Tammy Cresswell entered Columbia College in 1996, but she forwent the typical four-year march through required classes to a degree. Pursuing her interest in ethnology, she traveled to Kenya for the summer of 1998 to work with women farmers. She extended her stay in Africa by six weeks, and then in the fall went to Northern Ireland for a semester. In 1999 she got a scholarship to study cultural development and social justice movements in Brazil, and for her final project traveled into the Amazon rain forest to document a Festa da Moca–a two-day puberty ceremony for indigenous girls. She wrote up her research during the weeklong boat trip back to town.

Cresswell, who’s 24, credits her interest in other cultures to her own unsettled childhood and adolescence. Her parents divorced when she was an infant, her father died when she was 12, and around the same time her mother was deemed temporarily unfit for parenting. Cresswell spent two years in a foster home, and after her mother regained custody in 1992 the two moved from Berkley, Massachusetts, to Deltona, Florida, a small city on the edge of Orlando’s sprawl where Cresswell says she felt stifled. In Massachusetts, she’d been involved in theater and other activities, but there wasn’t much going on in Deltona, and her high school classes were covering material she’d already studied. In addition, she couldn’t adjust to living with her mother. “By that time I was so independent,” she says. “I’d been on my own for a long time.” A year or so after relocating, she became an emancipated minor, supporting herself working two jobs while finishing high school. In 1996, after a brief stint in Miami, she moved to Chicago.

“In college,” she says, “I left [the U.S.] with all these ideas about the flaws of America. I wanted to find where the families had strong bonds and where the communication level was better. But when I found the close families, I saw that there were still problems, like deep-seated anger.”

Almost all the women Cresswell met abroad held traditional domestic roles–cooking, cleaning, and caring for their husbands and children. While she admired the way they kept their families together, it got her thinking about women in the U.S. who were challenging traditional models of femininity. When she graduated in 2000, rather than taking off again, she decided to stay in Chicago and explore those ideas by making a video documentary.

Cresswell also signed on as one of the organizers of Ladyfest Midwest, last summer’s three-day women’s arts festival. She taped some of the festival’s participants–locals like performance artist Jennifer Reeder as well as out-of-towners like Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna–and found other subjects by asking around. So far she’s collected roughly 60 hours of footage and interviewed 25 artists from across the country, though only 10 or 12 will make the 30-minute final cut.

Despite her interest in redefining gender roles, her own turbulent upbringing–and those of many of the women she’s interviewed–complicates her thoughts about the effects of widespread social change on children. “You start to think that it’s better for women to be more evolved and have their rights,” she says, “but in all that I start to question where the family thing comes in. Women back in the day held families together….And now lots of children are being raised without their parents or a real mother around, and that leaves kids wondering and feeling a little empty and lost. But I think it weighs out, because these kids are creating amazing projects, and I think it’s the emptiness and feeling of loss that generated this creativity.”

To help cover the video’s costs she’s hosting a benefit party titled “Jett Set: A Tribute to Bad Ass Ladies of the 80s” on Saturday, September 21, at Subterranean Cafe and Cabaret, 2011 W. North (773-278-6600). Performers include Marvin Tate’s D-Settlement, Pistol Whipped, Tormentula, and Stewed Tomatoes–all playing sets of 80s hits–as well as the Chicago Kings. The music starts at 9; a rough cut of Cresswell’s documentary, Coup d’Etat, will be screened around 11. Admission’s restricted to those 21 and over, and there’s a suggested donation of $10, $6 for students.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.