Filmmakers Lily Qi and Sarabi Woods covering events in downtown Chicago for Activism Now.
Filmmakers Lily Qi and Sarabi Woods covering events in downtown Chicago for Activism Now. Credit: David A. Holcombe

When the Black Lives Matter and other social justice uprisings hit Chicago last year, the creators at Soft Cage Films were ready. The nonprofit film production company has been documenting social change, combating oppressive systems, and amplifying underrepresented voices of color in film through experimental techniques, artistic collaboration, and engaging storylines since its founding in 2012.

Before 2020, the team worked in person all over the city and produced a wide array of films—including a musical inspired by real events of police torture at Homan Square and the community work to stop it, a drama about a revolutionary street artist’s fight against capitalism, and a supernatural horror film that was the group’s first feature—inspired by Chicago’s storefront theater model of a young, scrappy team eager to create a community focused on growth in independent arts.

But 2020 opened up new doors for the organization to reach broader audiences and hold space for uncomfortable but necessary conversations happening on—and off—the streets. Its ongoing docuseries Activism Now, which started in 2015 to uplift voices for progressive change by documenting the front lines of local activism, captured historic actions this past summer, including the march against police brutality after George Floyd’s killing and the Columbus statue solidarity rally (and the statue’s subsequent removal). Activism Now lives online and is available to watch anytime, but compilations of the episodes were shown at in-person screenings pre-pandemic tied to other film releases.

“We went to work right away [in] finding people who were willing and capable to cover social justice uprisings and created a system to bolster safety from police during protests and safety from COVID while also gathering materials,” says Spence Warren, filmmaker and Soft Cage board president. It was also important to showcase the actions from the ground and not let traditional mainstream media distort the truth, he adds.

Building off that collective energy, Soft Cage ramped up full speed, launching two new film initiatives that created needed virtual spaces to challenge oppressive systems, like gender and racial discrimination, police brutality, and health-care access for people of color, which could not have been more fitting in a year where everything got turned upside down. The exposure of the roots of systemic racism in a new light presented Soft Cage the opportunity to work to untangle them in public.

In June, Soft Cage launched its first initiative, a filmmaker Q&A series that showcases work from local filmmakers like Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke, Zanah Thirus, JC Farris, and Pegah Pasalar, and is intended to spark vital conversations around activism, immigration, racial justice, and sexual assault. Five virtual events were held in 2020 and the team is planning six more events this year with a new title that represents the goal of providing a space to discuss difficult matters—the group planning the series calls themselves the Committee of Uncomfortable Conversations.

“The Q&As have really impacted me,” says Troi Valles, who moderates the series and is on the planning committee. “We have had such interesting conversations and they have been so honest, direct, forthcoming about topics that are super serious.”

She points out the film Unlearning Sex by Thirus, which documented the filmmaker’s experience through sexual trauma therapy and reclaiming her body, as an example of work and talkback that was impactful and visceral to Valles and the audience.

She says the audience craved these conversations that were at times challenging, thought-provoking, and, for some people, uncomfortable. And the virtual nature of the events allows for broader audience reach.

“Connecting these conversations with the audience who needs to see them is a lot of the work we are doing now, but even judging the conversations for myself—there is a huge need to be vulnerable about some of these topics,” she says.

In August, Soft Cage launched Convergence, an interdisciplinary video series in which artistically bold directors examine the relationship between art and activism. Episodes are interviews or testimonials interlaced with various visual and performing arts to craft a mixed-media experience designed to express a holistic vision of activism.

Convergence – Health Crisis from Soft Cage Films on Vimeo.

David A. Holcombe, cofounder of Soft Cage, says the series is a way to more deeply engage with issues critical to the local community while paying artists to work remotely. One film explored birth justice by documenting the experiences of a local doula who works with Black women, and another hit on the public health crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID.

Convergence is taking a deeper dive into some of these issues while also hiring artists such as dancers and poets and to put these artists in conversation with issues like systematic racism, immigration,” Holcombe says. “They may not seem on the surface to lend themselves to expression through dance so it’s a fun experiment for people to create from home and engage.”

The film organization, which has nine board members and 21 company members, was able to pay 127 artists in 2020 with money from grants and fundraisers. This year, the organization plans to commission 250 artists. For Convergence, 90 percent of the budget for each episode was paid as artist stipends to directors, editors, camera operators, composers, poets, and dancers. Virtual interviews and small, masked, socially distanced shoots brought the two episodes of the series to life, and more are brewing.

Holcombe says the pandemic provided unexpected benefits to creating this type of work and exposed the desire to highlight long-standing community issues, similar to the Q&A series. “I am excited that we created it, but the fact that we didn’t have it before shows there is a need for it that’s ongoing, even after this is all over,” he says. “We are getting to work with people we would otherwise not get to work with.”

While juggling these projects and teaching virtual filmmaking classes to children, the company completed postproduction on three films. One of them, Human Capital: A Tragedie in 3 Parts, premiered virtually March 28. It is an anthology of three short pieces: Pilgrim (2015), Breaking (2016), and Mandala (2017) that follows three unlikely heroes whose livelihoods are being eroded by labor technology. The anthology brings these films together as the unified vision they were originally intended to be for the first time. It also marks “an end of an era” for the production company, as Holcombe put it. The guerilla-style filmmaking the company was built on—independent filmmaking characterized by low budgets, skeleton crews, and simple props—is over.

Assistant cameraman Brandon White, director Jordan Rome, cinematographer Rinkesh Patel, and assistant director Spence Warren line up a shot for the short film “365 TKA."
Assistant cameraman Brandon White, director Jordan Rome, cinematographer Rinkesh Patel, and assistant director Spence Warren line up a shot for the short film “365 TKA.”Credit: David A. Holcombe

Soft Cage plans to expand paid partnerships with not only emerging women artists of color, but also work with other production companies, social justice organizations, and college students. “Now, as we release more films, we want to show the progression of our values toward something more community-based, that uplifts other voices, challenges ourselves and to try to create an environment that feels collaborative,” he says.

The company’s work indicates that they are on the road to fulfilling this goal, which also seeks to challenge the typical film industry model and pay artists upfront what they are worth. Holcombe says this notion can be surprising for filmmakers but that kind of nurturing is important to create impactful work.

Like other arts organizations forced to rethink their work due to the pandemic and get creative, Soft Cage didn’t let the chaos stop them. Its artist fees increased by 82 percent during 2020, and engagement with virtual content increased by about 200 percent. Holcombe says Soft Cage was able to make a real impact in the lives of the artists who were commissioned, many of whom would have otherwise been unable to pay rent or bills. For now, all the money comes from grants and fundraising but he says the nonprofit is interested in exploring subscription models like Patreon in the future and hopes to own a studio and event space to hold regular programming, shoots, and events based on a “pay what you can” model.

Nandy Barajas lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic but joined the team as a graphic designer last spring. Thanks to Soft Cage, she has been able to keep working while engaging in the fight for social justice and use her visual talents to design protest flyers, logos for the company’s projects, and social media flyers for its virtual events. “I like having the opportunity of bringing the spotlight in amplifying voices that would otherwise go ignored, as they have been for so much,” Barajas says.

As Soft Cage looks to the future and extends its arms further into the community, the company hopes to keep growing and challenge the way we think, behave, and interact to move toward better understanding and equity. To do this, fresh perspectives and abundance are everything, says Warren. “We don’t want to dictate what matters,” he says. “We want to discover what matters by creating an ever-growing and more diverse group of artists and filmmakers so that we can find out.”   v