This Saturday at 7 PM, the International Children’s Media Center (at 625 N. Kingsbury) will present a program of international short films titled “If Only.” The films were selected by inmates at Cook County Correctional Facility as part of WorldScene, a 14-week arts residency and job training program designed, according to the ICMC, to “support self-determination among marginalized and court-involved youth ages 18-24.” “If Only” consists of six films from six countries, which were selected from a pool of more than 150 entries. The program—which involves watching, discussing, and curating the entries—is the brainchild of ICMC executive director Nicole Dreiske, though she received ample support from Elli Montgomery, director of the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort (SAVE) at the correctional facility. I spoke with Dreiske last week about the program’s design and how it affected the prisoners who took part in it.
I’m the cofounder of Facets and the founder of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. I already had a profound interest in the short film, not just as an art form, but as a possible agent for social change. That’s one of the reasons that I started the International Children’s Media Center. We do a program for early childhood called “Screen Smart,” which measurably improves learning for at-risk children. It also lays for the foundations for healthy screen habits.
Around 2012, I got very interested—after seeing what was happening in the schools with these short films [I screened]—I got very interested in using them in therapeutic settings. The first of these programs was called Global Girls, and it was done with Girls, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida. At that particular Girls, Inc., there were young women in middle schools who were being solicited into becoming prostitutes and drug mules. To their credit, the people at the agency were very concerned, and they were interested in showing these young ladies that their interest in media could not only lead to potential careers, but also build confidence.
with middle-school girls did not convince me that the program could do everything I wanted it to do here. And the first step in launching any major initiative is to take the pulse of the potential presenting partners and stakeholders. This six-month process took about as much due diligence as I’ve ever needed in my life. We interviewed 24 agencies and looked for the needs that could be addressed by a program like the one I’d envisioned. It’s not enough just to say we’re going to show international films to at-risk and marginalized populations. What are we going to do? How’s it going to work? What kinds of films are we going to show? How would this serve them? You’ve got to ask these questions and get into a deep dialogue.
What consistently came up among the front-line staff that we interviewed—and it was fascinating—is that, because young people are information sponges and see so much media, people who might not have been well-versed in cognitive behavioral therapy or clinical social work are really familiar with the mechanisms—the way they’ll be approached, the way people would talk to them. A lot of them are even aware of nonviolent conflict resolution. And the clinical social work staff were saying these youth aren’t talking the way they used to. They are harder to engage than ever before. And if you don’t talk, if you don’t have access to any positive discourse, all of [your] toxic experiences go inward. So what was happening among young women and young men—because we were talking to the Night Ministry, Jewish Child & Family Services, and DCFS—is that they knew the dialogue, they just weren’t participating. They were not able to connect.
The agencies were seeing higher incidences of activities like cutting, hooking, drug use, other forms of self-harm, and suicide attempts. These are the kinds of problems that WorldScene program was designed to engage head-on. Because the design is not about a facilitator being an expert and guiding a group through the foundations of film aesthetics. You do have to assemble a body of really interesting and provocative films so they move discussions in directions that can’t be predicted by the participants. They think they know what’s going to happen when they go into a clinical setting—that’s what the social workers were saying. So, you get a group of powerful, interesting films—and sometimes it’s the worst films that offer the best opportunities for discussion. You can’t just pick the top-tier, award-winning films.
You also have to do due diligence with the agency [you’re working with]. It’s great if the executive director buys in [to your program], but that’s just step number one. You’ve got to get to the midlevel administrators, who are actually controlling the programs, then you’ve got to get to the front line, whether they’re clinical social workers or youth development specialists or, when you’re going to Cook County Jail, officers. You’ve got to be able to talk to the people at these agencies. If you just go into a jail and say you’re going to show foreign films, the front-line folks could potentially laugh you out of the building. If they’re not supporting it with the guys, it’s not going to work.
Then, you show the films and facilitate the discussions. I like to step out of the way and let the films do the work. I don’t think that I know what the participants are going to say. I make sure that the questions I’m asking preserve the possibility of really productive tangents. I don’t try to control the trajectory of the discussion or try to guide it back to the things I know. You have to frame the program in ways that are meaningful to what these guys are experiencing. One way I do this is by telling them up front that no one decides what gets into their film festival but them. The guards can’t vote, the social workers can’t vote . . .
We had a group that varied between 25 to 40 men, because we were dealing with a transitional population. The curation part of the program started in October and ended in May. We met once a week, with notable breaks for Christmas, illness, and division changes. Sometimes we had to take a week off when there wasn’t space for the program in the new division. The curatorial process was supposed to run for 12 sessions. Going in, we told the guys that they had the chance to curate an international festival of films that had been specially submitted to them—meaning the directors knew that their films were going to be screened at a jail.
The guys get a rating sheet for each film that has four criteria and room for comments, which are shared with the directors [of the films]. I think this is a tremendous thing for the participants. If you know that every time you write a comment, it’s going to reach the person who made the film you saw, there’s an understanding that your ideas are going beyond the walls of your jail. That’s really empowering.
I’ve served on film festival juries around the world, and I’ve overseen many here with the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. I’ve learned that there are always juries you have to keep an eye on, because there can be very powerful people with strong opinions who can easily sway others. So my rule is always: vote first, talk later. You can’t change your vote. But when the participants [of WorldScene] got into the discussions, they got to some deep levels of disclosure by the third or fourth session. That’s where the magic happens.
When the guys got to the point of discussing what films should be in [the festival] and why, they had to pick a theme. Because you don’t just curate in a vacuum. So, as with any group of curators, they had to decide what message they wanted their audience to get out of their selection of films. The men picked a theme that they communicated through the title of the program: “If Only.” It was very poignant and to the point. For these guys, life has been a series of what-ifs. If only someone had something; if only I had done this instead of that; if only I’d had the opportunity to do things a different way.”