On March 9, Fire Escape Films descended on the Max Palevsky Cinema, home of Doc Films, for its winter screening of the seven student film projects completed this quarter. It’s an opportunity for the directors to thank those who have helped them and show off their hard work to both UChicago students and the wider Hyde Park community.
“I feel really confident about this quarter's showcase,” said fourth-year Igolo Obi, a Fire Escape board member. For Obi, two improvements to the screening compared to previous years stand out in particular.
“In the past, the content was written and directed primarily by white cis male members,” she said. “It used to be very much like a boys’ club.”
The broader scope of experiences and talents that were on display Thursday evening are the result of two years of concerted efforts. One such effort is the Women in Film Initiative (WIFI), which was established by the University’s Women’s Board to connect students with female professionals in the filmmaking industry and provide grant money for female filmmakers working on Fire Escape projects.
In addition, the board is particularly proud of the breadth of genres represented. “As a college organization, it's easy to have very similar storylines and narratives every quarter,” Obi said, like the “college trope of the heartbroken boy at a party.” She believes the content this quarter reflects a successful curatorial effort to move away from cliched narratives.
When asked what she wants viewers to know about this quarter’s collection of films, Obi responded, “We, along with the crews, have been working hard to produce much higher quality films than before, with greater diversity of representation and variety of narratives—some comedies, some dramas, a really cool sci-fi film—so that there is a film for everybody. This is something we’re really proud of this quarter.”
Mom Shit (written by fourth-year Anna Gregg and directed by third-year Keegan Morris) explores a day in the life of a single mother of two, balancing home and work life in the face of judgment and social stigma.
Because Gregg spent winter quarter abroad, Morris had the unique experience of directing a script that was not his own. Mom Shit also marked his directorial debut for Fire Escape after having acted as cinematographer and producer for previous films.
Morris underscored the dedication and time commitment involved with taking on a project for Fire Escape. “The quarter turnaround, even for something that comes out at only nine minutes, is really steep, especially when you're not as experienced at editing and have to juggle a million other things with it,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Long editing hours are one thing. But Mom Shit involved another entirely unique challenge: mercurial child actors.
“One of them was an RH's kid, who was pretty straightforward, but we also worked with this toddler who we found on this acting website who was a terror! He yelled so much and was generally really unhappy to be there,” Morris recalled.
Luckily, good crews make the experience all worthwhile. In Morris’s opinion, the camaraderie is the best part of the on-set experience.
“Since [Fire Escape] is so small and everyone is relatively new, everyone kind of learns together. It makes for good friendships and good creative relationships. For instance, I had worked with three of the five people on my crew before, and want to work with them all again,” he said. “Having to endure a long shoot or a really intense child (like we did) builds bonds.”
How To (written and directed by third-year Grace McLeod) is a poignant yet humorous take on the traditional coming-of-age narrative. Told through the eyes of a prepubescent girl who desperately wants to grow up faster, the multimedia project combines camera footage with YouTube clips that teach her to how to smoke, shave her legs, and make out with boys.
“[This] is my last Fire Escape project and I'm incredibly proud of it,” McLeod said in an e-mail. Before How To, she had directed two other films for Fire Escape.
“Going forward, I want to focus my energy entirely on being a mentor figure for club members (if I'm re-elected as President),” she wrote. She hopes her film will speak to “anyone who has ever had to look up how to do something on YouTube.”
A Knight to Remember (written and directed by second-year Eric Guzman) twists and turns through themes like mental illness, abuse, self-hatred, and depression. It begins as a humorous parody of the traditional story of a prince who saves a princess from a high tower, but soon morphs into a complex narrative with character development and intense relationship dynamics.
Guzman, who began working with Fire Escape last spring as a production assistant, was one of the evening’s first-time directors. He found himself working closely with his crew to overcome their lack of experience and small size. “The crew [consisted of] two main actors, me, a director of photography, and a sound guy, basically. For a lot of [them], it was their first time doing anything,” he said.
The largest obstacle for him, however, did not arrive until post-production. “Since I didn't have an editor, I had to learn how to edit on my own…last week I took off from all my classes so I could edit,” he said. “Guess I should put that on my resume now.”
BPM (written and directed by second-year Julia Rose Camus) is an abstract, arthouse piece, exploring everyday themes like balancing work and a social life. A recurring scene included the main character against a white wall in a dimly-lit room wearing lights, so that he created light artwork as he danced. These scenes were then surrealistically layered on top of each other and set to electronic beats, hence the title BPM (beats per minute).
Grithelm (written and directed by fourth-year Tate Hamilton) is set behind the lines of a post-apocalyptic world as commanders and generals scramble to save a doomed mission. Hamilton uses a mixture of costume, intelligent set design, and post-production visual effects to ease the audience into this unfamiliar world.
“Making this film has been a crazy ride,” Hamilton said in an e-mail, “but overall I'm very happy with how it turned out.”
Like McLeod, Hamilton has now directed three films for Fire Escape, in addition to directorial work for two Maroon TV web series.
He and his crew faced a very unique challenge this quarter—weather. “The script was written to take place on an Arctic glacier, which, back in November when I was writing it, didn't seem like too tall an order for winter in Chicago,” he wrote.
Despite having shot the film in a record-breaking snow-less winter, Hamilton and his crew had a “make it work” moment.
“We found the one last patch of snow left in Hyde Park, and we filmed there on that 70-degree day,” he said. “It was a crazy experience filming as our set was melting away beneath us. I got a sunburn in February.”
Wine & Cheese (written and directed by fourth-year Miranda Van Iderstine) is a humorous and touching tribute to friendship. Following two friends in their final night together before spring break, Wine & Cheese features shopping, drunk cooking, and bad films; as the film’s closing line proclaims, “May we all revel in the beauty of friendship/ it’s the nicest.”
This is Van Iderstine’s first film for Fire Escape since joining in the fall as a crew member. Since she was directing a script of her own creation, most of her challenges stemmed from inexperience with technical elements, like editing software.
“I spent thirty hours in Logan in the last week,” she said.
Another skill set she had to learn quickly was how to manage an entire crew. When discussing the difficult aspects of making her film, she said, “It was a lot more about coordination than it was about not being able to do everything myself.”
Learning curves aside, Van Iderstine is proud of her final product. “I had a really fun time doing it and I was very lucky to have a very good crew working on it.”
We All Fall Down (written by fourth-years Amber Love and Joe Joseph, directed by Love) is set in a world in which humans volunteer to sacrifice themselves as so-called ‘ASHES’ to ensure the survival of humanity. The film follows the final days of one such human sacrifice to explore what happens if we can control when we die.