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On Film: mockumentary as a family affair

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During the blizzard of '79, which dropped over 20 inches of snow on Chicago and closed schools for a week, sisters Christina and Dymphna Timmins were left to their own devices. "Our mom wanted us to stay in," says Christina, who is now 34. "We had just gotten a stereo, so we spent a week doing a little radio show we made up. I think there were strikes in the school district at the same time. So we got on our fake little radio station and played the roles of all the teachers we disliked and had fake interviews about the strike and the snow and we just had a blast."

Until a few years ago that was their last collaborative effort. Then Dymphna, now 32, started taking acting classes. "The more classes I took, the more I realized I would like to tell a story rather than just act in one," she says. She got together with her boyfriend, musician Owen Yen, and Christina, who was producing documentary videos, to talk about doing a project together. "We thought, 'Why don't we just do something fun and goofy,'" says Dymphna. "We didn't have high aspirations for what it would be--maybe a 15-minute video we shot ourselves.

"It would be an experiment in how we worked together," she adds. "The whole collaborative process is very difficult and can be very dangerous to a relationship. We thought if it worked out well, we'd do more."

The sisters are fans of Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, and used Guffman as a starting point. "What we like about the humor in his movies is that it's very subtle," says Christina. "It's not physical humor and it's not a laugh a minute. To us it's very clever." After several brainstorming sessions they began to develop The Orphan Saint, an hour-long mockumentary about a series of minor miracles that happen in a small, down-on-its-luck Illinois town called Asulon--a town whose primary industry is an orphanage that has spawned its own cultlike religion, and where every orphan adopts the founder's last name. The story, shot in Chicago and Gilberts (near Elgin), is told in classic talking-head format by a narrator and 19 townspeople. The actors improvised their lines in response to questions posed by Christina; Dymphna and Owen, who had acting experience, offered direction.

Occasionally, the actors--all of whom were unpaid--would freeze when the camera light came on. "One of our actors was not moving nearly as well as he had in rehearsal, and he was very uncomfortable and nervous," says Christina. "We finally had to pretend that we weren't shooting. People tend to be a lot looser when they don't feel like they have to get it right the first time."

The three collaborators also shared most of the production responsibilities, from creating props, running errands, and getting food to the eventual $10,000 cost of the project. They saved money by shooting it on Mini-DV and getting their editor and director of photography to work for much less than their regular day rates.

They say they produced it themselves to retain creative control, and are still paying it off. "I've always had a hard time with the idea of approaching people for funds because they want something back," Christina says. "One of my gripes with independent filmmakers is that they're not going into festivals like Sundance telling the story they want to tell, but they're going in telling the story they think will sell."

The sisters are both credited as directors and producers (Owen, who left after shooting to spend more time with his jazz band, shares the story credit) and say they got along just as well as they did back in '79. They hope to use the video as a calling card to get help with their next project, a narrative they're planning to do whether they find backers or not. "If we have to fund it ourselves, we will, because we don't want to compromise our ideas," says Christina. "But if that happens, the projects will be streaming out very, very slowly."

The Timminses and members of their cast and crew will answer questions Saturday night after an 8 PM screening of The Orphan Saint at the Gene Siskel Film Center at Columbus and Jackson; it's the inaugural piece in the center's "The Future Today" series of work by Illinois filmmakers. Admission is $7; call 312-443-3733.

--Cara Jepsen

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