Documentary producer-director Jayme Joyce made a commitment in 2018 to the nonfiction company, Local Legend Films, which has completed a raft of short docs as a group. Most recently, collaborating with disadvantaged youth, the group produced a mini-documentary series, “Local Legends of COVID-19,” which relate tales of relief workers passing out food, promoting peace amidst gun violence, incarcerated people, students, artists and protests. “The people in Chicago have a lot of stories to tell and document,” Joyce says. “I’ve been seeking a deeper understanding of restorative justice and social and emotional intelligence as an alternative approach to running a business, leading teams and telling stories.” She sounds a refrain: Chicago film needs funding. “Funding is the biggest thing missing for people working in all of the arts. If there was an abundance of funding, young artists could push boundaries and failures wouldn’t be so heartbreaking. We could celebrate new unproven artists for taking risks and pushing the art forms toward a big renaissance. It would also serve Chicago to confront how segregated it is. This includes the art and film world. I’d love to see more diverse film crews. Funding and gigs going more to people of color and women. I’m working toward this vision everyday to the best of my ability.” Up next is “The Red Summer Project,” about a group of artists who went on a nationwide tour to honor the centennial of the Red Summer Race Riots in 2019.
“’Empathy’ is critical for me to be able to enter fully into a long-term, long-form edit,” says Leslie Simmer, director of editing and senior editor at Kartemquin Films, “which is why I’m most attracted to social issue documentary, and trying to tell a story in a way that creates an empathetic response in audiences.” Simmer, who recently began teaching at Columbia College, slid into several projects since wrapping “America to Me,” including “For the Left Hand,” co-directed with Gordon Quinn, about a pianist who survived a violent attack by his father that left him paralyzed on the right side and then spent the next sixty years mastering works written for the left hand only. A chance encounter with the Tribune’s Howard Reich led to his concert debut. A series still under wraps “was one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever edited, both visually and emotionally. Being able to spend time with the characters, albeit only on my Avid screen, always left me feeling more peaceful and cheerful. I used to tell people that editing it was like doing the backstroke in a warm, calm lake.” Simmer is also completing a still-untitled film about activist and commentator Van Jones after the 2016 election: “His journey takes him deep into the messy drama of the Trump administration and America’s polarized politics.” Simmer says she’s “umbilically linked to Kartemquin Films and the incredibly talented group of filmmakers who have come through our doors. There is a huge pool of talent in the Midwest that needs to be nurtured and nourished.”
Elena Valentine and Colette Ghunim
Filmmaker and design researcher Elena Valentine is the co-founder, with Colette Ghunim, of the Mezcla Media Collective nonprofit, which elevates women and non-binary filmmakers of color. (See Filmmaker of the Moment for more from Colette Ghunim.) Valentine’s mission is to “leverage film stories in the workplace to help people find meaning in their work,” as a way to get young people excited about their careers. She draws on the motto,“you cannot be what you cannot see.” Films made by her team at Skill Scout, where she is CEO, work with clients like Nike and American Airlines to engage with employees. With Studs Terkel as a hero, she hopes to do with a film camera what the late interviewer achieved with a microphone in work like “Working.” She hopes “to capture the humanity of work and drive conversation and collective action about our workplaces. There is opportunity to drive meaningful change by focusing on the good. The stories we share can serve as a foundation for a national movement that uses film to drive awareness and change in workplace culture, diversity and inclusion and human resource practices.” As for Chicago, she says, “There’s a grit and grind to our stories and to our approach. And when it comes to genuine community and connection, there is a level of helpfulness and open books kind of mentality here. Perhaps this is why Mezcla Media Collective has been able to thrive so much.” Mezcla has made it “blatantly clear” to her “the lack of intention film companies have had when it comes to building and fostering an inclusive culture. And, I don’t mean to just call out the film community. No film company lives in a bubble. We are serving diverse audiences of all kinds. Every industry is challenged with this right now. And so many film leaders I talked to aren’t proud of this and recognize the missteps. So despite all this, I am encouraged to see that leaders are waking up and seeing that this is a problem.” The lesson of 2020 for Valentine, though, “has been about nurturing Elena the artist—as opposed to Elena the business owner or community builder.”
“People seem to respond to the way I visualize stories,” filmmaker Patrick Wimp says. “I love style. I like to bring fantastical elements to my stories and explore the full breadth of visual language.” Wimp, an instructor at DePaul, Northwestern and the Harold Ramis Film School, is coming off a long festival run for a John Hughes-style teen comedy, “Bernadette,” winning more than a dozen awards. His biggest recent project is the three-episode digital comedy series, “Brothers from the Suburbs,” following three awkward Black teenagers in an affluent, predominantly white, private school community. Among its nods were audience and jury awards at the 2019 Austin Film Festival; Wimp has sold that series to Warner Bros, which is shopping the show to networks. He was cinematographer on Chance the Rapper’s “We Go High” short music video directed by Elijah Alvarado. “I love hip-hop and this was a pipe-dream experience.” The virus, he says, “derailed any potential production work,” but he’s finished writing another original pilot and is attached to direct a feature doc about the founder of the Chicago Defender. “Identity is a core theme that runs through my work,” Wimp says. “The search for human identity crosses a lot of boundaries and sits at the center of a lot of great storytelling. I’m also drawn to examinations of identity and racial interactions in America. I want to tell stories about Black characters and other diverse or marginalized characters just doing regular things, presented as real people. These are stories that get told about white characters all the time, and for me, dispelling stereotype and caricature is really important.”
Director-producer-journalist Jiayan “Jenny” Shi is a Kartemquin FIlms associate and 2018 Diverse Voices in Docs fellow. Shi’s been working on her first feature, “Finding Yingying,” since 2017, the story of a talented Chinese student who vanished from the University of Illinois campus, and how her life touched everyone around her. A Kartemquin co-production, it won a Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice at SXSW and is at festivals until its still-to-be-announced distribution home. Shi was a translator for the Academy Award-winning “American Factory,” and is collaborating with a Chinese director on a COVID documentary from a global perspective. “My identity and perspective as an Asian woman play a key role in the stories I want to tell and the way I tell them,” she says. “I’m proud to be a female filmmaker of color, and I’m lucky to be championed by people who share the same values and respect work from BIPOC. But I hope there will be more access to resources and funding. What’s more, for emerging filmmakers, it’s crucial to have systemic and continuous support, such as mentorship programs with veteran filmmakers.”
Director-producer-writer Alex Thompson spent the past year or so on the road with screenwriter Kelly O’Sullivan promoting SXSW breakout “Saint Frances” at later festivals, as well as Oscilloscope Laboratories’ U.S. release in theaters and virtually. The pair are developing O’Sullivan’s script, “Mouse,” which they intend to co-direct. Other projects? “I feel like I’m standing in front of an empty buffet waiting for the food trays to be brought out. There’s so much else happening in the world.” What does the Midwest need to sustain its stalled industry? “There is a lot of lip service about ‘investing’ in independent film in Chicago, but there are few folks actually making fiscal investments and taking risks on independent work. The dynamic is either making a film for far less than you should, and hoping in-kind [non-cash contributions] will bridge the quality gap, or making a film for far more than you should. Both going big and going small appear to be insurance for different investors. Big seems to ensure quality [it doesn’t] and small seems to ensure recoupment [it doesn’t]. That’s something my producers and I talk about a lot, finding that balance. ‘Saint Frances’ was financed entirely by individual equity investors. Some had production experience, others didn’t, but the bottom line is that I or someone on the team had to track down every dollar needed from a disparate, incredibly generous group. That’s not a sustainable model and it serves only those with privilege and connection to privilege. It’s never been easy to make independent films. It’s not going to get any easier.”
“Normally, I have three or four projects going at once and every day is a juggling act,” says producer-director Danny Alpert, executive director of Kindling Group. “Particularly now, in the pandemic and resulting economic crisis, I am working on creating more focus—working on making one movie.” “The Last Strike,” set for summer 2021, “unravels the story, roots and echoes of the infamous PATCO strike of 1981. That August, 11,345 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked the picket line in solidarity and in defiance of President Reagan’s order to return to work. When he fired them en masse, an era of corporate strikebreaking and declining union power followed, paving the way for modern America’s unprecedented inequality and job insecurity,” Alpert says. “No Small Matter,” on why early childhood is the critical investment we must make in our future, was released this summer, with over 1,300 screenings, including twenty statehouse screenings and two on Capitol Hill, as well as over 750,000 views of supplementary materials on YouTube. “Obviously, we are thrilled with this reach for a COVID-era release.” Digital doc series “Pulling the Thread,” coming this fall from World Channel and ITVS, unravels the nation’s most popular conspiracy theories, revealing “the emotional, cognitive and social forces that lead rational people to believe irrational things. The project doesn’t tell people what to think, but pushes us to examine how we think—why conspiracy theories are so alluring, how baseless rumors and ‘fake news’ undermine trust and democracy—and what we can all do about it.” Alpert is hopeful. “The protests for Black Lives Matter and racial justice demonstrate that the tide is turning. Still, this is a period of flux and things may get worse before they get better. I don’t know what the future holds for me as a fifty-plus-year-old, privileged, white, documentary filmmaker and I’m trying not to think about the next five years. ‘The Last Strike’ has a lot of potential as a film and in its social impact, and I’m putting all my effort into making this potential a reality.”
Filmmaker Diane Quon, Kartemquin associate, member of the Academy and affiliate of A-Doc and Brown Girls Doc Media, is a producer on a range of projects since the 2018 release of Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap.” The list includes Kartemquin Films’ Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s SXSW-recognized “Finding Yingying”; Gordon Quinn and Leslie Simmer’s “For the Left Hand”; and Maria Finitzo’s “The Dilemma of Desire” and Yung Chang’s “Wuhan! Wuhan!” as well as the fiction film “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” executive-produced by George Takei and Kevin Lin for a late 2021 release. She is a Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, an IFP Cannes Producer Fellow, a Film Independent Fellow and a recipient of the 2020 Cinereach Producer Award. “My immigrant parents worked long hours at our small, family-owned restaurant and had limited resources, but always made sure I was around for the arts,” Quon says. “It was so unusual for Chinese parents, but my dad brought me to musicals and plays and he would play his favorite LPs of Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole for me. My parents took me to piano and dance lessons growing up, even though their work schedule would not allow them to attend any of my recitals, and I was an art major in high school. If I had been talented enough—and I was not!—I would have loved to have been on stage performing. After college and business school, my goal was to find a way to combine my love for the creative with my business background. I am so grateful to have found work that has allowed me to do this—first, a fulfilling career in marketing at NBC and Paramount, and now to be able to produce my own films. I see myself continuing to support first-time filmmakers in some capacity, whether as a producer, mentor or executive producer. I would also like to continue to work on projects with more established directors—I learn so much!—and fully funded commercial projects, to stay sustainable.”
Chicago editorial veteran David Simpson’s most visible work this year is as editor on Steve James’ “City So Real” (co-edited with James), a landmark canvas of Chicago that stretches from the Laquan McDonald murder trial, on to the mayoral election of 2019 and into this year’s pandemic and summer’s protests for racial justice. National Geographic will air the five-part series before the election, on October 29, then on Hulu beginning the next day. Simpson also did foundational editing on “The Last Strike,” a feature documentary by Danny Alpert and Ray Nowosielski, recounting the echoes to this day of the PATCO strike of 1981, during which Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 air traffic-controllers overnight and sparked three decades of U.S. anti-labor activity. He is editing “Messwood,” a feature-length doc examining the dynamics of a high school football program that combines students from an urban, mostly Black school and a suburban, mostly white one. “I’m fortunate that the pandemic hasn’t drastically affected my work,” he says. “I mainly do it alone, in a room, often at home. Editing is the most fun and powerful part of the documentary process. As long as I can work on meaningful projects with talented collaborators, I’m a happy camper.” Twenty-three years of close connection to Kartemquin Films hasn’t hurt. Come spring, Simpson will cut Steve James’ new project. “Art responds to dire times,” Simpson says. “It’s hard for me to be too pessimistic for humanity, although my general hopes are tempered by fear and trembling for the outcome of this election.”
“I’m not some special talent. I’m just doing it,” says Kris Rey, writer-director of the comedy-drama “I Used to Go Here.” “I’ve gotten loads of opportunities over the years that led me to where I am and I’m very grateful for that. I believe that if you’ve got talent and you persist, you can do this.” Missing its 2020 SXSW premiere when the Texas festival was cancelled, Rey’s fourth feature had a largely video-on-demand release this summer to exceptional notices. A higher profile won’t tempt her away from the city. “Chicago is where I live. All my stuff is here. I’ve got two kids and a house and all kinds of friends and a whole life here that I love. 2019 was the first year I decided to stop complaining about the winter and started investing in house plants and fancy candles. It’s a great place to make movies. People are authentic here. That’s important to me.” Money for movies is important, too. “Money. We need more money here. We have a million film schools that are graduating a lot of talent, we have affordable housing, we have great crews, but we need money to finance independent projects.” Of the recent months of 2020, Rey says, “I got pretty down and couldn’t write at all, and then got into this horrible cycle of feeling guilty about not writing then anxious about feeling guilty then got sucked into a doom spiral. Things are flowing with my writing now and I’m feeling better about everything because of that. I also want to acknowledge that I am a privileged white person and I’m making it through this pandemic okay because of my circumstances, doom spirals or not.”
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.