Wow, what excellent coverage of an archive, and how deserving CFA is of
the positive press! I'm very proud and happy to see such an informed,
level-headed, and thoughtful piece of writing about regional film
preservation and the people behind it. It seems like this reporter
really GETS it, which I find is rather unusual these days. Well done,
Nancy, and three cheers for all the gang at CFA!
>>> [log in to unmask] 12/30/05 8:14 PM >>>
Today's Chicago Tribune prominently featured the Chicago Film Archives
the cover story in their Friday Movies section. A fine cap to a
year for the CFA. Kudos to Nancy Watrous and staff.
And happy new year to all.
Splices of life
Chicago Film Archives collects, preserves the region's past in film --
reel labor includes inspecting its 5,500 movies
By John Owens
Tribune staff reporter
December 30, 2005
They're the stark, black-and-white images from Chicago's racially
past. A group of about 300 African-Americans stages a civil rights
that travels west on Cermak Road and into the all-white suburb of
There, the marchers are met by hundreds of outraged residents.
"Go back to Brookfield Zoo with the rest of the baboons!" shouts one
resident, then others follow up with equally crude epithets.
This real-life drama was captured in the rarely seen 1966 documentary
"Cicero March," an eight-minute production that is one of the crown
in the collection of a recently created local arts organization, the
"This is an absolutely wonderful document of Chicago history," says
director Nancy Watrous of "Cicero March," produced by the legendary
Chicago-based Film Group production house. "It's a perfect example of
we want our collection to be--films from Chicago filmmakers,
this city and the Midwest."
"Cicero March" is one of approximately 5,500 films now in the
the Chicago Film Archives, a not-for-profit group founded by Watrous
she received a donation of around 5,000 films from the Chicago Public
Library in late 2003. That collection, which consists primarily of 16
films (with some 8 mm movies and a few 35 mm films thrown in for good
mea-sure), is now housed in a climate-controlled Pilsen warehouse.
Watrous, who has spent the last 25 years working in a variety of
with film production crews in Hollywood and Chicago, rescued these
after Columbia College decided not to take over the collection.
"I had heard about these films and had been telling the library not
split up this collection, so they said, 'OK, it's yours,'" Watrous
"I wasn't originally thinking about taking the collection, but I
was important to get them relocated here in Chicago."
In addition to Watrous, the CFA now has five other volunteers devoted
cataloging and inspecting the prints in the collection.
The group also has a nine-person advisory board consisting primarily
members of Chicago's film community.
Watrous and her five-member volunteer staff are now spending several
each week in the Pilsen warehouse where the films are housed,
prints for damage. The group has a budget of $20,000 annually for
and inspection costs. Much of that money was acquired through grants
the National Film Preservation Foundation, the City of Chicago
Arts Assistance Program and the Illinois Arts Council. Recent
such as a May event at the Chicago Cultural Center are also utilized,
with donations and film rentals.
Members of Chicago's film community say the CFA is a necessary
the local arts community.
"A lot of what's in their collection are films that probably deserve
forgotten," said Milos Stehlik, the executive director for Facets
Multimedia. "But it's a noble effort because everything is worth
specifically the films that were interesting oddities."
The collection now has a varied group of films. There's a rare 16 mm
of "Paracelsus" (1943), from "Pandora's Box" director G.W. Pabst, made
he was stuck in Nazi Germany; a number of silent films from Hollywood,
including some Charlie Chaplin shorts; and home movies and amateur
productions going back 80 years, the oldest example of which probably
rare footage of Navy Pier in the 1920s.
But perhaps the most valuable part of the CFA collection is the
locally produced industrials, documentaries, educational films and
training films from the 1940s through the 1980s. They include pleasant
surprises like "Chicago: Midland Metropolis," a beautifully shot 1963
documentary produced by Encyclopedia Britannica featuring bygone images
Chicago neighborhoods; and "The New World of Stainless Steel", a 1961
industrial possibly shot at the Republic Steel plant on the Southeast
by Chicago-based Wilding Studios.
"It's the one area in this collection which is really worth
because Chicago from the 1950s on had a strong independent film
Stehlik said. "There were a lot of interesting educational films
here, and there was a rich tradition of social documentaries."
Those documentaries, industrials and educational films were produced
local companies that became leaders in the industry: Coronet Films,
Niles Studio, Film Group, Encyclopedia Britannica.
"There was a lot of important work done here," said Stephen Poster, a
Hollywood cinematographer ("Daddy Day Care," "Donnie Darko," "Big Top
Pee-Wee") who started his career in Chicago working on documentaries
educational films in the 1960s.
"In a way, these films document how important Chicago was as an
hub," Poster said. "They're cultural artifacts."
These films also provide a valuable snapshot of a Chicago that has
"What did factories look like in the '40s and '50s, what did people
like then?" said Jack Behrend, a Chicago-based industrial filmmaker
the 1960s and '70s who donated dozens of his films to the collection.
know how it looked on a Hollywood set, but the real world is
"Chicago was kind of the center of not only the production of these
but the distribution of them," Watrous added. "These are the films we
to preserve, because they're significant to our region's history."
The group has added to its initial collection of Chicago Public
films. Over the last year, the CFA has acquired around 500 additional
through donations from local and national filmmakers. These include
movies from Chicago-based amateur filmmaker Margaret Conneely, who made
mm narrative films with friends and family members during the '40s and
and eight titles from the aforementioned Film Group, including that
company's entire series of "Urban Crisis" non-fiction films, a series
documented the social and political unrest of Chicago in the 1960s.
"Cicero March" was one of the seven films in the "Urban Crisis"
which also included "The People's Right to Know: Police Versus
(1968), a short documentary about the confrontations between police
demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago;
"Black Moderates and Black Militants" (1969), another short film that
documents an intense dialogue between a member of the radical Black
Party and a more politically moderate African-American school
The CFA also has longer films from the Film Group in its collection,
including the 1968 "American Revolution II," another documentary about
1968 Democratic Convention.
Mike Gray, a founding member of the Film Group who later went on to
the screenplay for "The China Syndrome," heard about the Chicago Film
Archives and felt that it was the perfect place to archive the
he had worked on 40 years ago.
"I had a number of prints of `Cicero March' in my basement, and they
all in pretty good shape," said Bill Cottle, a partner of Gray who
facilitated the Film Group donations to the CFA. "But these films don't
forever. If they had started to decompose, they would have been lost."
A few other prints exist of the "Urban Crisis" series. But in some
the Chicago Film Archives owns the only existing prints of works in
collection. That's why the staff has been working furiously to inspect
prints in stock to see what's worth preserving. The staff already has
inspected about 300 films in the collection. And some of those films
already been designated for preservation.
For instance, the group got grants totaling $4,770 from the National
Preservation Foundation to create new negative and master prints for
films in the Film Group's "Urban Crisis" series--"Cicero March",
Moderates and Black Militants" and "The Peoples' Right to Know: Police
Versus Reporters." The CFA also got a $1,930 grant from the film board
preserve "The Fairy Princess," a Christmas film made by Conneely in
1950s using rudimentary stop-motion animation.
But the inspectors continue to deal with problems. The most pressing
in the collection is faded color prints.
"From the late '50s to the early '80s, Eastman Kodak had manufactured
mm color print stock that faded relatively easily," Watrous said. "When
stock fades, almost all color except for red is drained out of it."
The CFA has been able to send some of the films in its collection to
local lab for color correction, most notably a color narrative film
by Poster in 1974, "Another Saturday Night." But preserving all of the
in the collection is cost-prohibitive.
"The more central a film is to our mission, the more attention we will
it," Watrous said. "We are a regional archive, so films that reflect
Chicago/Illinois history, character or culture are more important to us
Even while CFA volunteers continue to inspect the films in their
collection, Watrous says she wants to present some of these films to
public through an ambitious screening schedule.
The CFA has had successful screenings for some its films (including
New World of Stainless Steel"). But Watrous says she would like to
films like the "Urban Crisis" series to minority audiences in
"We want to blend some of the audiences for our films," she said.
Cultural Center is great, but it's not always easy for people from the
neighborhoods to get downtown for these screenings."
For more information about the Chicago Film Archives, call
visit online at www.chicagofilmarchives.org.
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune