Do you believe art drives social change? Venita Griffin does, and as director of marking and communications for the Community Renewal Society, she found herself in a position to act on this belief. CRS publishes the Chicago Reporter, which this year sponsored the first ever John A. McDermott Documentary Film Competition. It was her idea.
The good news is that Griffin and Alysia Tate, editor and publisher of the Reporter, say there will be a McDermott competition next year, and hopefully many more to come. The bad news is that the first time out, the competition ended in something of a shambles. The winners feel rooked because their film won't be shown as expected on WTTW's Image Union, and the producer of Image Union wishes his program weren't getting blamed for breaking a promise he says it never made in the first place.
The late John McDermott founded the Reporter some 30 years ago to explore issues related to race and poverty that the mainstream press wasn't paying enough attention to. More agenda driven today than it was when it simply laid out grim facts for a city that wasn't eager to hear them, the Reporter put out a call last April for films that examined "racial and economic disparities." This criterion would be loosely applied, and so would another, that the entries "should not exceed 15 minutes."
The call for entries promised a public screening of the top three entries. Moreover, it said, "one winning entry will be aired during WTTW11 Chicago's Image Union."
On October 14 Beyondmedia Education, a production house that focuses on marginalized women, got an e-mail from Griffin that began, "Congratulations." Turning a Corner, a Beyondmedia documentary on prostitution in Chicago, had won the McDermott. There'd be a screening and panel discussion October 19 at the Cultural Center and other screenings at "several venues" to be determined.
Associate director Joanne Archibald e-mailed back. "There was also a statement that one of the films would be chosen to be on Image Union. Is that Turning a Corner?" she asked. "Sorry for the confusion," Griffin replied. "Turning a Corner is our main winner—so yes, you guys will be shown on Image Union. I will put you in touch with the Producers there."
But Image Union producer Eddie Griffin had a different idea. "We were asked to be a judge and we were asked if we'd be willing to pick a film and put it on the air," he says. "And that's what we did." They watched the DVD the Reporter sent them, which contained six films, and picked No Half Steppin, a 17-minute documentary on local rapper Sharkula, a dreamer who hustles his recordings on the street.
Six judges graded the six films according to such criteria as "Social justice issue tackled was clear and apparent" and "Film successfully communicates the challenges/special needs of a certain economic and/or racial or ethnic group." Filmmakers Brendan Kredell and Tom Bailey do a nice job of capturing Sharkula's charms and torments, but No Half Steppin doesn't reflect those judging criteria, which probably helps explain its appeal to Image Union. (The anthology show likes work that's "out there," says Eddie Griffin's predecessor, Annie Porter.)
"We're the only winner that was ever announced," says Salome Chasnoff, executive director of Beyondmedia. "It's like they pulled the other one out of a hat."
On October 26, Venita Griffin e-mailed Beyondmedia to let them know that an upcoming screening of Turning a Corner at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen had been canceled.
"Also," she went on, "Image Union has decided to air the second place winner of the McDermott film fest on its show, saying it fit better with the theme of the episode they planned to show it on. I am truly sorry that Turning a Corner won't be shown, but Image Union has final say on what show they will air."
Second-place winner? "That's what really grabbed our attention," says Chasnoff, "because there had been no mention of a second-place winner or any place winner as far as we knew." (Tom Bailey says he and Kredell found out from the Reporter "significantly later" than October 14 that their film was the runner-up and would be shown on Image Union.)
A conference call with Alysia Tate followed. According to the notes of the Beyondmedia participants, Tate said Image Union had turned down Turning a Corner because of the "sensitivity of the material."
Tate and Griffin have apologized, and apologized again. "We do regret any miscommunication on our part," they wrote in a November 19 letter to Beyondmedia. "At this time we feel it is most appropriate for you to speak directly with Image Union around your questions and concerns about why your film was not selected for airing."
Eddie Griffin is new in his job. Venita Griffin originally negotiated WTTW's role with his predecessor. But Annie Porter and Eddie Griffin both say Image Union would never have committed itself to the judges' choice. "The jury selected Turning a Corner and we selected No Half Steppin," Eddie Griffin told me. "We reserve the right to make our own decision."
As Tate suggested, Archibald called Eddie Griffin. "I said, 'What's objectionable?'" she says. "And he said it was the subject matter, prostitution. 'This isn't HBO.' And I said you can see more controversial material on prime time any day. There was no nudity. The way it was presented was not lurid or sensational. It's real."
HBO? "I'm not here to speak out against the film," Griffin told me, declining to discuss his conversation with Archibald.
It's not like the fate of Turning a Corner hinges on Image Union—a program that airs at the not-so-prime times of 10:30 PM Thursday and midnight Monday. What Beyondmedia entered in the McDermott competition was a 14-minute preview of a 53-minute film that premiered at the Northwestern University law school auditorium in February 2006 and has been screened frequently since. "Image Union is not that important to us," says Chasnoff. "What was important to us was the false promise and the lack of information we were getting so we couldn't figure out what was going on, and we felt it was wrong. When we started talking about it in the office and researching it we began to expose a lot of issues that concerned us, like the lack of access to public media and censorship."
Censorship? Does she believe that's what this is about? "I do, I do," she says. "If public media isn't a place where these women can have a platform for their message, that's censorship. If they're not considered part of the constituency for public media, that's censorship to me. Look at it from our point of view. First of all, we were told the winner would get a screening on Image Union. We were told we were the winner. We were told we were top winner and we'd get a screening. All of a sudden we weren't going to get a screening. What's that about? It felt like censorship."
In other words, Beyondmedia isn't mad at the Reporter for meaning well but making some mistakes. It's mad at WTTW for stiffing their film. Chasnoff made it clear to me that she likes the Reporter. She regularly reads the Reporter. Last year the Reporter ran a long interview with her on the making of Turning a Corner.
Chasnoff might want to get in touch with Barbara Allen and Dan Soles. Allen's a WTTW producer who sat on a panel that talked about independent media and social change the night Turning a Corner was introduced as the winning film at the Cultural Center. She admired it. "I had to reevaluate what I thought about prostitution," she says. "I'd never thought about it on that human level." Soles is WTTW's senior vice president of TV content. He told me about other locally created documentaries coming to WTTW, and he said that if Chasnoff and Archibald send him the full 53-minute version of Turning a Corner he'll certainly consider it.v
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.