Formidable Dreams Credit: Full Spectrum Features

Two local independent-film nonprofits, IFP Chicago and Full Spectrum Features (FSF), are partnering on a new initiative, Illinois Film Tour (IFT), with the intention of supporting diverse filmmakers and providing resources to underserved communities across the state. Funded by a $10,000 Multiplier grant from Illinois Humanities (IH), IFT enters a one-year pilot phase this spring, with Nicole Bernardi-Reis and Eugene Sun Park—president of the board of directors at IFP and the founder of FSF, respectively—cocurating the project.

Mark Hallett, program manager of grants and partnerships at IH, says he was thrilled by the statewide film-tour idea that IFP and FSF pitched, and cites the state’s heterogeneity as one of the reasons why.

“Illinois is a very diverse state that straddles north and south, urban and rural, prairies and hills, Great Lakes and great rivers, agriculture and industry, as well as varied ethnic, cultural, political, and socioeconomic populations,” Hallett says. “The notion of creating programs that involve sharing of cultural resources and dialogue across these divides is one that we are beginning to tackle in our own programming at Illinois Humanities, and using the grants program as a tool to partner with others to start to tackle too.”

Hallett also says the state’s diversity is the reason why IH launched the Multipliers grants category in May 2016. To date, he says, Multiplier grants have included five other collaborations: the nonprofit group Forefront, to expand its Peer Skill Share program to nonprofits throughout central Illinois; Landmarks Illinois, to produce a series of video vignettes highlighting people’s connection to place in eight communities across the state; the Chicago Cultural Alliance, for the Inherit Chicago initiative, around the theme of what we pass down from generation to generation and why; the Prison & Neighborhood Arts Project for the Long Term, a project that addresses the impact of long prison sentences; and a grant to Carbondale Community Arts for its Confluence Arts Water project, a series of events focusing on water.

Raising BertieCredit: IFP Chicago

For the pilot phase, Park says he and Bernardi-Reis will be reaching out to potential screening partners to discuss possible venues and the kinds of films they can screen that will excite and engage their constituencies. “At the same time,” he adds, “we’re willing to take some programming risks that challenge audiences and bring films into communities that may not otherwise have exposure to certain stories or viewpoints.”

Hallett affirms that one of the primary goals of the project is to identify and then start to work with venues across the state that could participate.  “A lot of great venues, film societies, libraries, schools, and others are already doing this work in isolation,” he says. “The hope here is that by becoming a loose network, they can all benefit by growing the resources each has access to. But to get there is a lot of work, and [will require] a lot of outreach and relationship building.”

In terms of film selection and curation, Park and Bernardi-Reis say that they’re open to documentaries, narrative films, and everything in between—including more “hybrid” experimental work of the sort that IFP incorporates into their annual Chicago Underground Film Festival—but that they’ll be leaning toward films that can serve as a basis for meaningful discussion: for example, films about important social issues and unique cultural practices, as well as narratives of personal struggle and moral conflict.

“Illinois is such a diverse state culturally,” Bernardi-Reis points out. “Our urban areas are much different than our small towns. I’m really looking forward to partnering with organizations in places that don’t have easy access to this type of work: people who aren’t able to drive to Chicago or Saint Louis or Paducah to attend a film festival, but who appreciate good stories.”

Park agrees, adding that FSF “has done quite a bit of touring around the region with our Chicagoland Shorts and Hidden Histories programs, and we’re hoping to build on some of the relationships that have developed out of those initiatives.”

“Beyond these existing relationships,” he continues, “we’re looking to work with venues and organizations downstate, and in other communities that fall outside the immediate cultural orbit of Chicago. We especially want to reach communities that don’t have film societies, independent movie theaters, film festivals, et cetera.”

Unbroken GlassCredit: IFP Chicago

Park and Bernardi-Reis also hope to start conversations that will bring about real and lasting social change in the communities they visit.

“There are two main conversations that I’d like to push through IFT,” Park notes. “The first is among filmmakers about how we can collectively create a sustainable film economy in the midwest, so we can slow or even reverse the migration of talent to the coasts. My belief is that we need more local filmmakers thinking about the financial realities of their work, and to execute a plan that is more than just a hope and a prayer that they’ll be ‘discovered’ one day.”

“To put it bluntly,” he continues, “we need more filmmakers undertaking films as legitimate business ventures and not just vanity projects or an expensive hobby. With IFT, we hope to play an important role in changing the way filmmakers think about their work and its life in the world. By paying filmmakers screening fees and working with venues to create events that make sense for everyone involved, we’re promoting independent filmmaking as a cultural asset that has value and that is worth supporting.”

The second conversation, Park says, will be about the role that film can play in a democratic and inclusive society: “What we value, what we view as ‘normal,’ what we fear and reject—these are all things we discover, contest, and express through the medium of film,”

In her role at IFP and as a documentary filmmaker, Bernardi-Reis says this is something she thinks and talks about a lot. “Film is a powerful cultural and economic driver in society,” she attests. “First off, film and television are some of the most powerful change agents in the world. Media not only reflects the world we live in, but it also shapes it. We have great potential as artists working in the midwest to tell stories that more accurately reflect the complexity and diversity of living in the United States in 2017, while also demonstrating our shared humanity.”

“Towards that end,” Park says, “we need to move beyond this idea that only documentaries are relevant in terms of social issues and change. Narrative and art films are powerful contributors to and expressions of culture, and they do so much to shape how we see ourselves and our world.”

“The other big part of this conversation is economic,” Bernardi-Reis says, “both in terms of underserved audiences who crave seeing their experiences and their stories onscreen, and for the people who create it. Quite simply, we need to be talking about how Illinois-based filmmakers can have economically sustainable careers.”

Signature MoveCredit: Full Spectrum Features, IFP Chicago

Upon successful completion of IFT’s pilot phase, Bernardi-Reis and Park say they will select the year’s participating films from a variety of sources—likely through an open submission process and via a platform like Film Freeway. They also intend to reach out to schools, film festivals, and other film organizations throughout the state.

But while IFT’s screening partners and venues will be located in Illinois, Bernardi-Reis and Park have not yet decided if all of the films they screen will be locally made. “Personally, I would like to keep the focus on Illinois or midwest films, and there’s certainly a wealth of talented filmmakers in the region who can sustain something like IFT for years to come,” Park says.

Bernardi-Reis agrees. “I’m also hopeful that some of these pilot programs will inspire filmmakers, or budding filmmakers, in those communities to feel supported and validated by the tour,” she says, “and that we’ll start seeing more new work through those new relationships.”

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