The Gene Siskel Film Center’s female leading staff share their passion for the Chicago film community

L-R: Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming; Deanna Dement Myers, Associate Director of Development; Karen Durham, Associate Director of Public Relations and Marketing; Jean de St. Aubin, Executive Director.
Photo by Lori Hile

The Gene Siskel Film Center has the best programming of international films, diverse films, female-directed films, and independent films in Chicago. That is a fact. Earlier this year, Cinema Femme had the opportunity to partner with the Siskel for the European Union Film Festival, and host an event prior to a screening. It was a great experience and exposed me to films from all over the world. As a film lover in Chicago, the Siskel has never disappointed. I was so happy to do this interview with the women who run the Siskel: Barbara Scharres, has been programming films at the Siskel for 48 years, and is a critic for RogerEbert.com; Deanna Dement Myers, a new addition to the Siskel who brings a lot of energy and experience; Karen Durham, one of the most passionate people I know when it comes to women in film; and Jean de St. Aubin, who has been so gracious in connecting me with female directors. Both Karen and Jean have been a joy to work with, and I am so grateful for the opportunities they have given to me and Cinema Femme.

Please enjoy this interview and check out what’s coming up next at the Siskel. Stay tuned for their festival programs, specifically next year check out the European Union Film Festival, and the Black Harvest Film Festival. See link: http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/

REBECCA MARTIN: What were your favorite movies growing up?

BARBARA SCHARRES: I had very little exposure to films growing up, so hadn’t seen enough to have favorites.  My parents each had very specific interests in the arts (but not film); for my dad, it was live theater and architectural preservation, and for my mom it was classical music.  Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to lots of theater, especially Shakespeare, and the work of contemporary playwrights including Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, plus assorted Broadway musicals.

DEANNA DEMENT MYERS: My favorites growing up were the ones you could see at the drive-in theaters—big action films like “Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “American Graffiti”. Once I could go to films on my own, I loved the John Hughes films, the Coen Brothers, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, etc. I love big movies, with big, exciting action.

KAREN DURHAM: In some ways, I was a typical teenager in the 80s so I gravitated towards a lot of John Hughes films (like “Pretty in Pink”) but my parents exposed me to Merchant Ivory productions like “A Room with a View”. I also started to develop a curiosity for art films and remember renting on videotape such films as “Bad” by Andy Warhol and Slava Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky”. Growing up in a college town, in Iowa City, Iowa, I would go to the student-run theater—The Bijou—and see films there like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy: “Blue”, “White”, and “Red.” They intrigued and inspired me, signifying that there was a whole world of film beyond the cineplex. Living in a town where there’s a university also meant exposure to more cult-like films such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and other indies like Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex Lies and Videotape”. While in college, I got to experience a lot of Italian cinema through my language studies such Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, the Taviani Brothers’ “Night of the Shooting Stars”, and Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”. I also became good friends with a Ph.D. student in film and she introduced me to the work of Jean-Luc Godard since her area of expertise was—and still is—French New Wave cinema. When I was at The Kennedy Center, the American Film Institute was in the same building at the time and my work I.D. got me into all sorts of films for free. I also became friends with some independent filmmakers in DC who are still good friends of mine to this day.

JEAN DE ST. AUBIN: I loved old comedies and romance films, “His Girl Friday”, “The Philadelphia Story” that sort of thing. As I grew up, my tastes got a bit more sophisticated but I always love a good comedy. Pedro Almodóvar’s “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is one of my favorite films. I had the same reaction after seeing “Parenthood” and “Monsoon Wedding” that there you have it – that’s life right there on the screen. My most memorable experience at the Film Center is seeing Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” with the long missing footage included. It’s a film whose influenced you can see in modern dance and architecture, totally mind-blowing. The last movie I have seen that I have been recommending to everyone is “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It felt like a long poem. I love it when a filmmaker takes artistic risks and it pays off.

MARTIN: What did you do before the Siskel?

SCHARRES: BA, St. Xavier University; MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; almost a decade of assorted jobs including manager of a filmmaker’s distribution cooperative, film projectionist, and engineering draftsman prior to the (to date) 43 years of working for the Film Center.

DEMENT MYERS: Previous to the film center, I was Director of Development at an independent, progressive elementary school in Cambridge, MA.

DURHAM: My background is a combination of arts. I grew up in an arts environment. My father was a music professor who also was a composer and put on laser light shows, while my mother was a pianist, visual artist, and elementary school teacher. I myself studied various musical instruments, dance, gymnastics, theater, and visual art growing up. I also developed an interest in different cultures. My mother was a native Hungarian and I studied German in high school, minored in Italian in college, and lived in Germany post-college where I earned a certificate in German language and culture at the Goethe-Institut in Frankfurt, plus my own family members are Asian, Black, African, and scattered about around the globe. As for my background in media, I worked at the daily newspaper in my hometown while in college and interned in the press office at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, where one of my first pitches to the press got published.

Post-internship, I worked for the Evian Music Festival as Marta Istomin’s assistant (she was simultaneously Director of that music festival and President of the Manhattan School of Music and also married to the concert pianist Eugene Istomin) and later worked as Events Publicist at the Folger Shakespeare Library (which presents theater, literary readings, music, and exhibitions in addition to being a research library) before moving to Chicago in the fall of 2000. I also majored in history at the University of Iowa with a focus on medieval studies and European history in general. Through my courses in history and Italian (for which I have a minor) as well as my studies at the Goethe-Institut (where I earned an advanced certificate in German language and culture), I was exposed to an array of European cinema.

DE ST. AUBIN: I was the Cultural Arts Manager for the Chicago Park District, creating cultural centers all over the city and managing Theater on the Lake among other projects. Prior to working at the CPD, I worked in film as an art director.

MARTIN: What does the Siskel mean to you?

DEMENT MYERS: I think the Siskel is synonymous with quality. Chicago, and the broader film world, look to us for excellence in both programming and technical offerings. Our theaters have been recently renovated and the booth is state of the art. I can personally attest to our popcorn being top-notch as well!

I think the Siskel is synonymous with quality. Chicago, and the broader film world, look to us for excellence in both programming and technical offerings.

-Deanna Dement Myers, Associate Director of Development

DURHAM: Siskel (and Ebert) represented, first and foremost, their TV show. On visits to Chicago, before moving here, when going on the river cruises, they also obviously represented the rival newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times (something I’m sensitive to having worked at a daily newspaper for over four years). And they just represented Chicago in general along with the deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, Second City, Billy Goat, Sears (not Willis) Tower, Good Times, John Hughes movies shot on the North Shore, etc. Of course, they represent beyond that as they exposed audiences to world cinema through the years. Chicago, in my 18 years here, has evolved from being a Midwestern city to a global metropolis.

It’s funny because when I first started working here, we were still called The Film Center (we didn’t officially change our name until we opened on State Street in June 2001), so really I still call my place of employment by that name or Gene Siskel Film Center. I grew up watching Siskel & Ebert and while I never worked with Gene, I did have the honor of working with Roger from 2000 to 2013. I also have the honor of getting to work with his wife, Chaz (who sponsored Opening Night of this year’s Black Harvest Film Festival), and Gene’s wife, Marlene Iglitzen (who’s also on our Advisory Board), to this day and they are truly the torch bearers of their individual and combined legacies. I do find it fitting that the Gene Siskel Film Center is on the same block of State Street—between Lake and Randolph—where they once had their show recorded at the Chicago Theatre. Roger also worked next door at WLS. My time in DC was fortuitous vis a vis my eventual move to Chicago as I worked with Jane Horwitz, theater critic for The Washington Post, who later was a stand-in host with Roger on “At the Movies” after Gene passed, as well as walking into the CVS drugstore in my DC neighborhood to see Gene being memorialized on the cover of People magazine.

DE ST. AUBIN: The Siskel means so many things to me; it’s a safe place to enjoy films that promote dialogue, see old favorites as well as new emerging work from Chicago and around the world, a place to gather with other film lovers, a venue where everyone is welcome, that presents programming that attracts an inclusive audience. I could go on and on. Gene Siskel taught us how to look at movies. Along with Roger Ebert, they made so many people really pay attention to movies. They also encouraged their audience to see documentaries and smaller intimate films. As for our place in Chicago, film is the most accessible of art forms. Everyone loves movies and due to our location and ticket price there really are no barriers to enjoy high quality cultural programming.

The Siskel means so many things to me; it’s a safe place to enjoy films that promote dialogue, see old favorites as well as new emerging work from Chicago and around the world, a place to gather with other film lovers, a venue where everyone is welcome, that presents programming that attracts an inclusive audience.

-Jean de St. Aubin, Executive Director

MARTIN: This is a question for Barbara (Scharres), thoughts about gender and programming?

SCHARRES: In creating a program in which multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-gender appeal is a goal, I find the male perspective absolutely essential to the process.  To me, “all female” isn’t necessarily a virtue of itself. [I think single-sex high schools are a wonderful thing for forming girls into take-charge women—I attended one—but this isn’t high school anymore.]  

In creating a program in which multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-gender appeal is a goal, I find the male perspective absolutely essential to the process.  To me, “all female” isn’t necessarily a virtue of itself. [I think single-sex high schools are a wonderful thing for forming girls into take-charge women—I attended one—but this isn’t high school anymore.]  

-Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming

It all depends on the goal, and when the goal is as expansive as the Film Center’s mission, a great blending of diverse gender points of view is welcome and highly desirable.

MARTIN: What current projects are you working on now at the Siskel that you are excited about and why?

DEMENT MYERS: I am still in my first 100 days at the Film Center! Right now, I am learning and absorbing as much as I can so I can more fully tell the story of the Film Center to potential audiences, members, and donors. It has been an exciting summer and I am in awe of the scope and reach of the Black Harvest Film Festival. Meeting so many local filmmakers has been quite a treat.

DURHAM: I’m just wrapping up work on the 25th Anniversary of the Black Harvest Film Festival. This festival is by far the most labor-intensive for me as it’s a month of publicizing films but also by far the most rewarding as I get to work with filmmakers all over the country and in other parts of the world who are either Black or want to honor Black culture through stories not experienced otherwise. The filmmakers are so appreciative of being able to share their work and when a media outlet is interested in interviewing them, suddenly their films and the filmmakers’ names start to get attention beyond our venue, and enter the lives of Chicagoans. I’ve developed relationships with filmmakers and colleagues at media outlets and there’s a sense of camaraderie and some of us even call each other family. 

Day in and day out, my job is rewarding year-round as I get to work with so many people in the community whether it’s a filmmaker, a consulate, a cultural organization, or a member of the media. The common thread for all of us is film—the most accessible art form and the one art form that mirrors the human experience like no other. Working with people on an art form conveying the human experience is beyond enriching and rewarding because it’s all about humanity.

Day in and day out, my job is rewarding year-round as I get to work with so many people in the community whether it’s a filmmaker, a consulate, a cultural organization, or a member of the media. The common thread for all of us is film—the most accessible art form and the one art form that mirrors the human experience like no other. Working with people on an art form conveying the human experience is beyond enriching and rewarding because it’s all about humanity.

-Karen Durham, Associate Director of Public Relations and Marketing

DE ST. AUBIN: We have had a year of staff changes, so I am looking forward to some stability. I am also looking down the road to our 50th Anniversary in 2022. I am excited to work with our staff and stakeholders on what that year might look like. 

MARTIN: What are your thoughts about the climate of women in film? Do you see change? Are you hopeful? 

SCHARRES: Whenever possible, series and festivals at the Film Center include a significant number of films directed by women. Our selections are in no way based on a gender quota, only on excellence and cultural relevance. The fact that inclusion of women happens naturally tells you something about the present climate of availability.  More films, and good films directed by women, are out there. 

DEMENT MYERS: Seeing more women as directors and producers means that women on screen drive the action more and develop relationships to other characters that are not just love interests or damsels in distress. I am hopeful to see more women of color in film that are made for mainstream audiences.

DURHAM: Women have always worked in film but where I currently see that change (since women have been activists through the ages) is that now there’s currently a lot of noise being made through such movements as the various women’s marches, #metoo, #oscarssowhite, #resist, and Black Lives Matter. There is more of a spotlight being shown on both women and people of color working in the industry today as well as the need to have more equality and inclusivity. It’s important to give a nod to their foremothers and acknowledge who’s been on the path before them when it was more challenging to work in a white male-dominated industry. I do hope that women of all colors and those on the LGBTQIA spectrum over time can get the respect, equality, recognition, compensation that they deserve—and that is why it is rewarding to work at a film-inclusive venue like ours. Working in the arts, which has been more female-dominated (on my career path, anyway), I’ve been fortunate to see more women in powerful positions at the top. However, as someone promoting world cinema and previously theater and literature, I’ve seen how much it is vital to have voices not represented otherwise have a space—a safe space—to tell their stories both on stage and on screen. 

DE ST. AUBIN: I do see change but there is still a long way to go for equality, we have to constantly remind ourselves that women are 50% of the population so we can’t be satisfied with 20% or 30% of the film jobs going to women it should be 50% or more. I am hopeful, once you start down a path it is hard to turn around. As women achieve more control and prove that there is a market for their work, both the audience and the filmmakers are going to continue wanting more.

I do see change but there is still a long way to go for equality, we have to constantly remind ourselves that women are 50% of the population so we can’t be satisfied with 20% or 30% of the film jobs going to women it should be 50% or more. I am hopeful, once you start down a path it is hard to turn around. As women achieve more control and prove that there is a market for their work, both the audience and the filmmakers are going to continue wanting more.

-Jean de St. Aubin, Executive Director

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