April 3, 2014 by Katie Prentiss
In Loading Doc this week we bring you two stories of famed Chicago writer Nelson Algren. Both are feature length documentaries being produced in Chicago, but are different in their content and approach. According to Nicole Bernardi-Reis, producer of Algren: Poet of the Neon Wilderness, “there is plenty of Nelson to go around.”
Artistic layers of Algren
ALGREN: THE POET OF THE NEON WILDERNESS is a film directed by Michael Caplan, and produced by Nicole Bernardi-Reis and Gail Sonnenfeld in Chicago. The film is in final stage of production, and the filmmakers expect it to be complete and ready for festivals and distribution by early this summer.
Caplan said the hardest part of making a film about an author, is finding the right way to audibly and visually represent the person and the work. The team spent several days in the Ohio State University archives in which they found several collages made by Algren himself, as well as journals and radio pieces. The film uses these visuals, as well as hundreds of photos taken by Algren’s friend and artist Art Shay, to create a layered and textured artistic piece.
“The structure of the film is not actually linear,” Bernardi-Reis said. “It really is more about the man and the things that influenced him and inspired him, and how he reacted to what was going on in his time. It’s much more organic than linear.”
The whole crew has been working and living in Chicago for their whole lives, and they believe that Algren embodies the spirit of Chicago.
“He spent most of his life here, he drew from the world around him, that’s what he wrote about,” said Caplan. “He wrote about the people in Wicker Park in the 40s and 50s. He didn’t feel like he could live anywhere but Chicago, but eventually he did. Chicago was the place that made him the writer that he was. You could separate him from Chicago, but he is most identified as a, if not the, Chicago writer.”
The film will also feature a score written by Wayne Kramer of MC5, who has been a long-time fan of Algren.
Twenty-five years ago, Mark Blottner started working on a documentary about Nelson Algren. At the time, he interviewed several people who were close to Algren, such as Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut. These friends, artists, and writers were able to give exclusive interviews about the work of Algren before they passed away.
A few years ago Mark revived production, now called NELSON ALGREN: THE END IS NOTHING THE ROAD IS ALL, with the help of Ilko Davidov and Denis Mueller. Now the documentary is close to being finished, and in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign that ends on April 20.
“We explore things in the working biography that haven’t been explored that much, such as the issue of Algren being under surveillance by the FBI,” said Davidov. “We have some new research from people who we interview that haven’t been published before. It is unique in an artistic way.”
Davidov also sees Algren from a uniquely midwestern perspective.
“He wrote the famous book Chicago: City on the Make, which was one of the major works written about Chicago,” he said. “He is the very first recipient of the National Book Award in 1950, so he is a major local. He’s from here, but he’s a national, international scale writer.”
The documentary AMERICAN ARAB will have its Chicago premiere on Sunday April 6 at 8 p.m. as the closing night film of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. The film follows director Usama Alshaibi through his own story of experiencing racism in post-9/11 America, and highlights experiences and diversity of Arabs living all over the United States. Alshaibi will be in attendance at the screening. You can meet him before the screening at the pre-party at The Owl Bar.
Katie Prentiss is a journalist and documentary filmmaker in Chicago working with Kartemquin Films on Mormon Movie. Follow Katie and tell her what you’re working on at @prentkat.