Born to Film and Willie
The new Direct + Present Documentary Experience series showcases work both contemporary and historic, with the goal of creating a space for thoughtful conversation for documentarians and audience alike to explore world concerns and cinematic ones.
Danny Lyon’s iconic photographs have been acclaimed since the early 1960s, but his intimate nonfiction films have long remained criminally underseen. Renewed interest in this beautiful body of work has arisen following a 2016 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lyon’s films haven’t screened in Chicago in over two decades. Born to Film (1982, 33 min.) is a funny and ethereal autobiographical meditation on filmmaking and fatherhood, in which the two are more intertwined than a bull snake in a bin full of celluloid. Made over the course of several years, Willie (1985, 82 min., newly restored print) follows Willie Jaramillo, whom Lyon met as a child near his home in Bernalillo, New Mexico (he appears in two of his previous films, Llanito  and Little Boy ) as he repeatedly cycles in and out of prison for minor offenses. The film is a dignified and heartbreaking portrait in which the quotidian is just as memorable as the bizarre. There is an emotional depth and compassion to the film often not felt in works about “outsiders” (a frequent subject in Lyon’s photographs and films). It’s clear that Willie wasn’t just a subject, but a friend, and as he speaks to Danny through the camera he reminds us, “This is my life we’re talking about.”
(Danny Lyon, USA, 1982/85, 115 min., 16mm from Anthology Film Archives)
Danny Lyon was shaped by his experience covering the unrest of the 1960s as staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This led to his first publication, The Movement (1964), and since then he has produced numerous books, including Conversations with the Dead (1971), the first book on America's prison system by a photojournalist. He is noted for his willingness to immerse himself entirely in the cultures and communities he documents. In the late 1960s Lyon turned his camera on the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, where the construction of the World Trade Center, among other projects, cleared away much of the area's nineteenth-century building stock. The 1970s saw him return to documenting communities, in Texas and in New York, but in the 1980s he shifted gear, turning his lens on his family. In 1999 he once again spliced images and text to produce a memoir, Knave of Hearts (Twin Palms). He has been the subject of several major exhibitions at galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Co-presented with the Chicago Film Society.