a person with a big black mask and heavy yellow gloves blowtorches a camera memory card
Courtesy Destroy Your Art, 2019

Its name is provocative, its conceit simple. The filmmakers invited to participate in Destroy Your Art must adhere to just a few requirements.

“The only prompt we give to the filmmakers beyond, ‘Hey, do you want to make an original film and destroy it?’ is it’s got to be five minutes or less,” says Rebecca Fons, who cofounded the event in 2017 with her husband, Jack C. Newell.

A filmmaker’s goal is typically to make a film and then permeate it endlessly; nowadays audiences expect to view on demand, the idea that something may not be available to them almost unfathomable. What if those presumptions were put aside? 

“There’s two things that we’re interested in: one is, what would that do to the filmmaker?” says Newell, himself a director. (Fons heads up programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center.) “How would you make a film if you knew that it was only going to be screened once to this specific group of people and then you were going to destroy it?”

“The other question is, what does the audience do, knowing that they’re going to watch something that this is the only time they can engage with it?”

At Destroy Your Art, taking place this year at the Music Box Theatre on Thursday, August 25, at 7 PM, the four invited filmmakers will each screen a film they made specifically for the event; after that, they’ll burn the flash drive on which it’s contained in front of the audience using a blowtorch. 

Past methods have included shredding (which required an industrial shredder rented from Iowa) and destruction via a custom-made vicelike contraption attached to a table; in 2019, the last year the event was held before the pandemic delayed its fourth edition, the method was also burning, which Newell says they returned to because it’s inherently primal. 

Indeed, the event itself is a response to more structured methods of viewing that often lend themselves to viewers becoming passive, diverting their attention away from what’s taking place in front of them. 

“The invitation to an audience to really be present was exciting,” says Fons. “What does that kind of intentionality do? How does it change that experience and that transaction?”

Among the participating filmmakers, all Chicago-based or adjacent, responses ran the gamut. Lena Elmeligy, writer-director of the web series Ghareeb (available to view on Open Television), was drawn to the idea for fundamental reasons related to her love of filmmaking.

“What I’m most excited about with being a part of Destroy Your Art is the fact that its impermanence allows me to tap back into the aspects of filmmaking that I enjoy the most,” she says. “I’m less worried about it being a reflection of me and my career. I’m moreso invested in the process itself, and how it feels, and am I enjoying making this.”

Christopher Rejano, who primarily works as a cinematographer (he shot Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move and Knives and Skin), was also inspired by experiences related to his craft. 

“When we’re on set and we’re trapped somewhere where we can’t break away, we tend to look at our phones a lot,” he hints about the inspiration for his film, an experimental narrative of sorts, “and our phones become our windows into what’s happening where we’re at.”

Two of the filmmakers, Dinesh Das Sabu and Yanyi Xie, were influenced by the pandemic, which has loomed large over in-person events such as this.

“Like a lot of filmmakers and just people in general, I’ve had just a deeply unproductive pandemic,” says Das Subu. “I thought that this could be something to kind of shock me out of that state and get me out in the world and making stuff again.”

That “stuff” sounds pretty ambitious. Though I was careful to avoid learning too much about the films, I was particularly intrigued when Das Subu, a film professor who previously worked for Kartemquin Films (he made a feature-length documentary, Unbroken Glass [2016], under its auspices), said that his short is “going to be [like] if Chris Marker was reading some of [the] phenomenological, kind-of digital technology theorists.” 

For Yanyi, who recently graduated from the Documentary Media MFA program at Northwestern and whose work explores gender, queer identity, and feminism in her native mainland China, it’s an exorcism of sorts. Her film utilizes no newly shot footage; instead, it’s culled from her personal archive of images captured during the pandemic.

“It’s a very unique experience, because I’m an international student,” she said, “and because of the pandemic I haven’t traveled back home for the past three years.”

She elaborates that it feels as if she’s been living in a transient phase for so long. “Maybe if I put that into a project and destroy it, then it just becomes a fleeting thing,” she says. “It’s like a resolution for myself as well.”

A throughline in the filmmakers’ responses to the prompt is one of relief, that the intention isn’t to create something meant to be “profitable or sellable,” as Elmeligy puts it, or even to exist past this one night. 

“I think that having the stakes lower a little bit allows me to tap back into that part of weaving a story together that felt so good to begin with,” she says.

Yanyi, who’s recently begun incorporating more experimental aspects into her practice, notes the opportunity to participate in and do new things. “I really like the performance nature of the event,” she says, “and I really like how experimental it allows me to be in making this piece.” 

Destroy Your Art
August 25, 7 PM; Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport
General admission $15, discount for Music Box members

The relationship between the filmmakers and the viewers is complicated here. The inherent impermanence of the project means that the dynamic is not guaranteed to be mutually satisfying, as commercial filmmaking endeavors to be. 

“In many ways it’s been liberating, because I don’t need to worry too much about what an audience is going to care about,” says Das Sabu. “I can only disappoint one audience with this thing. It’s freed me to pursue ideas and styles and take risks that I probably wouldn’t take in my more quote-unquote professional work.”

Ultimately, the experience is the thing—that what the filmmakers create and what viewers see will cease to exist thereafter. The concept still blows Fons’s mind. 

“We’re the ones in 2022 seeing these four films, and no one else on the face of the planet, ever, will ever, ever see this movie by Dinesh again—including Dinesh!” she says. “That gives me goosebumps.”