Resident Video 12: The Night Smokers of Chicago

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Eve Studnicka’s The Night Smokers of Chicago.

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The stories of The Night Smokers of Chicago are open, honest, and uncensored. This film unapologetically takes you deep into the lives of the city’s residents who are all united by the same vice. In the harsh Chicago winter, the participants of this film do more than brave the cold—they bare their soul to a stranger with a camera.

These interviews are backed with intricate shots and powerful images that emphasize individual storylines. Night Smokers reminds us that those with troubled pasts and presents are not alone, and instills in us a subtle reminder to be grateful for the lives we have.

We interviewed director Eve Studnicka about her film.

Your film seems, in many ways, to focus on place – the city of Chicago is a thread that stands, in lieu of a narrative, to link together the people onscreen. How much of your work do you think is geographically determined?

I feel like the Midwestern landscape is a unifying element in all my work. I primarily work in film festival administration, so one of my priorities is to create spaces that challenge the coastalization of artistic community and develop platforms that empower artists in the Heartland. My nonfiction film work focuses largely on the subculture communities that exist here in the Midwest – I think there’s an authenticity and grittiness that’s still present here. These folks aren’t glitzy or determined to adhere to an established identity. They’re still curious and frustrated and resilient. They have been on the wrong side of the tracks – or perhaps are still there. They have been misunderstood – and likely still are. Midwestern subcultures are often rebelling against suburban upbringings and Bible Belt ideals, and that develops character that’s nuanced and alluring in its own way. It’s worth celebrating.

The film opens with a quotation from Margaret Mead, an anthropologist known primarily for her resistance to restrictive conceptions of sexuality. Do you see overlap between the role of documentary filmmaker and anthropologist? Did you intentionally seek out subjects who have been marginalized for their sexuality, the way Mead did?

Ok, real talk here. The quote is totally fake. It’s not actually something Margaret Mead ever said. During the editing process, we received a lot of feedback suggesting that we include something at the beginning of the film to establish the overarching tone since the film doesn’t really have a cohesive plot. I couldn’t find a quote that expressed exactly what I wanted to say, so I made one up. I initially attributed it to Mike Throngs, which was an anagram of Night Smoker, but folks said that it was distracting to try to identify who Mike Throngs was (and also that it sounded like a porn star). I dug around for a famous person who’s been dead for a while and may have said something in that vein – or at least, from what was known about their work and beliefs, wouldn’t likely disagree with it. I landed on Margaret Mead because her work was similar to the content of the film in that she did investigate marginalized communities and their sexual identities. And because I do feel that anthropology is similar to doc filmmaking – you’re engaging with communities that you may not be a part of to try to discover how their unique identities speak to a larger human condition. There are delicate and challenging ethics to take into consideration that you may or may not get right – like choosing to attribute a fake quote to a real person.

A lot of what you’re doing feels like a citation of older films and cultural moments – the decision to shoot in black and white, the shots of cluttered shop windows, and even the cigarettes themselves all seem like they’re turning an eye backwards, in much the same way your characters do. Did you set out to make a film that looks to the past, or captures some kind of nostalgia?

The look of the film was definitely inspired by the old-school grittiness of bygone visual artifacts. I took a lot of inspiration from Vivian Maier and Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh and even Ralph Bakshi. I wanted the film to reflect the contemporary culture of Chicago’s streets after dark, but I also wanted it to feel a little wistful and melancholic. At night everything starts to feel kind of timeless.

You adopt some of the tropes of documentary filmmaking – the talking heads, the cuts between interviews and shots of Chicago – while also pushing back against that kind of structure. Where do you see the limits of documentary filmmaking?

That’s a wonderful question. It’s something that I think about a lot. I really feel that documentary is as limitless as fictional narrative. Many doc filmmakers are moving away from the tropes we expect to see when we watch nonfiction films (static talking heads, dry academic content, clinical statistics, etc). Docs are subjective and can be stylistic, dramatic, hilarious, perverted, and jarring. They reflect the depth and paradox of the world we live in with true creativity. They aren’t part of the Hollywood bureaucracy, so there’s room to make bold production decisions without having to adhere to a formulaic system. In that way, they are even more limitless than many fiction features. Their outcomes are dependent upon the integrity of the filmmaker, the challenges of fundraising, and the unpredictability of life. It’s one of the most ballsy art forms I know of.

For more about Eve Studnicka, visit her website. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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