Filmmaking courses. Sound Editing equipment. Archival 16MM film. Independent Foreign film.
These are just a few things that make nonprofit media arts organization Chicago Filmmakers a viable resource of appreciation and education in alternative film. Walking into the office on a cool Thursday afternoon, there is a sense of nostalgia and of new beginnings. Located in the heart of Andersonville for the past 20 years, it has helped boost independent film in and around the neighborhood as well outside of Chicago. What first started of as artist-run weekly film screenings by experimental filmmakers in 1973 lead to years of digital media arts accommodations. Today, Chicago Filmmakers provides filmmaking courses, heads two film festivals as well as provide equipment rental, filmmaker support, meetups and membership.
Filmmaking courses. Sound Editing equipment. Archival 16MM film. Independent Foreign film.
There is a vibrant energy that hangs around the 75-seat screening room, old school projector room and checkerboard tiled hallway leading to the storage room of keepsake 16MM films both for public and institutional use. What the office lacks in staff size, it more than makes up for in the extensive knowledge and creative vision of independent film in Chicago.
CUSP Magazine sat down to speak with executive director Brenda Webb and marketing and fundraising manager Sarah Rubin, two out of the three Chicago Filmmakers staff, to discuss filmmaker collaboration, digital film media today and what Chicago means for the independent filmmaking community.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Chicago Filmmakers
CUSP Magazine: What interested you or drew you into working in film?
Brenda Webb: When I was a student at Indiana University, I saw films by Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni and all these other great European directors that I had never seen before growing up on American cinema and American TV. It was a film aesthetics class I took, and it interested me from the point of psychology. Here were films where human psychology was actually at the core part of their story, not just incidental to the story, so I really got interested in film in that aesthetics class. It opened up a whole new world to me, and I just thought it was really fascinating. When I was graduating, my mentor and the head of the psychology department said to me, “You know, experimental psychologists are a dime a dozen. If you are going to do that, you have to teach.” Pretty much my whole world crumbled. I had no interest in teaching, so instead of going to graduate school in psychology, I became interested in pursuing film. I felt that some of these films were far more stimulating than the work I was doing in psychology, which was working with rats. I was learning more in films from Ingmar Bergman than I was from all my psychology textbooks. It was a transition from this career pursuit into this artistic pursuit. I applied to graduate school at Columbia College Chicago and came to make films.
Sarah Rubin: I started working at Chicago Filmmakers as a festival intern for Reeling Film festival while I was in college studying marketing. I thought I would go work for an ad agency and then fell in love with nonprofit life. I’ve been working here in various capacities for five years selling sponsorships for the festival, doing general Marketing and PR, then I transitioned to administering art for Chicago Digital Media Production Fund. Essentially, I was doing freelance jobs that we merged into one. It’s totally accidental that I ended up here, but I love it and I try to learn more about film everyday.
CM: What types of services do you offer, and what makes it so unique?
BW: We have weekly film screenings that are open to the public. We also have two film festivals, Onion City Experimental and Reeling: the Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Reeling is the second longest running gay and lesbian film festival in the world after San Francisco. Onion City Experimental Film Festival is coming up in March and has been around for 27 years. Our membership is based around our co-op, which is services for filmmakers. There are three main components of what we do: exhibition, education, and filmmaker services. Our exhibition is a weekly screening series and film festivals. Our education program includes classes and summer film camps for kids. Our filmmaker services film distribution and rentals. The classes are open to the general public but have a tuition fee except for our LGBTQ youth program. It is underwritten by a foundation and is free. Our membership program is for filmmakers and receive discounts on classes. They have to become a member in order to rent our equipment, which is heavily discounted than if they had gone to a commercial film rental house. We have meetup events, which are six times a year. These are networking events. If you are member, you get in free. Non-members pay five bucks. We have a lot of projects and offer many things for the film community. We also have non-member school sponsorship, where filmmakers apply to us, are chosen and can fundraise for the film. Then they earn non-profit status. We have at any one time usually about 20 films, mostly documentaries. We also have a grants program, where we give out $100,000 a year to people to make digital videos, as Sarah stated, specifically for social justice. So there is a wide range of what we do. It’s exhibition. It’s education. It’s funding.
SR: It’s pretty much everything besides actually making the film itself.
CM: How has the film scene evolved in Chicago since when you first started?
BW: It’s had its ups and downs. It’s hard to speak about the industry, because we are sort of in this world of independent film. We are a little bit in a bubble in terms of what’s happening, such as feature films being shot on the streets. Organizationally, when Chicago Filmmakers started, there were very few other types of film-related media arts organizations. Now we have organizations that are specifically dedicated to media with youth and youth programs. There are a lot more nonprofits who are providing services and digital media making. In terms of exhibition, there’s still key organizations like Facets, Gene Siskel Film Center and Chicago Filmmakers. The Music Box Theater has grown more well known since when it started. In terms of exhibition venues, it hasn’t exploded, but there are more than there used to be. There’s more of an organization culture around film and video than there was in the ‘70s when we started.
CM: As part of the Andersonville community, how has the reception been over the years?
BW: This is a great community. We have a really great Chamber of Commerce here. They do Midsommarfest and are constantly doing events to include all businesses. I think the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce is remarkable in building community among businesses in this area. That said, our organization has always been a community about filmmakers, not necessarily Andersonville. With our audiences, we try to pull from all over the city.
SR: That being said, we really do get constituents from all over Chicagoland and beyond. We have plenty of suburban families and students that come here. I know we have a lot of local Andersonville kids in our youth film programs and summer camp. Check back with us in ten years, and we’ll let you know if they’ve been successful.
CM: Why is featuring films by independent filmmakers from around the world in your archival collection important?
BW: We inherited this collection. It was owned by a company called Picture Start, which was started in the 1960s. During that time, a lot of it was for school use. If a college professor wanted to show a film in film class, he would need to get a 16MM film and a projector. There was a market for it at one time. Picture Start, which was a for-profit company, said they couldn’t really afford this anymore. People are not renting the film enough to justify the costs, so we rescued it. We did spend a period of 18 months where we set up a catalogue and tried to promote it. Then it got hard to justify the expensive, so in a way it’s sort of something we’ve kept because we want it to be available, should somebody ask for it. And we do, from time to time, some films do rent. Maybe someone is curating a historical package for a film festival, and we can provide a film for them. When we took it over, we did get a little into preservation and started adding some Chicago filmmakers. It was particularly Chicago based, so we added them into the collection. We’ve preserved films from Allen Ross and Tom Palazzolo. Truthfully, we’ve contemplated moving it to another space. It raises the question of what to do with it, because it doesn’t earn it’s keep in a sense. On the other hand, these are valuable works of art. Our program director has a background as a librarian, and he has taken this as his personal interest to curate packages. He is inviting several people to curate packages from the collection, so we can try to give it another shot to get people interested in renting some of the collection and hopefully reduce it down.
Brenda – “There is an air of collaboration as opposed to competition in Chicago that makes it a more gentle place than where it’s dog eat dog. It’s part of being the underdog. We all try to make it better for each other and work with each others films.”
CM: What makes Chicago such an important hub for creative expression in independent film?
BW: It’s always hard for me to characterize Chicago. I know a lot of people will point to the fact that because we are in the midwest, we are sort of unpretentious. There is a sensibility to the work that comes out here. We are more grounded in regular or real life. We are also such a center for comedy. There are so many comedy outlets that a lot of people in comedy are making films. It’s something that’s growing and developing in Chicago. We have Joe Swanberg, a leading mumblecore filmmaker, continuing to make films here. Filmmaker Steven Cone has made features that are getting recognition, but they seem to make a commitment of staying here. I know one of the things I’ve heard from Steven Cone is just the richness of the acting talent here is kind of mind blowing. He’s not originally from here, so he was like, “Oh my god, you have all these incredible actors here!” In some ways we are not jaded here, on a simple level. In Chicago, if someone wants to use you as their shooting location, we are all excited about it. In L.A., it’s click click, how much money can I charge? There’s all this cynicism that can make it more challenging. There is an air of collaboration as opposed to competition in Chicago that makes it a more gentle place than where it’s dog eat dog. It’s part of being the underdog. We all try to make it better for each other and work with each others films. There’s a lot of positive energy around making things happen, as opposed to the dog eat dog world of New York or L.A. where you are fighting for your bite of the pie.
SR: What I hear from every single person is that their main struggle with working and living in L.A. is that everyone wants something from you. It’s hard to determine if someone is trying to actually collaborate, make some art with you, or if they just need something and later drop you immediately. Whereas in Chicago, I feel like as an independent film community, we make a genuine effort to tell authentic stories and diverse stories, and we do so collaboratively. The School Project is a pretty good example of this, that was a huge collaboration between major media organizations in Chicago. They were Media Process Educational Films, Siskel/Jacobs Productions, Kartemquin Films, the Kindling Group and Free Spirit Media. These are major organizations that came together for a central cause to discuss the big issue of Chicago’s schools closing within our public school system. We are a big family, but it still feels like a family, and if not that, then an extended family.
CM: Are there any other organizations or friends in the industry that have a creative atmosphere or are on the CUSP that we should know about?
BW: There is IFP. It’s not like they haven’t been around, but they are reinventing themselves. Cinespace. Incubator spaces seem to be a fairly recent thing where they rent out office space to different film producers, so the whole incubator model is interesting.
SR: Stage 18.
Chicago Filmmakers is a grounded organization that deserves more recognition. They reinforce artistic integrity, self expression and appreciation for all types of alternative film. It’s a place where any film lover, amateur filmmaker or youth member can help bring creativity to their community.