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On Film: sometimes you have to be an outsider to see in

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Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, filmmaker Tom Silva spent much of his free time drawing comics and going to blockbuster movies. It wasn't until he moved to the U.S. in 1984--to study business at Long Island University--that he was introduced to the likes of Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini. "I didn't realize these films existed," says the 35-year old Andersonville resident. "When I saw them, I knew that was truly where my heart lay--that it was what I truly wanted to get into."

After graduating in 1988, Silva bummed around New York for a couple of years, acting in off-Broadway productions and picking up skills he could use in filmmaking. He fell in love with Chicago during a 1990 visit. "There's a romantic spirit to Chicago that I really can't define, that speaks through the architecture," he says. "New York has the edge, but Chicago has this incredible earthiness and rejection of pomposity and pretension that I love. There's a real energy about this city that's in violent opposition to the blankness of some of the suburban and rural areas, which can be so sparse and so desolate. I also love the spit-and-chew quality of Chicago theater. I thought it would be a very creative environment for me."

He enrolled at Columbia College to study film that same year; since he left in 1993 (without finishing his thesis) he's been writing screenplays and working in marketing and PR. He just completed his first digital video movie, The Quiet, which he says couldn't have been set anywhere else but here. The moody feature examines the relationship of a Lincoln Park couple who've been married for six years. Ted (Jeremy Sklar), an editor and frustrated novelist, is having an affair; Christy (Kymberly Mellen) is a real estate developer with mysterious bruises and a broken finger. They're smart and good-looking and have lots of money and friends, but beneath their social facade things are pretty bleak. Their home life appears as one long, painful silence punctuated by grim conversation and (once) a physical struggle, when Christy balks at entertaining Ted's friends.

Silva wrote the film after trying for four years to sell a screenplay in Hollywood. "I managed to get my stuff into the hands of some very big people," he says. "But my agent said the market for serious dramatic material wasn't there, and asked if I had a romantic comedy or an action film. It was disconcerting. The idea of having to write in those tight constrictions is something I wasn't interested in doing."

The $20,000 feature was shot over 12 days in 2001, using local actors and a crew that worked for free--including cinematographer Michael Wright, who ended up kicking in some of the funds to complete it. The primary location was Silva and his wife's former home on Schubert. "During the two or three years I was there, I barely ever met my neighbors," he explains. "The street had the flavor of a beautiful little suburb, and yet there was none of the small-town warmth that people fly out to the suburbs in search of. It was quite isolating, and people seemed to be sort of into themselves. There is a lot going on underneath with a lot of those people."

Asked how an East Indian from Malaysia can accurately portray the relationship of a midwestern white couple, Silva cites Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee's 1997 feature The Ice Storm, a study in upper-middle-class WASP dysfunction. "It's very hard to look at yourself," he says. "I think at times people who come from other places are able to distill things that you can't actually see. Coming to this country, I'm surprised there aren't more filmmakers out there looking at what I think are the truly interesting aspects of this country. So much of what we get is banal--the Hollywood ethos of success, individualism, bucking the odds, and sticking up for who you are. But who's making films about failure--about people who don't fit in, about people who are at the margins, who aren't successful, or who may be lost?"

Wright, Sklar, and associate producer Carolina Posse (Silva is visiting family in Malaysia) will answer questions at a screening of The Quiet on Saturday, August 23, at 8 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800 or see www.siskelfilmcenter.org for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.

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