On the second floor of the River North nightclub Excalibur, a bank of 16 video monitors is lit in a checkerboard pattern, the dark screens carrying the title “Chicago Community Cinema,” the others flickering in unison with images from independent films. Below the monitors young people mill about, drinks in hand, schmoozing or just gazing around forlornly as the dance music pounds. Rows of white tables accommodate the evening’s sponsors, most of them film production or equipment rental companies, although a local screenwriting school and an off-Loop theater company are also represented. On one table a monitor demonstrates Flash animation; another table is decorated with head shots left by aspiring actors. In a corner near the entrance clusters the small menagerie of a professional animal handler–a caged binturong, or bear-cat, a snake coiled around a woman’s neck, and a small alligator, its jaws sealed shut with black electrical tape. A gray green iguana perches atop a branch, coldly eyeing the throng. What does it care? It’s already got an agent.

Chicago Community Cinema, which meets the first Tuesday of each month, was founded a year ago by Michael Kwielford and Mark Battaglia, whose small production company, Vision Pictures, operates from an office on Ontario not far from Excalibur. “Our goals are to bring together the Chicago film community, in the sense that they’ll have somewhere to go to show their films once they make them,” says Kwielford. “It also gives them a chance to network with other people in the business. I’ve been at similar events that went on yearly, and I loved the energy. You’d see people in the biz, you’d talk about, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got this project, let’s work together.’ But then you get home and you lose the business card or it gets stuffed under these papers, and you forget about it until the next year. On a monthly basis, you come back the next month, you see the same people. It keeps the energy alive.”

A screening is scheduled for eight o’clock but starts late, as an emcee raffles off baseball caps and free equipment rentals. Projected digitally from videotape, the program is a mixture of short films and trailers for feature-length projects, some complete, some in progress. The trailers range from vaguely silly (Sword of Hearts, a heavy-breathing swashbuckler by David Schmidt) to vaguely promising (Englewood Story, a family drama by Mark Ramone), but the filmmakers couldn’t ask for a more receptive audience. The featured short film, Benjamin Meyer’s Georgie Porgie, tracks the squalid, mutually destructive relationship of a low-rent couple; it plays like a Gen-X Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and it puts everything else on the program to shame.

Kwielford and Battaglia try to include as many local films as they can, though they and the screening committee also bring in independent films from the west coast and from Internet sources like I-Film and Atom Films. The majority of actors and filmmakers at CCC are struggling to get a leg up, and with the occasional visit from a big-time distributor, the organization has had a few modest success stories. “One of the trailers that we showed at the February event actually played in the Angelciti Film Festival out in LA a week or two after,” says Kwielford. And Mark Ramone used the March screening of his trailer for Englewood Story as a calling card to procure funding. “He came to us with a trailer,” says Kwielford, “and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got some investors I want to bring out. Can I show you a trailer and bring them out to the event?’…He played it and actually got one of his investors to sign on that night, after seeing the crowd’s reaction to that film.”

The next meeting of Chicago Community Cinema takes place Tuesday, April 3, at Excalibur, 632 N. Dearborn. Doors open at 7 PM, and the screening is scheduled for 8. Ramone’s trailer will be screened again, along with Suburban Living, a short by Columbia College student Ian Hutchinson; Coquie Hughes, another local artist, will present her trailer for Gotta Git My Hair Did, a 90-minute comedy about a divorced woman running a hair salon in the basement of her mother’s two-flat. Admission is $7; for more information, call 312-863-3451.

–J.R. Jones

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