June 6, 2012

UChicago filmmakers make most of producer’s endowment.

For UChicago Cinema & Media Studies majors Ian Williams and Amanda Ratliff, the first week in June marks a graduation on dual fronts: Not only will they leave Hyde Park with bachelor's degrees, but they'll also see the fruits of their filmmaking labor premiere at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on Thursday, June 7, at 7 pm.

The two students were among a dozen who participated in a Documentary Production course, taught by UChicago Senior Lecturer and Kartemquin Films associate Judy Hoffman and assisted by Kartemquin Films co-founder Jerry Blumenthal, which produced an extraordinary capstone project. Hyphenated Humor is about Arab-issh, a group of emerging multi-ethnic comics who use comedy to discuss their lives, struggles and experiences as they straddle two cultures while living in Chicago. The project was produced in partnership with Kartemquin Films, the venerated Chicago-based film collective that produced films including The Interrupters, Golub, and Hoop Dreams.

"In a classroom, you learn all these tropes and techniques, but you've never really employed them," says Ratliff, who hails from Orlando, Florida. "So to work on a film, and see them in action, is an amazing experience."

"Everyone who worked on this film wore an immense number of hats," adds Williams, who is from Atlanta. "I've done cinematography, editing, production on a few shoots, and lots of research. Whatever there was to do, we all had a hand in it, just about every role—even marketing."

The project also has a touch of Hollywood in it. Funding for the work comes as a result of a $300,000 endowment from film producer Charles Roven (The Dark Knight, Three Kings). His daughter Rebecca Roven took many UChicago classes taught by Hoffman, a factor that swayed him to dedicate funds to giving young filmmakers a shot at real-world experience.

"My idea was to have students work directly with professional filmmakers on a project, to get them out of the university and into a real film studio," Hoffman says. "So far it's working out, but there are difficulties. We're not a production school, and kids are taking all sorts of other courses, from economics to political science, along with Cinema & Media studies courses. It's a challenge to balance all the demands of classes and try to make a film. But they're deeply in it now."

Film funding

While Hoffman played a role in securing the endowment – she also advised Rebecca Roven's creative undergraduate thesis – she's eager to share credit with others, including former Cinema & Media Studies chair Tom Gunning, a renowned film historian, in helping to make the most of Roven’s gift.

"This is a great example of our faculty and alumni working together to create unique opportunities for current students," says John W. Boyer, Dean of the College. "The Roven Endowment not only enabled our students to gain substantial film production experience, it also strengthened ties with Kartemquin films and allowed students to better connect with alumni working in their field."

It was a natural choice to enlist Kartemquin as the anchor to this year's project, especially given Hoffman's strengths in the documentary field. Her credits include work on Ken Burns projects such as Baseball and Jazz, and she's a member of Kartemquin, a documentary powerhouse with strong UChicago ties. "The founders actually graduated from the University of Chicago," she says. "They were deeply influenced by the interdisciplinary education they got there."

Blumenthal, one of the founders who was a close advisor on the project, had nothing but praise for the current crop of UChicago filmmakers. "The students were remarkable inventive, committed, eager to learn—and amazingly tolerant of my pedagogical shenanigans," he says.

Merging theory and practice

"I think they've learned an immense amount during the editing process, both about the creative craft of editing and the larger ideas behind our work," says Justine Nagan, Kartemquin's executive director. That notion gets a decisive thumbs-up from students in the program.

"I don't think anyone realizes just how much work goes into a couple of minutes of the final product," says Emily Lo, a Political Science major who also graduates UChicago in June. "I'm much more attuned to the construction of documentaries now—which has been really interesting for when I'm actually watching them."

This marks the second year of Roven-funded projects; last year, Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch gave a public talk and a master class where he worked with Hoffman's undergraduate students developing creative theses. Hoffman is enthusiastic about the endowment, and she’s hopeful that with increased support, she and her colleagues can bring Cinema & Media Studies production to a new level.

"It's a unique chance to merge theory with practice, something Cinema & Media Studies is dedicated to. It is an amazing start and it certainly would be great if we got additional funding to continue our efforts at Cinema & Media Studies," she says. "It's critical that our alumni know so that they can contribute."

For now, Williams and Ratliff say that the high of bringing a documentary idea to life, complete with a public screening, marks a turning point they won’t soon forget. "It's better prepared us for entering the film industry, and we made amazing contacts," Ratliff said.

"The most enjoyable part has been going up to Kartemquin, sitting down with them and putting things together to make it look and feel and sound like a film," Williams adds. "You can see the project turn into something that's going to be professional."

Hyphenated Humor screens 7 p.m., Thursday, June 7, 2012 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 E. 60th St., Chicago). A discussion and reception will follow. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/HyphenatedHumor.

By Louis R. Carlozo