LANA AND LILLY WACHOWSKI
With the large-scale, intensely personal “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending” behind the Wachowskis, the duo completed a first season of “Sense8” in 2015, an equally personal, complex, globe-girdling Netflix science-fiction series. Future feature work from the Ravenswood-headquartered siblings remains as hush-hush as ever in their two decades of collaboration. But Lilly, the older Wachowski, has stepped aside for Lana to direct the second season solo, with a reported six-month-plus production jumping from continent to continent. Of what to expect in coming episodes of the epic series with a devoted following, cast member Max Riemelt told BuzzFeed News: “There’s more sex, more violence, more of everything! We’re pushing the boundaries.” Lilly also turned to The Windy City Times this year to announce she was also transgender. And this was after being doorstepped by a Daily Mail correspondent. “Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you,” Lilly wrote. “I am one of the lucky ones. Having the support of my family and the means to afford doctors and therapists has given me the chance to actually survive this process. Transgender people without support, means and privilege do not have this luxury. And many do not survive… Without the love and support of my wife and friends and family I would not be where I am today… We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol… I have a quote in my office given to me by a good friend. I stare at it in contemplation sometimes trying to decipher its meaning but the last sentence resonates: ‘Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.’”
KEVIN B. LEE
Kevin B. Lee has traveled the world the past couple of years, evangelizing for his chosen form of film criticism. “I’m mostly known for making video essays,” he says, describing the form as “brief explorations of film and media that have become a fully-formed genre with its own star makers, online viral hits and film festival programs. It’s gotten to the point that film professors not only use them as teaching tools, they also assign students to make them instead of writing papers.” This makes sense, Lee says, “in an age where everyday communication is done increasingly through images: Facebook and YouTube videos, Instagram and Snapchat. It’s important to develop this new visual vernacular to express critical awareness as well as artistic vision. This is why video essays will grow ever more relevant over time. It’s an incredibly dynamic vantage point from which to follow the evolution of moving image culture.” Lee says that in his own work, he hopes to encourage all these outlets, from making online videos to screening at festivals to teaching in classrooms. (He currently teaches at the SAIC Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation and the UIC School of Art and Art History.) “This past April, the Austrian Film Museum programmed a three-day series of my work in the first major retrospective for online video essays. This year I’ve also given presentations to the Harvard Visual Anthropology Department, the national film school of Romania, a film studies seminar at Whitechapel Gallery in London, and talks at the Berlin and Locarno International Film Festivals.” Upcoming showcases include November’s closing night program of the inaugural Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle Showcase, as well as the first criticism workshop of the Cairo International Film Festival. In December, Lee continues, he will be “the first-ever Artist in Residence of the Harun Farocki Institute in Berlin, recently founded in memory of an artist-scholar who had a very profound influence on me.” Most of Lee’s current video essays are made for the Fandor streaming website, with a focus on Facebook mobile viewing. “More people than ever are watching video on their phones, and I have to figure out how to deliver critical insights to easily distracted viewers who are ready to swipe off at any moment. Confronting these challenges led to my most viewed work, a video on sexism in Margot Robbie’s film career netting five million views.” Lee has made over 300 video essays in the last nine years, and is looking beyond the form. “I’m now taking the critical ethos of my video essay work to investigate the physical world. I’m finishing a documentary on a friend who slept in ATM lobbies for several years; an essay film on LED light culture in China; and an investigation of online video productions by ISIS. What connects these disparate projects is asking how images help us find our place in the world, how they create systems for us to navigate networks and relationships. Our engagement with images forms values around them: aesthetic, economic, social, moral. Ultimately it’s about what relationships we want to build through these engagements, and how to take more responsibility in building them.” Lee considers his responsibilities in this city as well. “I’m more sensitive than ever to the city’s increasing fragmentation and inequality, which stands for the state of the nation as a whole. This situation calls for works that can break through social and ideological barriers, especially at a time when film and media are more predisposed than ever to cater to target audiences. Artistic and social transformation go hand in hand.” Vimeo. Twitter. Fandor essays.
Noted local composer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams had always paid attention to the character of music in movies he watched. But he hadn’t thought of scoring films until Aaron Wickenden, editor of “The Interrupters” cold-called him, and a conversation with director Steve James right before Thanksgiving led to a score for the movie’s Sundance 2011 debut. Adding to the hundred-plus recordings he’s collaborated on, as well as his own output as a leader, Abrams has gone on to compose the distinctive music for Wickenden and Dan Rybicky’s “Almost There,” Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” James’ “Life Itself,” and “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail,” which had its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival. Abrams’ work has elevated each of these filmmakers’ long-in-post-production, intimate approaches with thrilling nuance. “I think the most important skill for a film composer, aside from the composing itself, is communication, particularly with the director,” Abrams said for the 2014 Film 50. “Each film has a distinct atmosphere,” he recently elaborated. “The music I write tries to further this environment and make it more particular and immersive for the viewer. I let the story dictate the style and try to avoid recognizable tropes. Having worked on several films, I have a clearer sense of music’s relationship with image. In general, less is more, and you learn when to hold back and when more density can be effective. Each film has shown me a little bit more about what is possible, and given me a chance to find new ways to approach the process. It’s about how to allow the score’s emotion to further the story without dictating how an audience must feel.“ Bio.
SCRAPPERS FILM GROUP
For the breadth of their work and ambition, the Scrappers Film Group, a collective that includes filmmakers Brian Ashby and Ben Kolak, editor Peter Galassi and producers David Jacobson and Yana Kunichoff, were the most consistently recommended filmmakers as we researched this year’s Film 50. “We are filmmakers who create scrappy portraits of real Chicago struggles, triumphs and cultures,” they tell us as a group, “to inspire viewers to question the familiar, and empathize with the unknown.” (Scrappers is named for their 2010 film, co-directed by Courtney Prokopas, about two Chicago scrap metal scavengers during the Great Recession, which won the audience award at Chicago Underground.) Notable current projects include collaboration with director David Schalliol, responsible for the atmospheric northwestern Indiana location work in Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky’s “Almost There.” “We’ve followed a community in Englewood get literally bought out as their neighborhood was transformed into an intermodal rail facility over five years. Currently in post, ‘The Area’ examines the complexities of race, corporate power, the built environment and activism in a highly emotional and visually uncanny way. This November we’ll be shooting ‘Brujos,’ a fictional noir series with longtime collaborator Ricardo Gamboa, following a cohort of queer grad students that are also witches, as they fight the neoliberal descendants of new world colonizers. We’re in the middle of crowdfunding.” Their slate also includes multiple docs. “We’ve been closely covering the crisis at Chicago State University, the growing elderly prison population in Illinois, and with director Dan Rybicky, the healthcare system through the lens of a Maryland town called Accident. We’re also working on an innovative 3-D documentary feature with Pentimenti Productions on artist H.C. Westermann, and a short on the world of Polish ethnic media in Chicago.” The Scrappers are big on the internet for distribution. “Film festivals are great, but we prefer using the web to reach both busy cinephiles and people just discovering observational documentary or agitprop for the first time. We’ve had success working in serial formats, partnering with outfits like Truthout.org, the A.V. Club, Gaper’s Block and WTTW. They bring dedicated audiences and forums in which our highly crafted work really stands out. The web is also a better venue to experiment with and get genuine audience reactions to experiments with VR/360 video, of which we published some of the first work in Chicago through our documentary series ‘The Grid 360.’” They’d also welcome more filmmakers to the city. “Chicago is an easy city in many ways—affordable living, interesting aura, supportive audiences, and for whatever reason, fewer serious filmmakers per capita than the other similarly-sized American cities. While we’ve enjoyed growing in such a fertile environment, we look forward to more filmmakers getting wise to the opportunities here, as they will push us to continue to innovate and excel.” Website.
Artist-writer-actor-comedian-director-lawyer Fawzia Mirza is one of the most protean figures on the Chicago film scene. “I was a lawyer who went to law school for the wrong reasons, so started taking acting classes,” she starts her story. “Acting by night, lawyering by day, I left the law to work for a sexual violence prevention performance company, Sex Signals, and performed at military installations and colleges around the world. Then I started creating my own work, sick of waiting to be cast. I also was tired of people telling me I am not ‘enough’ of who I am, authentically. I started creating short films and web series and a one-woman show as a way of reconciling my identities: queer/lesbian, Muslim, female, empowering my communities and myself. I didn’t want to wait to be told I wasn’t South Asian enough or Muslim enough or queer enough or feminine enough to be cast. I also didn’t want to wait for someone else to tell my story. That’s why I started writing.” Comedy is important to Mirza. “Yes, comedy is a very powerful tool in breaking down stereotypes across race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class and to defy the idea of the ‘model minority.’ I have used art as a way of having often-private dialogues in very public spaces.” An example Mirza provides: “When I performed my one-woman show, ‘Me, My Mom & Sharmila’ in Pakistan, a woman messaged me on Facebook afterwards. She said she’d never heard someone share so many personal stories and stories that related to her own life and experiences. She said she’d felt crazy for so long but that hearing me, she felt less alone. She said she’d never come out to anyone, but that maybe by emailing me she was coming out.” She describes her current project, “Signature Move” [produced with Eugene Sun Park and Newcity’s Brian Hieggelke and directed by Jennifer Reeder], a story of “life, love and lady wrestling” as “a dream come true. It was not only amazing to produce my own work and star in it and work with the ‘Meryl Streep of India,’ film icon Shabana Azmi, but it was beautiful to create work for so many women and so many women of color and for so many people from the LGBTQ community.” Still, she says, there are many more stories to be told, “I hope to continue to tell more and more of the diverse Chicago stories. I love the Chicago neighborhoods. I love Rogers Park and Little Village. I love our communities of color, whose stories have yet to be told, and whose stories are robust and powerful.” What kinds of stories can we expect? “I write a lot about mother-daughter relationships. I’m inspired by my mother. She and I look completely different, she covers her hair and wears Pakistani clothes everywhere. I look like ‘The Karate Kid’ and am always in denim. But I am who I am because of her.” Website.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming; previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/rayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)