused film festivals, independent film community organizations, and a thriving industry. As Lupe Fiasco says, it’s the best city in the whole wide world.” What’s missing? “More films representing life in Chicago, especially those parts of the city often overlooked. I think this lockdown and the renewed focus on inequities in Chicago and the country is making people rethink what is important in their work moving forward.” Liu is looking forward to fictional narrative as well, including a feature set in his hometown of Rockford. “Art is a reflection of society,” he says. “If we as people continue to support funding to invest in the parts of the city most in need—specifically those historically ignored and abandoned, it will produce not just rich and diverse art coming out of the city but a rich and diverse community.”
“I am taking from my unique experience of being a queer, Singaporean immigrant, woman of color, a mother, a wife, who is now working as a freelance director, director of photography and sound recordist specializing in vérité documentaries, and using it to make a positive impact in my community.” Shuling Yong, a 2009 Northwestern graduate, has made her place as the director of 2019’s “Unteachable” and as the highly regarded director of photography on films such as “The Feeling of Being Watched” and “Trans in America: Chicago Love”; and location sound mixer on Maria Finitzo’s “The Dilemma of Desire”; Debra Tolchinsky’s “True Memories and Other Falsehoods”; and Margaret Byrne’s “Any Given Day.” (She was lead location sound recordist on “Becoming,” the Michelle Obama doc.) “Growing up in Singapore, I was always told that doing well in math and science was important as it would lead to greater career prospects,” she says. “So when I was sixteen, my decision to pursue a career in the arts was a big disappointment to my parents. Even today, at thirty-four, they still have a hard time wrapping their heads around a ‘freelance life,’ and constantly worry about my ability to make a stable living.” Working with groups like Kartemquin, Mezcla Media Collective and QueerDoc, Yong is “an eternal optimist, I always try to find the good in every situation” and believes that to live a fulfilling and sustainable life, “one needs to find their Ikigai, a Japanese term used to describe a reason for being, or the intersection of four things—what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. It took years of trying many facets of the media industry, including production assisting, digital marketing, impact producing, radio production, podcasting and nonprofit video production before I was able to find my Ikigai in what I do now: documentary cinematography and location sound.”
Director Seth Savoy’s created commercial work and for cultural organizations, and finished his feature “Echo Boomers,” a Chicago-set twentysomethings heist drama featuring Michael Shannon, Lesley Ann Warren, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Alex Pettyfer, to be released by Saban Films. “There is this unspoken bond in the Chicago film community. Chicago has given me everything I could have ever asked for. I found the majority of my investors here and met Byron Wetzel, Sean Kaplan, Mike Ware, who helped me produce ‘Echo Boomers,’ and most importantly, this city gave me a once-in-a-lifetime story to tell.” Savoy’s niche, he says, “is fun and flashy political commentary that sparks conversation. Content that makes people question their own beliefs is an absolute must, and as long as I’m working with great actors telling an amazing story that makes people think—I could do this forever. And I’d like to thank the universe in advance for the beautiful, positive social changes in our future.”
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.