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Festival Seating: a dark star of the underground film scene

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There's a young Chicago filmmaker who's attracted plenty of attention lately. He was featured in a cover story for Cinemad magazine. He was profiled in Filmmaker magazine this past spring and in New York Press last November. Cis Bierinckx, film and video curator of Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, which named him "Artist of the Year 2000," says he's "one of the last survivors of the 'independent' race." His movie Migrating Forms (1999) won the best feature award at last year's New York Underground Film Festival; Amy Taubin of the Village Voice said of that picture, "It alone gives the Underground Film Festival a reason for being." NYUFF director Ed Halter says, "He's a visionary." And his newest film, Back Against the Wall, will open the Chicago Underground Film Festival next Thursday. So how come so few people have ever heard of James Fotopoulos?

Fotopoulos, 25, grew up in Norridge and has been making shorts and features since he was 17. "I was obsessed with making them early," he says. "I watched a lot of films, to understand why they worked--to understand graphically, optically, how the technologies work." He's largely self-taught, though he did spend two semesters studying film at Columbia College before dropping out. "Columbia was just a brutal place," he says. "They just beat down and crush other people with their low self-esteem....So after a while I said, 'This is just a waste of time, hearing these people who don't know anything.' The avant-garde--you can choke yourself to death on that garbage."

Fotopoulos's films aren't particularly easy to watch. Migrating Forms, his second feature, shot in black and white, is mainly set in a single room in which a man and a woman meet for sex. The woman has a strange, dark tumorlike growth on her back that eventually infects the man as well. The other characters are an exterminator and a cat. Taubin commented, "Although I can't exactly recommend it as a pleasurable experience...[it] has a formal purity and obsessive power that's all too rare these days. It's not a film you'd ever find at Sundance." Fotopoulos's first feature, Zero (1997), was similarly bleak, portraying a loner misanthropist's sexual obsession with a female mannequin.

Back Against the Wall follows a more narrative structure than his previous features, but it's still raw and stark. The characters--men and women trapped by hopelessness, clinging to fantasies of upgrade or escape--don't say much beyond the mundane and miserable, but their words, sometimes surprisingly funny, seem entirely appropriate. The story--nominally about the midwestern demimonde of lingerie modeling--plays out through claustrophobic camera angles, grudging lighting, desolate stretches of real time, and an assault of aural themes that deny the possibility of inner peace. In a world so comfortless, everything is exploited--light, sound, the possibility to be someone else.

"I don't believe that for every work of art--and I'm not calling myself an artist--the object is to make you lose yourself," Fotopoulos says. "What it should do is make you aware of what you could possibly strive for. And sometimes a film might have to be brutal to do that. And it might have to be very unenjoyable."

CUFF director Bryan Wendorf says, "If James isn't the most interesting filmmaker in town right now, he's definitely in the top three. He's probably the most ambitious in terms of his vision and his ability to do what he does." Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia Center is also in Fotopoulos's corner. He says, "James is obviously talented, something that you can't buy at a film school."

Fotopoulos now has two new features in postproduction: Christabel, which is based on the Coleridge poem, and Esophagus, which takes place over 500 million years and is "about the evolution of our souls and the life energy of the organic world." And he's making a series of 23 audiovisual translations of works by the likes of Ibsen and Euripides. Also, he says, "I'm not a person who's very extroverted. I'm not that interested in promotion. I just want to make films."

Back Against the Wall screens Thursday, August 16, at 8 PM, along with Fotopoulos's 2000 experimental short Drowning. The Chicago Underground Film Festival takes place August 16 through 22 at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. Call 773-327-3456 for schedule information; call 312-726-4849 or see www.cuff.org for tickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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