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Interview: Dane Haiken, Producer of Diverse Short Film Collection Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 2

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In January, April Reign revived #OscarsSoWhite and re-energized the conversation surrounding the lack of diversity in the film industry. The typical narrative of success in film is depressingly static: A white, cisgender, straight male moves to New York or L.A. He sidesteps the inherent biases that prevent women and people of color from connecting to production companies, secures funding for expensive, feature-length films, and makes tone-deaf decisions—like, for example, casting a white woman as a Japanese character—without consequence.

#OscarsSoWhite is a powerful call-out of this aspect of the industry and has served as inspiration for many filmmakers and film organizations. One such organization is Full Spectrum Features, a Chicago-based nonprofit that, in their own words, is “committed to increasing diversity in the media arts by producing, exhibiting, and supporting the work of women, LGBTQ, and minority filmmakers.” Last year, Full Spectrum curated and screened Chicagoland Shorts Volume 1, a collection of ten short films created by underrepresented artists working in Chicago.

On May 14th, they will premiere Chicagoland Shorts Volume 2, a collection of ten short films that features both up-and-coming artists as well as established filmmakers whose voices are missing from mainstream film. I sat down with Volume 2’s producer, Dane Haiken, (who, full disclosure, is also my friend!) and we talked about this incredible anthology of work, why people overlook Chicago’s world class film scene, and the unique power of diverse films.

Alenka Figa (TMS): What is the history of the Chicagoland Shorts? How did they come to be?

Dane Haiken: Volume 1 of Chicagoland Shorts came about to embody our mission: to show mainstream communities in Chicago and the film community that there’s a wide array of voices in film that are not readily accessible. We collect them into one evening of cinema and exhibit them in different theaters, microcinemas, art galleries, and libraries across the country. The goal is accessibility; showing people that there are voices of an extremely high quality that are not being heard.

In independent films, distribution is a major issue. If you want to be an independent filmmaker you need to understand every point of the way what to do with your film, and a lot of people just get the money and make the film and that’s it. Some people are told to just shoot the movie off to film festivals and to hope for the best, but we’re trying to provide an alternative. Some of the more established people have had their festival runs, and this is like their victory lap. Other films we’re touring around, getting seen by people across the country, distributed online and purchased on DVDs by all kinds of people. That’s ultimately what we hope to provide for the filmmakers.

TMS: How does Full Spectrum find and select the filmmakers that are featured in the shorts?

Dane Haiken: The model this year was a little different because we got a bit more name recognition because of Volume 1. Volume 1 was kind of pulled together from different sources. For Volume 2 we put out a call for submissions and we got about eighty on Film Freeway, a website where film festivals can set up a call and people submit their work. There are ten films and I’d say fifty percent of them were submitted, so we had no relationship with the filmmakers. Those are up and coming artists; people just out of film school, people with less established names.

Beckie Stocchetti and Dan Rybicky are the curators, and Eugene Park. I’m the producer so I facilitated the process of curation and was under the purview of the choices that Becky, Dan and Eugene made. We had judges watch [the eighty films] and give us their rough draft opinions. Then we slowly whittled away.

Through this pool of eighty we were able to see an undeniable talent; another tier of filmmakers that we want to keep in our orbit. There were a number of filmmakers that we believe are still working on their craft, and we believe in their artistry, but it wasn’t a fit with the program. Volume 2 features the top tier of new talent that has arrived fully formed.

The other half [of the final collection] is people that we approached who are auteurs and more established people in Chicago’s film scene. A big name in our collection is Jennifer Reeder, who did the film Girls Love Horses. She’s a professor at the University of Chicago, and she’s screened her films across the world at every festival that you could possibly think of. She’s a legend in experimental film and art installation, and she’s actually directing one of the feature films we’re involved with. It’s called Signature Move, and it’s a rom com about a Pakistani, Muslim, queer wrestling enthusiast who falls in love with a Latina woman and has to hide it from her mother, who is a little conservative.

We chose Jennifer’s piece to represent the best of Chicago’s contained community. To be able to get her film is both a humbling thing but also an opportunity. We can get this to play more, and people can see that there are people working in Chicago who are world class. That’s the purpose of taking someone like Jennifer Reeder.

TMS: There is a good diversity of tone throughout the film. Is that something you also looked for, variation in tone and style?

Dane Haiken: Quality was the first determinant, and the second was diversity of voices. Tone is, for any kind of art form, the hardest thing to create and pin down and curate. We put our heads together and had to determine what would make the strongest program in terms of providing this array of voices, genres and tones.

There was no science to it. Ultimately, it was like creating a piece of art, because we were controlling how the tone changes. When it came time to choose the final ten we were agonizing. We were like, no one’s gonna watch a two hour long film collection! No one is gonna see that! There were so many good films, but we were ultimately guided by what we thought would make the most multifaceted, diverse, vibrant collection.

TMS: What keeps people from staying in Chicago once they gain name recognition? Why would someone like Jennifer Reeder stay?

Dane Haiken: First, it’s a self-image issue. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you’re told L.A. and New York are the only places where good art gets made, then you’re gonna leave. [The film industry] encourages models of production and business that are not sustainable unless you are well-funded; especially independent film. Films don’t necessarily have to be expensive, and independent film can be more accessible and more of a means of expression for diverse people. Chicago has a lot of film schools and independent productions, but a lot of people treat it as a training ground where they can build up their muscles and then go do the rumble in the jungle in New York or L.A. and try to integrate into a monetized studio system.

[Jennifer Reeder] is moving into narrative films; that’s been the movement of her career. She started in installation pieces and experimental. I can’t speak for her, I don’t totally know her story, but I imagine [she’s stayed] because experimental has a pretty robust community in Chicago. She’s also in the academic world which I think supports experimental and art film a little more.

TMS: How do you consider audience when you’re curating a series of films made by different people that will last an hour and a half? How do you keep people interested?

Dane Haiken: There are two things for the audience: you want to show people of different backgrounds that there can literally be representation of their selves on a screen, which is important. Then, you want to bring people out for programs that they normally wouldn’t even consider. Eugene goes to festivals all the time, especially in Chicago, and sees that only people very specifically interested in a certain cultural product will come out to niche festivals. What if we take that niche short and bundle it in a collection with different perspectives, different genres, and different audience aims?

There’s something very exciting about seeing a movie that wasn’t made with you in mind. Roger Ebert said that movies are the ultimate empathy machine; for an hour and a half it doesn’t matter who you are. You step into this world, this perspective that you never thought was possible, and you experience something that you never thought you would be able to experience. That’s the crux of Oscars So White and representation in film. I feel like the tagline is always that people need to see themselves reflected, and that’s half of it. People need to see other people reflected.

TMS: What about this collection makes it unique to Chicago?

Dane Haiken: It’s an interesting question, because one of the films takes place in South Korea, but it’s made by a Korean artist who went to school in Chicago. On a literal level, we have a few films that address gun violence in Chicago, and no piece of art in an anthology about Chicago would be complete without recognizing that fact about the city. We have two pieces, Parietal Guidance by Lonnie Edwards and Ayinde’s Video Game by Shiri Burson, pretty different, but in the same kind of poetic way deal with children caught in the process of violence that plagues Chicago.

There’s a question of, when you look at a culture’s output, how much do you want it to be explicitly about that culture? Something like Zalspar’s Place is taking you into a world that you never have seen before. It’s anchored by a very witty, caustic satire about colonialism. To me, that’s a film that only a Chicago-based artist could have made. It’s completely alien; it has nothing to do with Earth, let alone Chicago. I think it’s just underpinned by a certain intelligence and wittiness that is implicit to the Midwest.

All these filmmakers are migrants that chose to work in Chicago and make Chicago their habitat. Chicago is unpretentious. The artists are hard-working, and the art that’s made in Chicago is more intelligent; it’s more subtle. I think a lot of films made in New York are a little cocky. Chicago as an art scene is an underdog, so I think there’s something that attracts me personally, as a viewer, to the ragged, underdog spirit that Chicago has.

TMS: Tell me a bit about the filmmakers. What makes them a unique group?

Dane Haiken: Possibly what I’m proudest of with Chicagoland Shorts is something Eugene and I were very deliberate about for this round: we wanted to create a community around the collection. When the filmmakers were accepted we went to Noise Floor, which is a post production company. They do audio for big television productions and stuff in Chicago. They very kindly donated their space for a congratulations meeting and a networking event. We brought together all these filmmakers who are doing amazing work and maybe running in different circles. We brought together filmmakers who are just getting started with people who have screened their films internationally.

I’m very proud that we’re bringing together a community, and it’s something that we hope to sustain. It goes back to how I think art needs to be tied to community; there needs to be a community of artists. That event was really awesome, and I hope to be in the orbit of all those people now because I admire them! They are so talented. It’s really humbling to be around extremely talented people.

TMS: Give us a preview of the films. What can we look forward to seeing if we attend a screening or buy a DVD?

Dane Haiken: Daniel Davison’s Edison is an experimental film, but I think people of all tastes are gonna love it. He filmed the ruins of a school and superimposed these wispy, geometrical, flowing shapes over the footage. It’s very abstract but it does become a sort of subliminal, poignant commentary on human creations being destroyed. It’s very ominous and beautiful.

Ayinde’s Video Game is about Chicago gun violence, and it’s a cinematic translation of a spoken word piece by Frankiem Mitchell.

Zalspar’s Place by Aren Zolninger I already talked about, and we have Parietal Violence, which is the abstracted perspective of a child experiencing gun violence and street harassment. It’s very elliptical and poetic; that’s a beautiful piece.

Bound by Monica Thomas. Monica Thomas is a multitalented artist; she’s an actress, she’s a director, she’s a choreographer, she’s a dancer. It’s an experimental dance film but one I’ve never seen before. It’s extremely symmetrical and the color pallet is angelic. People [who don’t like dance film] will be pleasantly surprised.

Run of Press by Mina Fitzpatrick recalls Jacque Tati, for any of the film buffs out there. He was a filmmaker from the sixties who had very symmetrical compositions of humans being lost and miniaturized by modern machinery. Mina went inside the Chicago Tribune’s printing press and did a documentary about it. When we hear “documentary” we think of talking heads explaining facts, but this is completely silent, completely observational and contemplative. Beautiful colors; very zen. I think more people are interested in what industrial machinery means on a spiritual level; what it means to be human in a world filled with machinery.

Jennifer Reeder’s piece I talked about; I’ll say that that piece bridges the gap between her experimental era and her narrative era. It’s a good introduction to Jennifer Reeder, who is a brilliant artist. It’s a murder mystery that’s ultimately about motherhood.

Marquee is by Brian Zahm, a DePaul professor. Eugene’s take on it is that it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire about the lengths people will go to be glorified for their art. It’s a straight up Looney Tunes-esque physical comedy about the intersection between commerce, fame, and art.

The Fever by Eunhye Hong Kim is about youth homelessness. We chose that as our centerpiece. She’s still a student; she interned for Full Spectrum Features and then she submitted her film and we were floored by it. It’s an extremely powerful film and, I think, if there’s any kind of consistent theme through the collection it’s youth in trouble, and the way that our society has failed at-risk youth. That’s not consistent throughout, but if you want to look for a theme, you can find that.

Violets, by Jim Vendiola, which I adore. I won’t give anything away because the first half of it is mysterious, but it’s a supremely controlled exercise in mood and tone. Vendiola is an amazing visual stylist. It’s darkly funny and tragic. That’s the audience winner at the Chicagoland Underground Film Festival; that’s taking its victory lap.

Chicagoland Shorts Volume 2 premieres at the Facets Cinematheque on Saturday, May 14th, and the launch party for the collection’s tour is at Headquarters Beercade in Chicago, on Wednesday, May 18th. Tickets for both are available via evite, and you can view the trailer and keep up to date with the collection’s tour schedule at the Full Spectrum Website.

Alenka Figa is a queer, feminist, wannabe-educator who is over traditional education. She spends her days reading comics at her toy store day job, watching Adventure Time, and writing book and comic reviews at her Tumblr blog League of Shadows.

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