Community Film Workshop of Chicago Learning the means of production

Movies. We all love them. While we munch popcorn we are transported into another world. They can make us laugh, cry and think. They can also make us go brain dead with violence and ignorance.

I like to stay and watch the film credits at the end of the movie and marvel at the number of people it takes to make one. What does a grip do? What is it like to be an editor? Who was behind the camera? Were there a lot of women? I watch for the union bugs at the end. I look at the names and try to discern (although you can’t always do that by name) if the crews are as multiracial and multi-ethnic as the U.S.

How can you get a job in the media industry? How can you learn to make a film?

If you live in Chicago then you are in luck, because the city’s South Side houses a national treasure for media arts education. The Community Film Workshop of Chicago (CFWC) provides low-cost, hands-on training for young people and adults who would like a job in the media industry or to learn to make films.

Not only that, but CFWC has a particular focus – to help guarantee that African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and other people of color and women are represented behind the camera.

CFWC developed hands-on media education programs including “Youth in Motion,” a youth-run media business, and Media Arts and New Technologies, an after-school program for 14- to 19-year-olds to learn digital media and computer animation. Teenagers from Crane High School, Ida B. Wells public housing, and the Englewood community participate in CFWC programs. Adult education programs are due to start at CFWC’s new Kennedy-King College offices in the fall.

Founded in 1971 by the late artist and photographer Jim Taylor, CFWC is the oldest media arts center in Chicago. Coming out of the fires of the massive civil rights struggles, CFWC was one of seven film workshops opened around the country with funding from private and public sources, including from the federal government. It was a time when many “Black” films were being made, like “Shaft” or “Foxy Brown,” and these film-making workshops were a way to help integrate the industry’s predominantly white workforce.

Margaret Caples is the executive director of CFWC. She took her first film class when CFWC opened. Caples, a social worker at the time, used video to enhance her group sessions. She met Taylor at CFWC and they later married.

“Artists are everywhere around us and that’s what makes us a people. Film is a very powerful medium. It could be a very healing art form and transform our society for good,” Caples told the World in a recent interview.

“Look at ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ – it’s a documentary that makes people think. Too often we are entrenched in an old way of thinking. We have to embrace what’s new. Our world is multicultural and international. We have to embrace that, knowing it’s going to make us better,” she said.

Funding for the arts and media education was badly damaged by right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. Nationwide, CFWC is one of only two surviving workshops established in the 1970s.

Hollywood and New York City enjoy their reputation as film and media giants, but Chicago is sometimes referred to as the Third Coast. The state of Illinois and Chicago film offices are actively building local film production – and that means jobs.

Illinois has a “diversity clause” which qualifies production companies for tax credits and other breaks if their film staff is integrated, Caples said. “The sets should reflect the diversity of the state of Illinois.”

Racial diversity in the industry’s jobs is still a struggle, Caples said. There’s been some change, some higher visibility for Blacks in front of the camera, she said, but behind the camera there is not a lot of change, especially on movie sets. “It’s sad,” Caples said.

CFWC collaborates with the television and film industry’s many unions. Some graduates of CFWC have gone on to work for these unions. Caples, who grew up in a union household herself, knows the potential for positive change when communities and unions work together for common goals like jobs, good wages and equality.

“My dad brought up eight children, bought a house and had one of the best health plans. That’s what a union job can do for you,” she said.

Caples acknowledged institutionalized racism runs from who gets jobs and training to grant funding. “It’s a fact of life. Black institutions don’t get equal funding,” she said. “It’s all about jobs and controlling images – power. The medium is so powerful.”

Stephen Winter, a documentary filmmaker and CFWC graduate, told the World in an e-mail interview that racism in the industry is well documented, but you can hone your skills and make smart choices to “stay in the game.”

Winter also said, “In my experience class issues play a bigger part in one’s ability to succeed in film, even more than race – and certainly more than talent.”

Winter praised the high level of professionalism at CFWC. While there, he learned film theory and lighting, camera operation, screenwriting, gaffing, art direction, and even distribution and grant writing. “By the time CFWC was done with me, I was able to skip the first year of NYU’s three-year graduate film school program because I had already done more than the majority people in my freshman class.”

Winter produced a documentary feature called “Tarnation” that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and the Cannes Film Festival in France. The film received great reviews, including a big “thumbs up” from Roger Ebert, who called it “remarkable, powerful and heartbreaking.”

Winter added, “Very few people or organizations of any race or stripe have achieved such venerable and far-reaching results. The welcoming, nurturing and mentoring style of CFWC is singular in my experience.”

For more information about the Community Film Workshop, call (773) 667-3748 or visit www.cfwchicago.org.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.