If you passed the rear entrance to the Harold Washington Library Center on one of several days in May 2003 you might have seen a group of people, including Nancy Watrous, forming what she calls “a conga line for carrying films to car trunks.” They’d volunteered to move the library’s collection of more than 5,000 16-millimeter films to a warehouse on LaSalle Street, the first home of the Chicago Film Archives.

“The library was literally demolishing the film archive room as we were taking the films out,” says Jeff Hamand, who works for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Over several days the volunteers managed to move only about 800 of the films, but one of Watrous’s colleagues donated $2,000 to hire a mover for the rest. Once the films were all in the warehouse, Watrous and a few helpers, including her nine-year-old son, Alec, started to unpack and organize them.

For decades Chicago was a production center for industrial and educational films, and many of them are part of the collection, as are obscure films such as Stan Brakhage’s Colorado Legend, made for the state of Colorado. There are also experimental and avant-garde films, rare prewar German features, films made by African-Americans in the 30s and 40s, and a film about anti-Semitism in the workplace. Many of the films in the collection are irreplaceable, and many of them haven’t been screened in decades. The films were “collected with a Chicago sensibility,” says Watrous, who heard in 2001 that the library wanted to get rid of the collection. “It was important that it be looked at intact.”

Carole Medal, then the library’s division chief of visual and performing arts, says that the films were collected over the decades “to support the programming of the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Public Schools” but that by 2001 only two teachers were regularly using them. They could be checked out by anyone with a library card, but in recent years they rarely were, probably because of competition from videos. So the library decided to use the space for something else and shift the funds for maintaining the films to buying more computers and providing more Internet access.

Medal and Mary Bonhomme, then head of the film and video department, called around the country trying to find an institution that wanted the collection. By the time Watrous contacted her, Medal was talking with the Chicago Cultural Center about transferring the films there. Taxes had paid for the films, so she preferred to give them to another city agency. Watrous offered to help.

Watrous had hung out with people who were into filmmaking long before she’d gotten into it herself. After growing up in and around Chicago, she’d dropped out of college in 1970 to live on a farm outside Toronto with her boyfriend and another couple. In 1974 she traveled to Europe and Israel for three months, living briefly on a kibbutz. The next year she and her boyfriend moved to New Orleans, where she met a guy who produced movie trailers and industrial films. He hired her as an assistant, teaching her how to analyze scripts, scout locations, and secure props.

Watrous’s boyfriend left around the time she was hired, and she began living a “decadent life” in the French Quarter, sometimes tap-dancing for money in the streets. A few years later she decided to move back to Chicago. “It was getting too crazy down there,” she says. “A friend of mine actually murdered two innocent bystanders in a drunken fight.”

Over the next decade she worked as a stylist, production manager, and assistant director on commercials, industrial films, and a few features. She also met the man she would marry and went back to school, to the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a degree in Latin American studies in 1991, then teaching Latin American and African studies at Evanston High School. But she never got too far from filmmaking and in the mid-90s directed more than 100 short educational movies.

Watrous and Medal both wanted to keep the library’s collection together. Watrous contacted Bruce Sheridan, chair of Columbia College’s film and video department, found he was interested, and put him in touch with Medal and with Jeff Hamand at the Cultural Center. When it seemed that Columbia and the Cultural Center would agree to joint custody of the collection, Watrous turned to other things. “I was happy that it was being saved,” she says, “and kind of felt like I had a hand in the deal.”

Hamand, a film buff whose father was an avid home-movie maker, was part of the discussions between Columbia and the Cultural Center. He wanted the collection to go to the Cultural Center. “But we didn’t have any room,” he says, “and it became a deadline problem, as the library just wanted to get rid of it.” He worked for months in 2002 on a deal in which Columbia would store and have access to the collection and the Cultural Center would own it. “But at the last minute they pulled out, offering to take only a fraction of the collection. We did feel that the uniqueness of the collection was in its entirety. It really left us kind of in a pinch.”

Sheridan says the college wanted to take the collection but didn’t have a space where the floors could bear its weight. “We actually spent several thousand dollars on consultants for reports on load-bearing requirements,” he says. Another problem he saw was the library’s records weren’t always clear as to who held the rights to the films, so if people wanted to copy footage from one they wouldn’t necessarily know whom to contact for permission.

In November 2002 Hamand called Watrous. “He said, ‘Columbia is unable to take the collection–you got any ideas?'” she says. “I hadn’t even seen a list of the films.” The following spring she organized a group of Chicagoans–including film historian Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia, and filmmaker Jack Behrend–to assess the collection. They read through the 91-page list of titles and decided it contained at least 1,200 important films.

“The more time that I spent with the collection–getting to know it, understanding the importance of it, understanding how to look at it in relationship to Chicago–the more I became attached to it,” says Watrous. “I started to think of it as a project I would like to handle.” She began talking to other people in the industry about spaces, and someone offered her an unused space in a building on North LaSalle rent free.

In May 2003 the library signed over ownership of the collection to the Chicago Cultural Center “with the understanding that it would oversee the creation of a not-for-profit” that would care for the films and keep them available to researchers and institutions. Watrous’s Chicago Film Archives wouldn’t be incorporated until later in the year and wouldn’t be a not-for-profit for another year, but the library wanted the films out, and people were afraid they’d wind up in a Dumpster. So she organized the volunteers and moved the films to the building on LaSalle.

A year later the owner of the building told Watrous he needed to rent the space. She rented 1,300 square feet in a climate-controlled industrial building near 18th Street and Canal and moved the whole collection again. She’s paying the rent herself.

Now the director of the archive, Watrous has pulled together a three-person board of directors and an eight-person advisory board, both of which she plans to expand. She has a staff but no one’s paid–so far she’s gotten only one small grant, from the Community Arts Assistance Program. “I’m going to be spending the major portion of my time next year working on grants and looking at revenue-building activities,” she says. She’s planned a fund-raiser for May and intends to start a membership program and research the possibility of licensing footage to filmmakers.

“It’s taken over quite a bit of my life–the time I don’t spend with my family I spend on this,” she says. “Maybe three out of seven days a week I wake up at 3 AM, maybe out of concern. I think about what a daunting job this is, who didn’t I call yesterday, am I spending my kid’s college money.”

Nevertheless, she’s taken on the task of expanding the collection. “The plan is that we are building a regional film archive,” she says. “There’s no regional film archive in the area, so we are concentrating on acquiring more films that have to do with the midwest region or were made by midwest filmmakers. I’m talking to filmmakers scattered all over the country about donating films that they made here.”

Charles Tepperman, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago who plans to write his dissertation on amateur filmmaking in Chicago, has been helping Watrous find amateur films and home movies made in the Chicago area. “In the 50s and 60s there were about a dozen amateur filmmaking clubs in Chicago,” he says. “The only one that remains right now is on the south side. They made fiction films and travelogues. There are members as old as 90.” Some of them have already donated their films to the archive.

“We have been interviewing the owners of donated films at length about their memories of what was going on in the films,” says Watrous. “Who the people were, all the information about them.”

The collection is starting to get used again. Watrous says Jill Godmilow found it helpful when researching her new film on animal rights, and the Cultural Center, which just transferred ownership of the collection to the archive, has planned a film series for next spring. And this week the archive starts its own series. The first program, at the Cultural Center on December 10, offers a diverse group of works that includes a weirdly quirky children’s puppet movie in a print that’s faded to red, a horrifying documentary about the German siege of Warsaw in 1939, and an over-the-top industrial film on the glories of stainless steel.

A Glimpse of Chicago Film Archives

When: Fri 12/10, 7 PM

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Price: Free

Info: 773-478-3799

For More: See the movie listings in Section 2

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.