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Cyrus Dowlatshahi is a 30-year-old Hyde Park native, Iranian-American, Vassar alum, and massage therapist. To explore a side of Chicago more often misunderstood than seen, Dowlatshahi is taking on his preferred designation—filmmaker.
The project sounds quite simple—with $25,000 raised from donations on Kickstarter.com, Dowlatshahi is going to film a feature-length documentary about the South Side. He’s not quite sure what he’s looking for, but he wants to document the beauty strangers and residents alike often miss. Working mostly in Englewood and Washington Park, the film will focus on familiar scenes—there will be hair salons, churches, and Fourth of July celebrations.
“There are wonderful things to share and some not-so-wonderful things,” he says, acknowledging the reality of the South Side’s negative image. “I want to help people share the good things. It feels good to tell stories, and when it comes to this project, people are proud of where they come from.”
Dowlatshahi got an unconventional start in filming when he was a student at the UofC Laboratory Schools. After copying the lettering on official UofC vehicles, Dowlatshahi and his friends made a stencil in the same typeface that read, “University of Chicago Secret Police.” They painted this new logo onto Dowlatshahi’s camouflage-print car and began following UCPD and fire activity in Hyde Park and beyond.
“That’s how I started filming,” says Dowlatshahi. “I had a little Handycam, and we’d edit the movies on iMovie. This was the very beginning of cheap digital video software. People were too weirded out for anything bad to happen. It was just too funny for anyone to get upset.” When Dowlatshahi returned from college—with a BA in philosophy and zero credits from the film department—he continued the Secret Police project.
“A friend of mine was in AA and so the only thing to do at night that had nothing to do with alcohol was drive around and make these videos.”
At some point Dowlatshahi’s filmmaking became more than a hobby. To keep making movies, Dowlatshahi went to massage school. He worked as a part-time massage therapist for five years, earning the money he needed to support his filming. But his growing passion needed direction. “After a certain point,” Dowlatshahi says, “I wasn’t submitting movies to festivals or contests, so I knew I needed something else.”
That something else took Dowlatshahi away from the South Side to D.C. and New York. “When I first got to the East Coast, I was an unpaid intern because it was the only way into the business. So, I was 27 and living in my grandma’s basement, interning for a TV production studio.” TV didn’t suit Dowlatshahi, but he eventually worked his way up to Al Jazeera English.
While Dowlatshahi enjoyed working for a major news outlet, he wanted the chance to create his own project. “Of course the dream is to make your own film, to be in control over not only the subject matter but how you tell the story,” he says. “I wanted to control how much of a standard documentary this dream project was or how artsy-fartsy it was. I had to try that and see if people liked it, if it was any good, if it made sense to people who weren’t just my friends and family.”
Dowlatshahi’s first plan was to make a film about Iran, which he visited for the first time in January of last year. However, Dowlatshahi was dissuaded after contacting Iranian filmmakers about the project: “They all wrote me back saying, ‘Dude, you don’t want to do this. It’s a pain. They’re expensive permits.’ Plus, because I’m a dual citizen, I’d have to deal with my military service.”
The South Side of Chicago was an easy second choice. Growing up, Dowlatshahi spent most of his time in Hyde Park. He admits that while he was a kid, he just “didn’t care” about getting to know the surrounding area. He’s clearly changed his mind. “The area is ripe for documenting,” Dowlatshahi says. “There’s so much here that is awesome. It’s easier, too. I don’t have to buy international plane tickets or deal with the Islamic Republic Film Permit Department. I can just film.”
But it hasn’t exactly been that easy. Chicago also requires film permits, and it costs $400 a day to film in Chicago parks. Dowlatshahi hoped to have the fee waived by offering free photography classes in public parks, but “the City didn’t really go for that.” While his Kickstarter account helped him raise the $25,000 required to get the project going, he estimates that he will need an additional $40,000 to finish the film. So far, the vast majority of the money has come from family and friends. “This isn’t unusual,” says Dowlatshahi. “All first-time filmmakers get their money from friends and family. It’s a card that I can play one time.”
Family has helped in more ways than one. His mother’s former caretaker, Ethel, is a resident of Englewood. By spending time in Ethel’s home, Dowlatshahi and his camera were able to gain access to that neighborhood.
Nonetheless, Dowlatshahi wasn’t surprised when people resisted his presence—no one likes being filmed by strangers. In fact, Dowlatshahi readily admits that there are good reasons to avoid being on camera: “Non-fiction films thrive on making people look stupid. They thrive on embarrassment. I have to assure people that I’m not trying to do that. I want the opposite. Having someone to make a connection helps.”
Despite being associated with Ethel, Dowlatshahi met resistance from drug dealers who operated in the area. “There are people who engage in drug activity in the neighborhood, and they obviously do not like cameras being around. But they just need to know and be assured by someone they trust that I’m not there to film anyone who doesn’t want to be filmed.” Contacts reached out to the dealers and made it clear that Dowlatshahi was not interested in getting anyone in trouble. “In any situation you’re liable to get messed with unless you are with someone from the neighborhood. Obviously I stick out because I’m not black and I have a camera.”
But Dowlatshahi couldn’t film just one block. While driving around one day, he noticed a restaurant called Pete’s Italian Beef. “I used to go to a different Pete’s in high school, and when I saw this one, I had to see if I could order the same chopsteak sandwich. But I got talking with Tammy who works behind the counter, and eventually I talked my way behind the bulletproof glass.”
Since then, Tammy has opened many doors for Dowlatshahi. One afternoon, she took him to a hair appointment at Studio 59—a new scene Dowlatshahi could film. In one shot uploaded to his website, the frame is still on a woman’s head as Veronica, a stylist, goes to work. The footage is sped up, and a head of hair is transformed into an arrangement of beautiful black and blonde spikes.
At Studio 59, Dowlatshahi also met Jerk Man. According to Dowlatshahi, “When he saw me in the salon with the camera, he said, ‘Oh man, you gotta come out with me, I’ll show you the South Side.’ And he did—he drives around all the neighborhoods everywhere, selling his jerk chicken and curry goat. Jerk Man is really proud of showing off all the areas he knows.”
Dowlatshahi is not entirely sure what all of this is going to add up to. He has other footage. During the summer, he took shots of Washington Park when it “looked like a scene from ‘The Fast and the Furious.’” Vintage cars with modern engines were lined up, while owners mingled in the park. A few weeks ago, Dowlatshahi filmed a man dressed in a Statue of Liberty outfit describing the gang boundaries around 79th and Halsted. All of this together won’t tell a story with a beginning and ending—but that’s not the point. The South Side doesn’t have an ending.
What does matter is that Dowlatshahi gets good footage: “Good footage is telling footage. Good footage is people being real. Good footage is somebody being genuine, or stuff that is intimate, or stuff that is undeniable.”
His footage is beautiful and he sees no conflict between finding true stories and portraying them in a way that looks good. Dowlatshahi also feels that it’s not hard for his footage to look good. In his opinion, “The South Side landscape is rustic, I love the empty lots, not when they’re littered with trash, but there’s lots of big trees and its pretty in the summer and fall.” A scene from the Fourth of July demonstrates the beauty Dowlatshahi is able to capture. The shot begins level with damp, green grass. The camera slowly glides to the right as fireworks are lit, their yellow and orange sparks illuminating shadows. The greens flash from light to dark.
But not everything he has filmed will make it past the final cut. In fact, Dowlatshahi feels that he has only one complete scene at this point. It was filmed at a party in an empty building Dowlatshahi attended with a friend of Tammy’s nephew. “People weren’t there to drink, they were there to dance, and it was great,” says Dowlatshahi. As he was filming, however, an argument broke out between security and some people trying to gain entrance. In an attempt to curb potential gang activity, the party prohibited guests from wearing white shirts or hats. However, some people made it in despite violating the dress code. When some other kids were refused entry, an argument broke out and a gun was flashed.
“Shit happens and it’s over silly disputes like this, but then the guy in charge came up and was like, ‘It’s cool, but none of this gang shit.’ The kids were like, ‘fuck that.’ It’s funny because no one is there to get into a fight, they’re there to dance and talk to girls. The rule that they were getting upset about was in place to prevent violence and fights.”
During the party, Dowlatshahi had a mic on the security guard and got footage of the whole dispute. However, completeness isn’t the only thing he is looking for: “There are all these different things about life on the South Side that are unique to life on the South Side. That party was an example of one of those things. Also, it was an example of a situation that could have escalated to the level of violence you read about in the paper. But that didn’t happen, and I got coverage of what the issues were and how they developed and ended. And, the lens cap wasn’t on my camera, so there it is.” In the end, the party was broken up by the police, but only because it was disturbing a retirement home nearby.
Other scenes are more powerful because they are incomplete. During a snowstorm in January, Dowlatshahi captured a homeless man pushing a train of three grocery carts into the wind. When he approached the man, he was asked for five dollars in exchange. After taking the money, the homeless man offered to pose, but Dowlatshahi said no. Instead, he set up his small dolly so the camera could glide forward with the man’s march through the snow. The only footage he has is of the man walking, with no answers to where or why.
Piecing these scenes into a film will be a challenge. “Editing is problem solving—you only have this footage and you need to make the best of it. You need to make a story out of it.”
In the end, Dowlatshahi hasn’t yet decided what he’s going to do with the film. “It will be in some theater or festival. But, like anybody else, you just want to make a movie and have as many people see it as possible.” In this case, the film’s value really does rely on how many people see it. Our city of neighborhoods is also a city of divisions—Dowlatshahi’s film could break down barriers.
“Most people don’t go to the South Side, and South Siders know that. People focus on the gang violence and poverty—and that’s definitely one part, but there’s so much more than that.”