The Illinois Parables
Directed by Deborah Stratman
From dreamy aerial opening shots, we are sent on an expedition through the storied land of our fifth most populous state, Illinois, often called a miniature version of America. Deborah Stratman’s experimental documentary explores how physical landscapes and human politics can each re-interpret historical events. Eleven parables relay histories of settlement, removal, technological breakthrough, violence, messianism, and resistance. Who gets to write history—physical monuments, official news accounts, or personal spoken-word memories?
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★★★★½ review by PatrickRipoll on Letterboxd
In my early 20's I worked as a merchandiser for a bread company. This job entailed waking up at 4 AM and driving around northwestern Illinois' various suburbs, hopping from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart before the sun came up, to make sure all the racks of bread were full and fresh before the customers arrived. It was eerie to drive down highways surrounded by endless empty fields, only to see the distant beckoning glow of the 24-hour superstore, rising like a temple out of the cold and sleepy Earth. This eeriness was only amplified by the experimental drone music and horror movie soundtracks I usually listened to in the wee hours of the morning.
It felt wrong. It reminded me of when Burroughs talked about how old and evil the country was in Naked Lunch, like maybe destruction-for-profit has been the country's motto from the moment people started calling it a country.
Enter The Illinois Parables. Like Der Todesking writ historic, with an eye to witnessing sites of actual human horrors that all exist within a five hour drive from my home, in the small towns and rural midwest landscapes of my adolescence. To say I'm the target audience for this is only incorrect in that I don't think Stratman consciously set out to make the horror film I so desired.
What are the parables here? What are the eleven discreet lessons to be learned? I must admit my experimental film literacy is weak and I couldn't tell you. But what I did get was a clear sense of the United States (depicted here as the faceless force of evil that imposed it's shapes onto the country, dividing a landscape impartial to human suffering into discreet blocks of homes and agriculture) as an engine of death, forever fueled by the lives and resources deposed peoples.
The film is not without it's hope and humor, it's warmth and empathy. It's not a cold and cynical thing. But as a piece of experimental horror, building dread out of the banality of nature, questioning the karmic connections between piles of dead Shawnee peoples and piles of dead tornado victims, it's impeccably paced and edited. But again, I don't know if Stratman knew she was tapping into a personal horror touchstone of mine. That's ok, though, because as an essay of temporal and geographical intersections, of unspoken connections and underseen stories of life, this is also a staggering work. A
★★★½ review by Filipe Furtado on Letterboxd
History emanating trough place. So concentrated. As far as Straubian materialistic histories of US goes, this is closer to Benning historical films (Deseret in particular comes to mind) than something in the manner of John Gianvito work even if it might at first seem closer to his larger canvas than Benning’s more focused one. There is a certain religious quality here, a sort of historical quest, than is established through editing that I didn’t expect to find. Stratman locates many notions of displacement and oppression in her histories, but she refuses to allow them to just move into each other. The film doesn’t treat history as stactic, but is also suspicious of the idea of progressive moment. Instead, the 11 parables presented are allowed to compete and collide with each other in manner that inform each other. As a foreigner, quite a few of Stratman’s can be obscure to me (I’m make multiple notes of “I need to research that”), I don’t know how different it plays to someone more acquitted with local history. Formally, there’s three central concepts, history, place and time, and the film is at best as illustration of the way histories reaches through time and the consistence of place.
★★★½ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd
A second viewing clarified for me just how crystal-clear this film is. It's rare to see any work - avant-garde, documentary, even fictional feature - with such a defined purpose. In fact, I think the first time I saw it I was a bit confused, because I expected there to be a bit more, something deeper and more resonant.
But that's not the way all films need to operate, and Stratman's Parables treats the history of the state of Illinois not as an opportunity for mythmaking or even storytelling, but as a framework for a set of historical core samples. From first contact with the Native Americans up through the murder of Fred Hampton and onto the present day, each segment is relatively self-contained. Stratman labels each one with a Roman numeral, and they are concatenated like file folders in a particularly damning dossier.
In her approach, Stratman makes work that is recognizably of a type. Her essay-films examine social and political histories through landscape, archival traces, and the evidence (often hidden in plain sight) that the world was once organized in radically different ways. Her films bear resemblance to those of James Benning, of course, but also John Gianvito, and as such The Illinois Parables is not afraid to open itself up, inviting in a polyphony of voices that do not necessarily resolve into a final meaning.
After all, Stratman asks us to consider both the violent removal of the Cherokee, along the infamous "Trail of Tears," and the role that the people living near Nauvoo, IL, played in persecuting the LDS church, local law enforcement allowing a mob to murder Joseph Smith while incarcerated in nearby Carthage. It's unlikely even today that many Mormons would feel compelled to speak out against the murder of Fred Hampton, or vice versa. And "Indian Removal" is discussed in very different terms, depending on the textbook and the region.
Point being, Stratman is not attempting to forge a single history of intersectional oppression. Rather, she is articulating a structural /geographical history - how a place is "settled," made safe for the dominant class - while logging objections along the way, from Emerson, Tocqueville, and others. In this way, Stratman emphasizes the fact that at all times, "Illinois" was a process, and it remains so. It is a political formation, defined by the decisions taken within its borders.
The fact that Stratman chose to make The Parables during a period when our president was a former senator and community organizer from Illinois seems hardly coincidental.
★★★★ review by Tessa Racked on Letterboxd
I've lived in Chicago for almost 4 years, but I've not yet ventured more than one county outside the city within the state. I'm starting to feel like a Chicagoan, but definitely not an Illinoisan. In that sense, I felt removed from this film, ironic considering that exodus is a recurring theme. The rural areas I am familiar with are in the mid Atlantic region, so a lot of the locations felt strange and uncanny (eg. the birdsong felt off). The film reminded me of Weird NJ, which I would buy and read periodically when I lived there, as both are projects dedicated to preserving local history and prioritize the accounts of regular folk as much (if not more than) official plaques. If nothing else, it was a lesson for me that I'm not living on an island in the middle of a void peppered by Walmarts.
★★★★★ review by Brian Belak on Letterboxd
I have said in the past (mostly facetiously) that all films should be made as 4:3 16mm, but rarely have I seen a film benefit so immensely from the peculiarities of that medium. In THE ILLINOIS PARABLES, shot and projected in this instance on 16mm, one of the more overwhelming aesthetic components is the film grain itself. Filmmaker Deborah Stratman shot most of the footage static, on a tripod, and what's depicted is often also unmoving: landscapes, woods, commemorative plaques. Even so, the never-ending bounce of the grain adds vitality to these images, imbuing them with life and underscoring their duration through time.
More formally, the film is constructed into 11 parts—the "parables"—that describe specific local histories of Illinois. To borrow an excerpted headline featured in one of the parables, these are all "depictions of horror," ranging from the Cherokee Trail of Tears to the Tri-State Tornado, the nuclear developments at the University of Chicago** and surrounding tests at Argonne National Laboratory to the murder of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police and the FBI.
In most instances, Stratman gives little factual context around her depictions, instead leaving it to the viewer to follow along. In the case of this non-native viewer (but now 6-year resident), many specific references were lost, but the hypnotic nature of the narrative is often enough that one doesn't feel confused or turned away. I have also spent much of the last two immersing myself in local history through film—often from grainy, 4:3 16mm images—so I was personally in awe of this project.
One of the major themes to emerge is the idea of being witness to history, especially horrific history. The visual record created by the camera is an important player in this process, particularly the film object itself, physically altered by the light from these places. But there are also witnesses explored on-screen, not only oral recollections of the events, but physical remnants such as the Cahokia Mounds and the Icarian remains in Nauvoo.
Another question raised is that of re-enactment. Despite engaging with historical events, a surprisingly small amount of archival footage is directly used the film. Instead, moments from these parables are re-enacted for the camera, emphasizing Stratman's role as another interpreter of these tales. Actors read as Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, while others play the parts of physicist writing out nuclear equations and teenage girl who might be capable of pyrokinesis. In the most ambitious re-enactment, the investigation of Hampton's murder is played out anew, in which Stratman re-stages the original police re-staging of their raid on a set made of taped floors and flimsy 2x4's. This time, however, she places audio of Hampton and others intermixed with the police account, forcing the gestures to illustrate the two conflicting narratives of what happened the night of Hampton's death.
**Coincidentally the host site of this particular screening.
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