On the "Local" Front 

Noteworthy films by Chicagoans—and former Chicagoans—featured in CIFF's Illinois[e]makers series.

By Ed M. Koziarski

In some ways Chicago moviemakers have it easier than their peers in New York or LA. The film industry here is driven by TV commercials and location shoots for Hollywood features (like Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, Ron Howard's The Dilemma, and Michael Bay's Transformers 3, to name a few recent examples). The long lulls between these big-budget gigs give local artists access to a deep talent pool of actors and crew members hungry for work. With a diverse and mostly underexposed urban landscape, accessible rural scenery, and bargain-basement location expenses, Chicago offers production values that are hard to beat.

But finding the money to finance a movie in the first place is another story. Not many stars with the clout to attract a substantial budget are willing to spend enough time in Chicago to make a local shoot viable. The city has few production companies with the muscle to green-light a major feature and lacks a mature culture of independent movie investors. And once a filmmaker has his project in the can, he faces an even bigger hurdle getting exposure for it outside the limelight of the national media centers.

That should be where Chicago's oldest and biggest film festival comes in. But if you talk to local filmmakers, most will tell you the Chicago International Film Festival is more international than it is Chicago. The festival offers an attractive showcase for foreign movies and prestige indies, often cherry-picked from A-list festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto. Dozens of films are made here every year, but only a few are honored with a hometown debut at CIFF.

This year the festival presents a number of Chicago projects as part of its ongoing "Illinois[e]makers" series. There are the feature documentaries Louder Than a Bomb and Tony & Janina's American Wedding (both of which are reviewed in our festival guide). There are Carmen Marron's inspirational dance drama Go for It! and Julian Grant's zombie thriller The Defiled, and the eclectic shorts program "Illinois[e]makers."

Oddly, three of the dramas chosen by CIFF to represent the city—Todd Looby's short Son of None, Bob Meyer's feature Drunkboat, and Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave's feature Polish Bar—aren't strictly local in nature. The makers of Drunkboat and Polish Bar used to live here but have since moved away, returning only to shoot their films. And the director of Son of None won a coveted slot at CIFF by journeying to sub-Saharan Africa.


Unlike the expats above, Todd Looby still lives in Chicago, but he shot his CIFF entry, Son of None, during a two-week trip to Liberia last December. His wife, Monica Desmond, had just been named director of communications and development for the nonprofit Mission Honduras International, and Looby was hired to shoot a six-part, 53-minute promotional video for the organization titled of Children of Hope: The Story of Liberia Mission.

At first Looby planned to create a side project about child soldiers, but ultimately he settled on seven-year-old Joshua, a student at the Mission Liberia school, as the subject for his own film. "He has some sort of magnetic presence," Looby says. "You see him and you can't look away. My first interaction with him, he didn't say anything, he just came up and put his arms around me." In Son of None, a 15-minute mix of dramatic scenes and documentary footage, the boy plays an orphan of the Liberian civil war, also named Joshua, who's trying to make the transition from his impoverished rural village to a Catholic boarding school. The real Joshua probably has at least one living parent, says Looby, though it's hard to be sure because families avoid revealing themselves to school officials so that their children can continue receiving aid.

Joshua grew up speaking only his tribal language, and in the film he struggles to learn English, Liberia's national language. Shy and awkward among the older, bigger children, he shows compassion for a huge spider they find in a pond and, ultimately, a baby goat he finds in the school's church. "Kids who are poor, who come from bad conditions, you see their willingness to help others who are in a worse situation," explains Looby. "They're infinitely better than, say, American kids, at helping those that are more vulnerable."

Looby and Desmond's first child is due October 11, the same day Son of None premieres at the festival. "We may name him 'Joshua' if it's a boy," Looby says.

All screenings are at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois. Tickets are $13, $10 for Cinema/Chicago members, and $5 for weekday screenings before 5 PM. For more info see chicagofilmfestival.com.    

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