Film bows tonight after producer’s ethics challenged

After two of four free previews of David Holcombe’s Graffito at the Oracle Theatre in Lakeview were cancelled earlier this month over charges of the producer’s “questionable ethics,” the film will screen tonight, Sept. 26, at Silent Theatre HQ.

The Oracle screenings were cancelled when about 20 minutes into the second preview, Sept. 12, an audience member became vocally upset about the film and left the theatre enraged. 

“He  expressed concern that he knew many of the protestors … and believed that the film was putting them into a bad light,” said Holcombe, a Trap Door Theatre company member, who’d cast many of his Trap Door colleagues in the film.

Oracle canceled the last two screenings, saying they were  “concerned over the ethics of my filmmaking,” Holcombe said.

Oracle Film artistic director Jeremy Clark, who organized and later canceled the screenings, did not respond to phone and email messages for this article.

Antonio Brunetti stars in the black and white, 82-minute metatheatrical farce, as an aging graffiti artist with vague leftist ideals, facing eviction from his Logan Square apartment, hiding out from detectives, and pursuing a surreal romance.

The scene in question intercuts documentary footage of a May Day protest in Union Park, with fictional scenes of Brunetti’s character, Graffito, fresh from spray painting a garage, drinking from a wine bottle, and mocking the protestors, who he says are “settling for scraps.”

Protestor in film charges no releases were requested

Brit Schulte, an organizer for SlutWalk Chicago, is one of the protestors depicted in the scene.  She says that other media outlets and photographers introduced themselves, wore press badges and asked for release forms.

“David’s team recording for the Graffito project did none of these things,” she said.

Antonio Brunetti stars in "Graffito"“We made a decision not to engage or influence the event,” Holcombe responded, because if they did, “then the event would become inauthentic and staged. In order to fully present the complexity of the movement, we did not want to disturb or influence its natural development.”

On Sept. 15, Holcombe and Graffito’s writers, Heather Mingo and John Sutton, showed the film to nine of the protesters in the film, in a private Oracle screening, and agreed to blur the faces of the undocumented protesters, who might be put at risk by their depiction in the film. 

“My goal was to have my image obscured, which the film team and director have agreed to do,” Schulte said after the meeting. “I am in close dialogue with both the filmmaker and the Oracle Theatre about the incident and feel like all parties involved have been very open, honest and receptive in moving forward.” 

Debate over removing of all 9 protesters from the film

Both Holcombe and Schulte seemed to have hardened their positions after this.  Schulte emailed Holcombe, he said, calling for the removal of all nine protestors from the film. 

Director John Sutton and producer John HolcombeHolcombe objected, as images of the protestors from the same rally had appeared in other media, and on their own Facebook pages, signaling, he said, “presentation of these images are not dangerous to the freedoms of said persons, as I was led to believe at our meeting.”

In an email to Schulte, Holcombe laid out his argument for continuing to screen the film, with no changes to the protest scene.  “I was initially open to the possibility of censoring my film in order to repair our relationship,” he wrote to Schulte.

“Though, when it became apparent that your desire was to either have the film serve as a propaganda piece for your group’s specific views or eliminate the footage of the protest rally entirely, I knew that I needed to stay true to our aims as socially conscious filmmakers.

“The message of our film is acceptance, truth, and compassionate understanding.  In an attempt to elevate the rhetoric for social change, the film will continue to screen as is.”

Schulte said they weren’t trying to censor Holcombe or his creative project, rather, “We were trying to hold him accountable as an artist for his practice.  He should have done his due diligence.  He should have been ethical.  We even gave him the opportunity to do right by the community he affected, and yet he went back on his word.”

Film attempted to deal with the Occupy movement

Holcombe’s decision was made in good faith, to include real protestors at a real protest “in order to add a layer of immediacy, authenticity, and vitality to our message,” he said.

They also had researched the law and knew that people in public spaces, especially during a highly public event, do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  No one was portrayed in a false manner, Holcombe pointed out.  “Gathering releases was deemed logistically impossible and legally unnecessary.”

“The film was an attempt to deal with the Occupy movement,” Holcombe says, “not only with its shortcomings, but also as a celebration of its ambition, its passion, its glorious chaos, its contradictions, its hope for a brighter future.”

Graffito’s Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. screening is free, at Silent Theatre HQ, 1914 N. Milwaukee Ave., third floor. Live music by Danny Rockett of Bad Teenage Moustache and the film’s co-screenwriter and composer John Sutton.

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