Better Propaganda

A year ago a contingent of more than 50 people from Uptown’s American Indian Center traveled to Washington, D.C., to join 45,000 other Native Americans for something many of them thought was long overdue: the dedication of the National Museum of the American Indian, the last museum slated for the National Mall. Local freelance filmmaker Tom Orland followed the group, recording four days of activities, including their first look at an exhibit about their community and their 52-year-old organization, one of the oldest urban Indian centers in the country. The center covered Orland’s airfare, then a private donation (from Californian Allen Perlstein, who signed on as producer) paid for turning more than five hours of footage into a 15-minute film titled From Wilson Ave. to Washington, D.C. This weekend at the Chicago International Film Festival, Orland will collect a silver plaque for the documentary.

“It’s a visual record of what it felt like to be there,” Orland says of the largely wordless collection of scenes, which begins with a juxtaposition of the center and the nation’s capitol and includes a massive procession and a string of dances; the music’s by Peter Buffett (who scored portions of Dances With Wolves) and the group AO. Orland’s award comes under the auspices of CIFF’s less-noticed twin, Intercom, which recognizes work made for educational and industrial purposes–in other words, films with a viewpoint bought and paid for, often by some of the richest corporations in the world. But in this case, with Orland crashing on a friend’s couch in D.C. and donating his time, it came pretty cheap. The budget was $8,000.

Though Intercom was launched 41 years ago, at the same time as CIFF, this is the first time in years that it’s officially part of the festival. It’s smaller than CIFF–coordinator Philip Bajorat says it drew about 300 entries from 15 countries (CIFF drew 1,300)–and the chances of getting recognized are greater. This year there will be 70 winners in dozens of categories. Bajorat says criteria depend on the category–everything from Web sites to visitor center presentations–but in general the work is judged on how well it fulfills its purpose.

Orland, an Aurora native who’s also a singer-songwriter (yep, he has a CD and a Web site,, studied film production at Southern Illinois University, where his mentor was Hoop Dreams director Steve James–just a student teacher then, but already an inspiration for “trying to do stuff that means something,” Orland says. For most of the first 15 years after he graduated Orland did educational and corporate work, trying to infuse it with what he calls a “unique perspective.” (There was, for example, the Marshall Field’s video on how to fit a man’s shirt that he cast with a young actor he’d just seen at Second City–Steve Carell, now of Daily Show and 40-Year-Old Virgin fame.) But in 2000 he was hired by the Jesuits to make a film about their missionary work in Italy, India, Nepal, and Peru. He says that one, done with cameraman and editor John Hillman, changed his life. Filming at sunset in a Lima cemetery while a Peruvian family buried a child, panning across their faces as dust billowed from the freshly dug grave, Orland says, he felt the power the medium could offer. “I knew that by taking that story home and showing it we could help those people. I got it in my head that I could be the writer-producer for these stories and have some sort of effect.”

Soon after that Loyola University hired him to do a training film on the Indian Child Welfare Act. That led to his being hired by the center to work on another project, where for the first time he took on the duties of cameraman, editor, and production assistant when necessary. “I hadn’t really done the cinematography,” he says, “until there was a budget so low that if you wanted all these additional shoots you’d end up doing them yourself.” He says he doesn’t feel constrained by an arrangement that calls for presenting his subjects from their own point of view: “I just always want to feel that I’ve done the subject matter justice.” In the case of Native Americans, he adds, Hollywood and even well-intentioned documentarians have screwed it up in the past. “People don’t realize there are 31,000 Native Americans in Chicago. I just want to show them the way they want to be seen–as a vibrant, living, resilient community.”

From Wilson Ave. to Washington, D.C., 14 other Intercom winners, and a feature-length film, Phantom of the Operator–compiled of clips from more than 100 vintage industrial films–will be shown at a free screening from 1 to 5 PM on Sunday, October 9, at the AMC River East; the Intercom awards presentations follow. See the pullout guide in this section for complete listings.


After complaints that they’d be crossing a picket line, the Chicago International Film Festival decided last week not to use rooms being offered its guests by the Congress Hotel. Managing director Sophia Wong Boccio says the decision was made for many reasons and that the labor dispute is “a private matter between the hotel and the union.” . . . In spite of Illinois’ hard-won tax incentive for the film industry, only a portion of one feature film is on the production calendar here currently–Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, shooting this month. Illinois Film Office head Brenda Sexton says that’s “not unusual for the fall.” Looking ahead, another nine episodes of the Fox series Prison Break will be shot here from January through March. Sexton estimates that the industry will have added $70 million to the local economy in 2005….The Chicago Dance and Music Alliance has hired Molly McLinden as executive director; she’ll be doing work previously handled by two staffers. . . . Irresistible headline from the September 30 issue of PerformInk: “Illinois & Chicago Give Over $10 in Arts Grants.”

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