“We believe that these stories—the stories of everyday, regular people that were documented on film—are extremely valuable to our understanding of what life was like in the 20th century.” —Chicago Film Archive
As part of the multi-part examination of the ideas behind Expanding the Frame: Imagination Is Power, the staff at Chicago Film Archives discuss its collection of over 26,000 titles from the Midwest region, its important work with film preservation, and the history behind the three films provided for the series.
This interview is part of an ongoing publishing series designed to spark a deeper exploration of the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power. Look for contributions from these scholars and artists who’ll share their thoughts, stories, and research on the legacy of the late 1960s and activism today: Ayo Akingbade, Bidayyat, Nadie Cloete, Valérie Déus, Amir George, and Alice Lovejoy.
Ruth Hodgins: What is the history of Chicago Film Archives?
Chicago Film Archives: CFA is a regional film archive dedicated to bringing safety and acknowledgement to historically neglected films and filmmakers from the Midwest. It was formed in 2003 in order to house, preserve, and bring public access to the Chicago Public Library’s collection of 5,000 16mm films, a collection the library could no longer keep. Over the past 13 years, CFA has acquired more than 130 film collections (almost 27,000 items); built an open source Collections Management System to organize and catalogue the films; created online collection-finding aids that stream over 1,400 films from CFA’s website; and hosted regular public screenings. Our purpose is to serve institutions and filmmakers of this region and elsewhere by making the films available locally, nationally, and internationally for exhibition, research, and production; and to serve our culture by restoring and preserving films that are rare or not in existence elsewhere.
CFA has been awarded 13 grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts to support the conservation of 286 rare or unique films from our collections. In 2013 the Library of Congress selected Cicero March, a film CFA preserved in 2007, to be listed on the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant film.” In 2016, CFA was awarded the MACEI by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Hodgins: Why is it important to preserve and archive film in historical archives like CFA?
CFA: If an individual or an institution comes to us with a film collection that fits within our mission, we do our best to either provide advice on the proper care of the films, or work with the donor to acquire the collection so that the films will be cared for and housed at CFA. We began collecting amateur films and home movies pretty shortly after we moved into our vault space on 18th Street in Chicago. People just started calling us and asking if we were interested in their films!
We believe that these stories—the stories of everyday, regular people that were documented on film—are extremely valuable to our understanding of what life was like in the 20th century. Our social and cultural history is captured on these films, and they provide an opportunity to look back and think about what was being filmed, how it was made, and by whom.
The stories that are told through the films in our collections are incredibly important and valuable, and we believe that these stories should be saved and made accessible to a broad public. Historically, more “minor” histories have been neglected, and from the beginning, CFA (very naturally) started to collect and preserve these lesser-known histories and perspectives. Something like, for example, a home movie that documents a historical event like the Century of Progress International Exposition (the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair) can provide a very different perspective on the event than an industrial, advertising, or documentary film made on the same topic. All of these different films can be used together to study and understand that one historical moment.
Because we collect home movies and amateur films (in addition to all film genres: narrative, documentary, animated, experimental, etc.), we value the very personal and down-to-earth/everyday perspective that they provide. One of the first collections that came to CFA is one that contains films (and some ephemera) by Margaret Conneely. The films in the collection were made between 1949 and 1982, although the majority of her finished and distributed films were made in the 1950s and ’60s. Margaret Conneely is now considered to be an extremely important amateur filmmaker, although she worked professionally as cinematographer for Loyola University, where she made medical films. Her personal films were exhibited internationally, and she was involved with numerous film amateur clubs, including the Metro Movie Club, the Chicago Cinema Club, the Chicago Area Camera Club Association, the Photographic Society of America (PSA), and the Amateur Cinema League. She was a chairman for the Photographic Society of America (and organized their first international film competition in 1952–53 in addition to chairing the 1963 PSA convention). Conneely’s films are wickedly funny reflections on life in this region in the mid-century. Mister E (1959) is one of our favorites because it expresses some of the edgier mischief and discontent that women of the 1950s could rarely express openly. It captures Conneely’s wit and snappy sense of humor, and shows us how she reacted to, critiqued, and poked fun of the social norms of the time. An added bonus: the thick Chicago accents of the actors in the film (who were also amateur filmmakers and involved with area camera clubs)!
Hodgins: What are the challenges you face as an organization?
CFA: We are part of a strong and vibrant community of independent, regional archives, and we do a lot of collaborative work with colleagues at institutions like Northeast Historic Film (a regional archive located in Maine that collects, preserves, and provides access to film and video from northern New England). We face the same problems that our colleagues face. We are an independent nonprofit, so we have to fund all of our work through grants, donations, and earned revenue income generated by the services we provide (primarily film digitization and collection assessments). We are a small organization staffed by four full-time employees. We have grown progressively over the years and we are always changing and adapting.
Hodgins: In the four-part series Expanding the Frame: Imagination Is Power we include a selection of short films from CFA that represent home movies, governmental propaganda footage, and newsreels by journalists and activists, from 1968. In the program Be Realistic, Ask the Impossible, which explored inequality and agitation related to living conditions and urban planning, we included A Place To Live, directed by DeWitt Beal, made for the department of Urban Renewal. Can you tell us more about this work and the director?
CFA: We went on a quest to find the film materials for LORD THING (1971), a documentary on the Conservative Vice Lords made by Chicago filmmaker and adman Dewitt Beall. Soon after our search began, film researcher Bucky Grimm found the film materials with Elina Katsioula-Beall, who then donated the films to CFA. Katsioula-Beall cared for her husband’s films since his passing in 2006 and took it upon herself to carefully inventory Dewitt’s collection of films and ship them our way. In addition to the 27 prints and elements associated with LORD THING, the Dewitt Beall Collection also contains a handful of other 16mm productions made by Dewitt. These productions are a mix of documentaries, commercials, sponsored films and a PBS television series (Earth Keeping) that never quite came to fruition. One of the stand outs was the sponsored documentary A Place To Live (1968), made for the City of Chicago’s Department of Urban Renewal, which was undoubtedly used for outreach (or propaganda, depending on your definition) purposes by the City of Chicago.
This film attempts to defend the city’s redevelopment plan for residential and commercial urban renewal, and explains how relocation officers can assist those who have been recently displaced. As the narrator states, “we are tearing down what stands in the way of a better city. Some buildings must go simply because they occupy space needed for something else, but for the most part, it’s the worn out areas of the city that are making way for the new.” Surprisingly, the film also gives a voice (albeit, brief) to recently displaced home owners who express their rightful frustrations and distaste of the city’s urban renewal process. Instead of analyzing these opinions, though, the film shifts back to its main goals–convincing viewers of the necessity of urban renewal and highlighting the relocation services offered by the Department of Urban Renewal.
Hodgins: As part of the program on April 19, We Shall Overcome, which considers the relationships between private lives and public systems, we’re screening the Film Group’s Black Moderates and Black Militants. Can you tell us more about this title and the Film Group?
CFA: The Film Group was a loosely knit collective of commercial and documentary filmmakers (including Mike Gray, Chuck Olin, Howard Alk and William Cottle) based in Chicago during the latter half of the 1960s. They experimented with cinema-verité documentary filmmaking; applying this to the commercials and sponsored films they produced for their clients. But the climate of social unrest that sprang from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement contributed to a growing dissonance between their commercial and documentary work. During the turbulence of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention (and in spite of a shoot for Kentucky Fried Chicken taking place in their studio), Mike Gray and other filmmakers from the collective took their cameras down to the streets to record the confrontations erupting between the protesters and the police.
Over its approximately 10-year existence (from 1964 to 1973) the company went through a variety of name, location, and personnel changes. Mike Gray and Lars Hedman created Hedman Gray, Inc. in 1964 and were located at Hedman’s photography studio on 3325 West Huron. In early 1966 they added photographer Mike Shea. They changed the name of the company to Hedman Gray Shea, Inc. and opened an 11,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art production facility at 430 West Grant Place, and soon thereafter changed their name to the Film Group. At that point Hedman was the president, Shea was the director of photography, and Gray was the writer/producer. Right after the move to Grant Place they hired James Dennett as a production manager, William Cottle as the business manager and financial backer, and Chuck Olin as salesman. Hedman left the company by the end of 1966, and Shea left in 1967. Gray then took over as cameraman. Cottle left in 1969, and the company changed its name to Mike Gray Associates and moved to 120 West Kinzie. The company was dissolved in 1973 with Gray’s move to California.
From 1965 to 1972 they made TV commercials for national and local clients including Eli Lily, Montclair cigarettes, Hills Bros Coffees, Mogen David, Sara Lee, WBIB TV, Sara Lee, Aunt Jemima, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Illinois Bell, Quaker Oats, Chicago Tribune, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Sears. They also made longer sponsored films for clients that are closer to their documentary work including A Matter of Opportunity (1970) and Eight Flags for 99 Cents (1970).
Their documentary films include the two features American Revolution 2 (1969) and The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971). The two films are closely related and document the unrest surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, follow the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and refute the city of Chicago’s and the media cover up of Hampton’s death. In 1969 they released a seven part educational film series Urban Crisis and the New Militants. The Film Group created the Urban Crisis series as educational films aimed at high school students. The films and accompanying literature used current political events as springboards into discussions on the limits of constitutional freedoms and the proper response of the government.
Five of the seven films in the Urban Crisis series utilize footage from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, while the other two, Cicero March and Black Moderates, Black Militants, are concerned with similar issues of civil rights and civil disobedience, were not filmed during the Democratic Convention.
These seven short films in the Urban Crisis series have been preserved through grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Black Moderates and Black Militants documents a meeting between Chicago Black Panther members, including future Congressman Bobby Rush, and an African American school principal.
Hodgins: How can people see, experience, and learn more about Chicago Film Archives?
CFA: The easiest way to see, experience, and learn more about CFA is on our website. We are deeply committed to access, and strive to make available online (for free!) as many of our films as we can. We have close to 1500 films streaming as digital files on our website.