‘The Illinois Parables’: Film Review | Belfort 2016

Director Deborah Stratman’s hourlong film essay ‘The Illinois Parables’ premiered at Sundance and recently had a theatrical run in New York.

Digging through the archives of her home state to reveal how currents of migration, racism, genocide and disaster have literally been etched into the landscape, experimental director Deborah Stratman offers up a dense and often mesmerizing film essay with her latest work, The Illinois Parables.

Composed of 11 short chapters, each one focusing on a specific location or event from the past few centuries, this hourlong meditation doesn’t hammer out its thematic points as much as it obliges the viewer to make them on their own, in a highly formalistic treatise that manages to be both succinct and open-ended, minimalist and meaningful.

The Bottom Line

An absorbing celluloid meditation on geography and history.

Premiering earlier this year in Sundance’s New Frontier program and released in New York a few weeks ago, Parables could see wider distribution at home in the politically charged months to come, especially with strong critical backing. Overseas it should continue a fest run after playing Berlin, Barcelona, London and Belfort, with possibilities for niche theatrical release in France and elsewhere.

Comparisons are likely to be made with John Gianvito’s 2007 documentary Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, which also clocked in at one hour, although Stratman’s approach here is less political than it is topographical, exploring how the Illinois terrain has been shaped over the years by various cultures and calamities.

The film is bookended by two sequences where Stratman (who served as cinematographer, editor and sound designer) captures instances where the land has been directly modified by human intervention: one in the mound-like ruins of a Native American city that was built as early as the seventh century, the other in a series of earthwork art pieces from the 1980s that are photographed from way up above. A third scene, which occurs midway through, unveils another kind of geological transformation with the site of radioactive remains from the 1940s that have been stored deep underground in a state park and are all but invisible to the naked eye.

Rather than providing a linear narrative, Parables jumps ahead chronologically through different places and points in time, mixing archive footage, newsreels and newspaper headlines with scenes shot in the present day — although the grainy 16mm look makes it hard to distinguish between what’s old and new, real or re-created (including a sequence that re-creates a TV reenactment of the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago). It’s as if Stratman were on an archaeological dig to uncover facts that have been buried or long forgotten, and she excavates pieces of evidence — such as eyewitness accounts of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, or stories from the Cherokee “Trail of Tears” that crossed through Illinois in 1838 — revealing an alternative history that’s far from the one recounted in school textbooks.

The fragmented timeline is accompanied by texts from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alexis de Tocqueville that are read off-screen, as well as music choices ranging from Bach to Arvo Part to the Parisian punk band Les Porte-Mentaux (whose track is used in a scene describing the Icarians — a  19th-century French utopian movement that established its first permanent settlement in the town of Nauvoo, IL). Like the editing, the soundtrack is filled with layers of nuance and abrupt shifts in tone, and the film’s multiple waves of image, sound and discourse ultimately grow intoxicating.

Production company: Pythagoras Film
Cast: Raven Wolf C. Felton Jennings II, Jose Oubrerie, Daniel Verdier, David Gatten, Joshua Frieman, Anna Toborg
Director, screenwriter: Deborah Stratman
Producer: Deborah Stratman
Director of photography: Deborah Stratman
Editor: Deborah Stratman
Sales: Pythagoras Film

60 minutes