November 12, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 4

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    [fire escape], by lloyd degrane  

    Group provides a creative outlet to students who want to create images on film

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Could the campus that attracted TV and film crews all summer also be home to the next Sergei Eisenstein or Alfred Hitchcock? If so, members of Fire Escape Productions would like to discover and help develop that kind of talent in students interested in filmmaking.

    This student filmmaking group, a branch organization of DOC films, provides would-be directors, editors and cinematographers with the necessary tools to develop cinematic skills and talent.

    For a small membership fee, Fire Escape members receive large discounts on film stock and processing and have access to cameras; editing, lighting and sound equipment; and how-to lessons that begin with loading film.

    “Filmmaking is an equipment-intensive and costly art,” said Fire Escape member Francis Shen. “Our group is structured to make sure filmmaking is affordable for students. If you want to make films at Chicago, Fire Escape wants you to have a very good experience.”

    The group is funded in part by the Program Coordinating Council (a Student Government committee chartered by the Dean of Student Services) and the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities. Start-up funds for the new visiting artists program were also provided by the Visiting Committee on the College & Student Activities.

    Reducing expenses has made possible a number of student projects–some of which have complemented academic projects. For his B.A. project in GS Hum, graduate Jon Heidelberger wrote and directed a 30-minute film called Killing Aphrodite, a Fire Escape production with participation by members of University Theater, which will be screened on campus this fall and at the Chicago Art Institute Festival in December.

    Third-year student Nadav Kurtz received a Square-D Corporation/Chicago Group on Modern France Travel Grant that enabled him to film in France this past summer. Roderick Coover, a Fire Escape member who has studied the transformation of French village life in the modern era of European globalization, directed this independent, documentary project. In the film, Coover and Kurtz documented how winegrowers in Burgundy have maintained their traditional winemaking practices while modernization has affected other areas of their lives.

    “Fire Escape gives you the opportunity to create,” said Kurtz, “but only to the extent to which you’re willing to push your own production. It is completely up to you,” Kurtz said.

    “Independent filmmaking is an artistic means of expression we want to promote,” said Coover, who is also a Ph.D. candidate for the Committee on the History of Culture. “Students get excited when they discover filmmaking as a tool for broader, interdisciplinary applications for creative work.” Student directors may create visual explanations of scientific concepts, raise awareness about issues through documentaries, retell Greek tragedies through a modern medium or create visual montages.

    “We hope that making films here will be a training ground for students,” said Shen. “Great filmmakers don’t create works of art on the first try–they become great through learning their craft and capitalizing on that knowledge.”

    While Fire Escape values the practical applications of filmmaking, Shen believes students learn a great deal in the theoretical classes offered by Chicago’s Cinema and Media Studies program. CMS courses study the moving image and how meanings are created through representational devices of film and related media.

    James Lastra, Assistant Professor in English Language & Literature, serves as Fire Escape’s faculty advisor and is a CMS Professor. He would like to see CMS and Fire Escape develop a relationship similar to that of GS Hum and University Theater, where students have an opportunity to apply theory in their productions.

    “CMS is just four years old and needs time to grow,” said Lastra. “Our priority is to establish ourselves as a premier cinema studies program.”

    In addition to guidance from Lastra and other CMS professors, Fire Escape has created a visiting artists program to bring experienced filmmakers to campus. This fall, filmmaker Vera Davis, who has served on numerous filmmaking panels, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, is sharing her expertise with Fire Escape members.

    Davis received an NEA regional grant to produce her short film Soft Spot. Most recently, she received a grant from the Illinois Arts Council to create a documentary about photographer Jim Taylor. She works at the Community Film Workshop in Chicago, helping community and professional organizations seeking grants.

    Davis has covered some of the basics of 16mm camera operation in two of three workshops this quarter. The next workshop will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Cobb Hall on Saturday, Nov. 21.

    When asked what advice she would give students interested in filmmaking, Davis said, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be concerned about whether or not you have the ‘right’ background to make films.”

    Davis said filmmaking draws on skills from a broad range of disciplines, so any background, from mathematics to creative writing, informs filmmaking.

    Shen gives credit to Herman Sinaiko, Professor in Humanities and Chairman of the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, Stephen Brown, Major Programming Coordinator for ORCSA, and Bill Michel, Associate Dean of Student Services, for making the workshops possible. “Without their help, we could not have done this,” said Shen.

    Student films will be screened at the Fourth Annual Fire Escape Film & Video Festival at the end of the Fall Quarter. In addition, students hope to submit their works to film festivals, such as the Chicago Underground Festival and the University Film and Video Association Festival.

    The Fire Escape Winter Quarter visiting artist will be Cheryl Elsbury, an independent filmmaker and teacher of non-fiction film at Facets Multimedia. The visiting artist for spring will be announced later this quarter.

    More information about Fire Escape is at fxshen@midway.uchicago.edu or njkurtz@midway.uchicago.edu.