Caitlin Ryan explores radical empathy with Picture Yourself in Water | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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Caitlin Ryan explores radical empathy with Picture Yourself in Water

The filmmaker’s shorts program looks at an ever-changing world.


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Caitlin Ryan’s 2017 short film Look begins with a black screen and a soft-spoken instruction: “Please mimic the following gestures performed by the actor while watching this video.” A woman in front of a green screen crosses her hands in front of her face—back and forth as to obscure her vision with her fingers—so you do the same. Then, a holographic trading card comes into a dizzying shot that’s further distorted by your own participation.

This pattern, which Ryan refers to as “choreographed looking,” continues a few more times. A view of the lakefront splits as your hand rests on the center of your face. A Slinky going down stairs, a hole in the ground full of cigarette butts, and the bright neon lights in a roller rink are all reinterpreted in what feels like a relaxed game of Simon Says.

Picture Yourself in Water, a short film program at the Nightingale featuring the Chicago-based artist’s work from the last five years, captures a deep curiosity for the miniscule moments of the human experience with brevity and humor.

While Look is an experimental and interactive film, what follows is a body of work largely grounded in reality. Many of Ryan’s films document the rich and complicated lives of others, the changing world around her, and her own sense of self.

Hailey (2017), for example, earnestly explores the musings of a teenage girl. She practices the clarinet, she hates not being able to eat popcorn because of her braces, she wants to be a photographer for the Chicago Tribune when she grows up, and she makes videos lip-synching to songs on

The aptly titled My Brother, the Punk Singer (2014) is a solo punk performance from Ryan’s youngest brother Patrick. He dons a New York Islanders hockey jersey as he screams angsty lyrics before a suburban crowd in a roller rink that doubles as a music venue.

One of the more personal films in the program is Visiting Home Movie (2016), in which Ryan captures fragments of her hometown of Woodstock, Illinois, spliced between passages of Joan Didion’s essay “On Going Home.” Ryan grapples with what it means to outgrow the place that shaped you while trying to navigate the roles you can’t help but play when you return.

With Picture Yourself in Water, Ryan documents the seemingly mundane parts of life with a genuine curiosity. Her work is brimming with empathy for others and the places they exist, as well as a deep understanding of the moments of obscurity that make us all human.   v

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