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Queer Brown filmmakers collaborate with CPS students
Video below
by Liz Baudler

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Vincent Martell didn't find himself inspired by filmmaking until he went to college in Barcelona. There, Martell, who now runs VAM Studios ( which has been around for just two years ), was inspired by the local film scene.

"I kind of wanted to find the edginess within my art culture back home in Chicago," Martell remembered. "I looked around and saw all of this amazing art happening with no one really documenting it."

Martell didn't go to film school, and he doesn't regret his lack of formal education. "There are a lot of constraints put on filmmakers throughout film school, and me being a queer person of color, I think it was important for me to kind of jump in it, and create my own terms, what I thought a production company should look like, versus having those rules or regulations that film students learn throughout their studies," he said.

It also taught him the importance of collaboration. "I had a really supportive group of filmmakers and artists who had the background, had the experience, and were willing to teach me along the way," he explained. "I think there's this integrity that's built with that: you learn this by yourself, so you're going to make sure that it's right."

According to Martell, VAM tries to approach with artists who fit their ethic, which led the company to work recently with spoken word artist Jamila Woods on a video for her latest single, "LSD," an ode to Chicago and its communities. "She takes from this need to show Black girl magic and black joy, women empowerment, and I think that's something VAM has always preached about," Martell said of Woods.

But for this production, it wasn't just VAM coming up with ideas. Both Woods and Chance the Rapper, featured in the "LSD" video, wanted to work with CPS students, and so the studio reached out to aspiring young creatives.

"We didn't want to go through the CPS system; we wanted to interact directly with the kids through social media via Twitter, via Facebook, via Instagram," said Martell. "The kids that applied really wanted to apply. This wasn't a part of their curriculum. They did it because they really wanted to be on set, do something cool, which I loved."

The VAM crew originally planned to select one treatment winner, but they found themselves amazed by the students' ingenuity. Ultimately they selected 6 students to shadow various production elements, and the team set about quickly adapting their work processes.

"I think from when we received the final treatments to production was probably about a two-week span," said Martell. "Within that, we wanted to make sure that we can create an inclusive set, but also a teaching set so that the kids could be able to ask a question and we would be able to stop for a moment and actually give them techniques and knowledge."

Student shadows both gained professional experience and got paid, but they were not the sole beneficiaries of the experiment. "I think we at VAM got a lot more out of it than we intended to," Martell explained. "We sat back and realized, we have to do this for every production."

VAM is now budgeting to include at least one CPS student in forthcoming projects, and their smooth inclusion in the "LSD" production surprised Martell. "The idea of a production is already stressful enough, but incorporating those other extra elements, it could have easily been a disaster," he said. "But I think what kind of got it done was this underlying need to create something cool, not just for us, but for the kids too."

He remembers a moment he shared with the contest winner, Ashley Huicochea, during the video's first shoot, at 5:30 a.m. on a South Side beach. "I think I was one of the first people to arrive on the beach for the scene, and Ashley got there pretty early too, which is really really impressive. Ashley and I just walked across the beach, kind of talked about the process and how the day would go, and she started to get emotional. And it was a cool little moment that we had that made me kind of wake up to the idea of how valuable these experiences can be."

In a documentary VAM created about the "LSD" collaboration, it's clear that the students valued the chance to learn from older versions of themselves. Patricia Frazier, the camera shadow, mentions deliberately watching director Sam Bailey as an example of a woman of color in a powerful creative position.

"One thing I've learned is that our production crews are the most diverse in the city," said Martell. "They're filled with people of color, they're filled with women, they're filled with queers, and that's not something that we intended to do, we just knew all of these really amazing filmmakers who happened to be queer, who happened to be people of color, who happened to be women."

For these students, Martell wants to be the model that he and Bailey did not have in the industry, though he acknowledges that role's challenges. "There's this pressure to always do well, because as someone from a marginalized group, we can't have those failures," he explained. "Because then it's a loss of jobs, it's a loss of opportunity. Whereas people not from those communities can fail a couple of times. It's a lot more difficult for people like me. What I've learned is that it's OK to experiment, it's OK to fail, and it's OK to try new things out, because sometimes we don't get the opportunity to do that. As queers, people of color, and women, we need to experience those lessons in order to learn and grow, and in doing so it's made me a lot more unapologetic."

He said he wishes more established companies with deeper pockets would follow VAM's lead with similar student programs. "I think VAM is based off of collaboration, said Martell. "We don't do it alone, so the act of including a younger generation of artists, it's a no-brainer, and I wish it was a no-brainer to more people running production companies and people in the film industry."

And he predicted that Chicago will continue to keep its artistic name on the map in the foreseeable future. "There's something bubbling right now in the art culture where all of these artists are working together and creating a huge voice together. It feels to us like this is home, but this is also the coolest place to be right now. There's a power when artists decide to stay in Chicago and create in this environment."

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