His name is provocative, his conceit simple. Filmmakers invited to participate in Destroy Your Art only need to meet a few requirements.
“The only indication we give filmmakers beyond, ‘Hey, do you want to make an original film and destroy it?’ it’s got to be five minutes or less,” says Rebecca Fons, who co-founded the event in 2017 with her husband, Jack C. Newell.
A filmmaker’s goal is usually to make a film and then permeate it endlessly; Today audiences expect to watch on demand, the idea that something might not be available to them is almost unfathomable. And if these presumptions were left aside?
“There are two things we’re interested in: one is, what would this do to the filmmaker?” says Newell, himself a filmmaker and director of programs at the Second City’s Harold Ramis Film School. (Fons is the director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center.) “How would you make a film if you knew it was only going to be shown once to this specific group of people, and then you destroyed it?”
“The other question is, what does the audience do, knowing that they’re going to watch something that this is the only time they can participate in?”
At Destroy Your Art, which will take place this year at the Music Box Theater on Thursday, August 25, at 7 p.m., the four invited filmmakers will each screen a film they have made specifically for the event; after that, they will burn the hard drive it is contained in in front of the public with a blowtorch.
Previous methods have included shredding (which required a rented industrial shredder in Iowa) and destruction using a custom-made vice contraption attached to a table; in 2019, the last year the event was held before the pandemic delayed its fourth edition, the method was also burning, which Newell says they returned to because it’s inherently primal.
In fact, the event itself is a response to more structured viewing methods that often lend themselves to viewers becoming passive, diverting their attention from what is happening in front of them.
“Inviting an audience to really be present was exciting,” says Fons. “What does that kind of intentionality do? How does that experience and that transaction change?”
Among the participating filmmakers, all based in or adjacent to Chicago, the responses were mixed. Lena Elmeligy, writer-director of the web series Ghareeb (available to watch on Open Television), she was drawn to the idea for fundamental reasons related to her love of cinema.
“What I’m most excited about being a part of Destroy Your Art is the fact that its impermanence allows me to tap back into the aspects of filmmaking that I love the most,” he says. “I’m less concerned that it’s a reflection of me and my career. I’m more invested in the process itself, and how it feels, and I’m enjoying doing it.”
Christopher Rejano, who works primarily as a cinematographer (shot Jennifer Reeder Signature movement i Knives and leather), was also inspired by experiences related to his craft.
“When we’re on set and we’re stuck somewhere where we can’t break away, we tend to look at our phones a lot,” he hints at the inspiration for his film, a kind of experimental narrative, “and ours phones become our windows to what’s happening where we are.”
Two of the filmmakers, Dinesh Das Sabu and Yanyi Xie, were influenced by the pandemic, which has been important in in-person events like this one.
“Like a lot of filmmakers and just people in general, I’ve just had a deeply unproductive pandemic,” says Das Subu. “I thought this might be something to shake me out of that state and get me out into the world and doing things again.”
These “things” sound pretty ambitious. Although I was careful to avoid learning too much about the films, I was particularly intrigued when Das Subu, a film teacher who previously worked for Kartemquin Films (made a feature-length documentary, Unbroken glass under his auspices), said that his short “is going to be [like] if Chris Marker was reading something [the] phenomenological, digital technology theorists”.
For Yanyi, who recently graduated from the Documentary Media MFA program at Northwestern and whose work explores gender, queer identity and feminism in her native mainland China, it’s something of an exorcism. His film does not use any newly shot footage; instead, it has been drawn from his personal archive of images captured during the pandemic.
“It’s a very unique experience, because I’m an international student,” she said, “and because of the pandemic I haven’t been back home in three years.”
She explains that she feels like she’s been living in a transitional phase for so long. “Maybe if I put it in a project and destroy it, then it becomes something ephemeral,” he says. “It’s like a resolution for me too.”
A thread through the filmmakers’ responses to the notice is one of relief, that the intent is not to create something destined to be “profitable or marketable,” as Elmeligy puts it, or even to exist beyond tonight .
“I think having the stakes a little lower allows me to tap back into that part of weaving a story that felt so good to begin with,” he says.
Yanyi, who has recently started incorporating more experimental aspects into her practice, notes the opportunity to participate and do new things. “I really like the performance nature of the event,” she says, “and I really like the experimentation that this piece allows me to do.”
Destroy your art
August 25, 7 pm; Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport
General admission $15, discount for Music Box members
The relationship between filmmakers and viewers is complicated here. The inherent impermanence of the project means that the dynamic is not guaranteed to be mutually satisfying, as commercial filmmaking purports to be.
“In many ways, it’s been liberating, because I don’t have to worry too much about what an audience will care about,” says Das Sabu. “I can only disappoint an audience with this thing. It’s freed me to pursue ideas and styles and take risks that I probably wouldn’t take in my more unfettered professional work.”
Ultimately, the experience is the thing: what the filmmakers create and what the viewers see will cease to exist afterwards. The concept still blows Fons’ mind.
“We are the ones in 2022 watching these four movies, and no one else on the face of the planet will ever, ever watch this Dinesh movie again, including Dinesh!” she says. “This gives me goosebumps.”