New documentary examines Cabrini Green as part of Black Harvest Film Festival

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Photo credit: Krystyna Wazny

Ronit Bezalel’s thought-provoking documentary, 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, is a starling case study into the making and destruction of one of Chicago’s most infamous public housing projects. Heralded as a public housing success in the late 1940s, it garnered a reputation of also being one the most dangerous in the late 1990s. After the final building was razed in 2011, the site was carefully repackaged as a mixed-income property. Bezalel’s examines the pros and cons of this “transformation” and how much it helped or hurt the permanent residents of Cabrini Green. This documentary is a follow up to her 1999 short film, Voices of Cabrini..

How long did it take to film?
This film took 20 years to make! When I set out in 1995 to film the first buildings, I had no idea this would be a two-decade journey. But I was very passionate about the story and wanted to follow it until the end, because the story kept evolving. We started filming in 1995 with the demolition of the first building, and finished filming in 2011 with the demolition of the last Cabrini high rise. In between we’ve filmed a plethora of events including community meetings, rallies, protests, barbecues, the Old School Monday weekly dance party, graduations, press conferences, slice of life, you name it.

How do you prepare for change?
Everyone prepares for change differently. I don’t do well with change, so I can understand the residents’ anxiety and rage about having to leave a community that they’ve lived in for years. Especially when it wasn’t their choice and they didn’t have much of a voice in this process. Residents input was scant and ignored. Any gains were often made because of battles that the residents won in court.

This film does an excellent job illustrating the history of Chicago public housing, particularly Cabrini Green. What would you say is the most important revelation in doing the project?
Thank you! There were so many revelations during the 20-years. The first would be how warm and welcoming the Cabrini community was to us. It was a complex community for sure. But I was happy to have the opportunity to witness and highlight many of the good aspects of this community.

One revelation was the truth to the old adage that history repeats itself. To build Cabrini, an Italian community was razed and a community was displaced. Then fifty years later Cabrini was torn down and the community displaced again. Low-income communities of color often become pawns to the whims of city officials and the market. We thought it important to tell this story, and so that’s why we’ve included the history of the area in the film.

I want to add that it takes a village to make a film. Yes, I’m the director but the film was made from the contributions of hundreds of people – everyone who helped out on the crew, to people we spoke to at Cabrini, to our funders. I thank everyone for sticking in with us for so long. Twenty years is a long time!

We had over 450 hours of footage. I want to extend a thank you and shout out to our editor and writer Catherine Crouch who was amazing in shaping this film from raw footage into a narrative that makes sense. Or, as much sense as you can make from this 20-year housing upheaval.

From Aug. 8 through Sept. 3, the Gene Siskel Film Center celebrates the 21st edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival, exploring the stories, images, heritage and history of the African American experience nationally and from around the world. Bezalel’s film 70 Acres in Chicago runs Aug. 23 and Aug. 26.

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