“I’m interested in the idea that Illinois was all Indian land less than 200 years ago,” says cinematographer Ines Sommer, who moved here from Germany in 1986 to study film at the School of the Art Institute. “Americans are aware of whose land they’re settled on, but it seems like a little bit of a blind spot. People talk more about slavery and other injustices, but then they have these warrior figures of Indians all over the city. I knew I wanted to bring out that history in some way.”

She was shooting digital video for the CITY 2000 project when she started thinking about doing a narrative piece that explored land use and other urban issues. “I was looking at neighborhoods and construction areas and how the city was being divvied up,” she says. “I thought I’d make a 20- or 30-minute film about a character who drifts through and observes the city.”

Around that time she read a Tribune article about the Cahokia Indian mounds in southern Illinois, which contain the remains of the only city-size prehistoric Indian settlement north of Mexico. She decided to work the mounds into the film. “It was intriguing to me that it was once the largest city in North America,” she says. “There were once 20,000 people there. I thought that was a way to enter the topic.”

She cast a friend, performer Terri Reardon, in the lead role, and the pair drove downstate with a digital camera to shoot at the site. The footage wound up at the end of Sommer’s new 88-minute film, Ghost Cities, an experimental narrative about a young drifter whose car breaks down in Chicago. Unable to afford the repair work, she squats in the basement of a vacant house in Rogers Park and does housework for clients that include an architect and a former real estate agent. At night she dreams about land stolen from Native Americans, and eventually she flees to Cahokia.

Sommer, whose background is in experimental and documentary film, utilized such devices as crawling text and dream sequences to flesh out the story and back it up with statistics. The actors and crew were people she knew; all worked for free over the two long years of shooting. “My kid is in it and my friends’ kids are in it. But it’s not just budgetary,” she says. “I like the fact that I’m connected with these people.” There was no script, and the actors improvised dialogue around the scenes Sommer sketched for them. “When you have a tight script and everything is storyboarded out, it often closes off the creative process a little bit,” she says. “People think, ‘If I veer off the tiniest bit I will lose my movie.’ Mine is more like free jazz; I like to allow for chance things to happen.”

Using a digital camera allowed her to shoot cheaply and without permits, because “if there’s just one person with a smallish video camera, people don’t worry about it.” It also helped streamline the editing process, for which her husband, filmmaker David E. Simpson, was consultant.

A fan of cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool–parts of which were shot in Grant Park during the ’68 Democratic National Convention–Sommer also wove documentary elements into the story, including CITY 2000 footage of Chicago scenes and a sequence shot at a Rogers Park community meeting about a new firehouse. “It was something I had read about and I thought, ‘Hmmm, [land use is] one of my themes. How can I build that into the story?'”

That was the real challenge. “This was a really hard film to make,” she says. “It was beautiful to have experimented, but it makes it twice as hard–especially when you have to form the material into some kind of coherent narrative. I’m not sure if I’d do the same thing again.”

Sommer will appear at the premiere of Ghost Cities, which will be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, on Saturday, July 27, at 7:30 as part of the series “Digital Pioneers: Dogma 95 and Beyond.” Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvete Marie Dostatni.