Maroon Lens

Maroon Lens: Aleem Hossain


Maroon Lens is a monthly column about alumni filmmakers. First up: Aleem Hossain, AB'00, a UCLA film-school grad who has created a successful online police thriller, Central Division.

The four episodes in Central Division's first season are each no more than four minutes long, and the whole thing takes place in a dimly lit parking garage. And the very first episode ends with a body in the trunk of a car. There are a lot of unanswered questions, but the answers aren't really important—without trying to fit in too much complicated backstory, the filmmakers give us a sense of the two main characters' troubled relationship within the first couple minutes, and the suspense is palpable. Hossain, who's now working working on his first feature film, took some time to answer a few questions about Central Division, which was recently nominated for Best Thriller in the 2010 Indie Intertube Awards.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did you come up with the idea for Central Division?
QandA_ADrop.jpgWhen I finished film school in 2004, I tried really hard to get financing for a traditional feature film. It's a long, slow, somewhat frustrating process. A few years went by, and I realized I hadn't directed anything recently. I'd been reading about a few early web shows and so I went out and made my first web series, just a pilot episode really, in 2008. It was a sci-fi show called It Ends Today. I had some success with it—it got me an agent, and the show was optioned by a production company. I was happy enough with the results artistically and career-wise that I decided I should do another web project. I wanted it to be something that was missing from the mainstream TV landscape.
I'd been asking myself, where have all the gritty cop shows gone? Homicide and NYPD Blue were long gone. The Shield and The Wire had ended their runs more recently. Southland had finished a somewhat disastrous (ratings-wise) first season. I've always loved cop shows, so I sat down and started writing. And I immediately started thinking about two actors in particular. Brian Silverman, who was in my UCLA thesis film and Clay Wilcox who was in some films some of my classmates had made. I didn't tell them I was writing for them—I just sprung the finished scripts on them—and they responded within minutes of getting my e-mails.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat about the cop genre drew you in?


QandA_ADrop.jpgThe good ones are all about the conflict between principles like truth, fairness, justice, and the realities of the world. It can be really hard to tell stories about stuff like that without being pedantic or boring. But an investigation has such a clear narrative drive that it grounds things. So you can really explore some murky philosophical ideas and confront some difficult topics while still hopefully engaging the viewers.

However, when you've spent much of your life watching cop shows and movies, it can be hard to make one that seems at least somewhat original. When I made Pinkerton, my UCLA thesis film, I knew that I wanted to do a movie about a cop out for revenge—but that storyline seemed so played-out. But then I read this article in the New Yorker where Adam Gopnik was talking about his kid's imaginary friend and I had this thought: what would my childhood imaginary friend think of me now? And even better—what would the childhood imaginary friend of a jaded violent cop have to say to him years later? That's where Pinkerton came from. When it came time to make Central Division, I was excited to experiment in a different way. I hadn't seen any cop dramas in the web-series format. So I gave that a try.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat do you think is wrong with some of the cop shows on TV now?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI don't know if I really want to say that something is wrong with the CSI-type shows, but I can tell you what I don't like. I think they are gross, and they focus on the least dramatic part of criminal investigation: the use of science to gather evidence. I think forensics is a fascinating field, and I'm glad it exists in the real world. But in these shows it's used to arrive at absolute truth in this way that is both unrealistic and uninteresting. I'll take a scene in an interrogation room or a street corner over a lab every time. I'm also just not a fan of really visceral close-up shots of mutilated body organs.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat's your favorite cop show on TV now?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe best cop show currently on TV is Southland. I'm so glad TNT saved that show. If you watch the pilot episode of that show, you'll find everything I love about the genre: compelling and conflicted characters, ethical dilemmas, the struggle to pursue noble goals in a complicated world. And I really have to give the writers, directors, and actors credit—the level of realism in the show is outstanding.
QandA_QDrop.jpgBack to Central Division, what were the most challenging things about creating such short episodes?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe hardest thing is the cliffhangers. I have a love/hate relationship with them, to be honest. I don't know if this makes sense: the cliffhangers are the thing I am the most proud of in the show, but I also often wonder what the show would be like if I'd not used that narrative device at all. Cliffhangers are a big part of most web dramas. And one of the challenges I set for myself was to try and master that convention. It's just that I also have some misgivings about that part of the format.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat was the crew for Central Division?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThere were only three main crew people besides myself, all of whom I knew from UCLA. Julie Kirkwood, the cinematographer, had shot a bunch of my classmates' films while I was at UCLA, including my wife's thesis film. And two of my other UCLA friends helped out in all different capacities—rigging lights, holding the boom pole, etc. In post-production, I did the editing, my brother did the main title logo, and a friend of mine did the music.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did you get the word out about the show?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI think I earned a graduate degree in social networking while promoting Central Division. Twitter and Facebook were huge. I read articles on what time of day to post, how to word tweets, etc. I scoured the Internet for any blog that might want to cover my show and sent the blogger a press release e-mail along with a sneak preview link so they could see the show ahead of the release (which they seemed to appreciate and I think boosted the number of reviews I got). I sent query e-mails to every newspaper and news site I could think of—the traditional news sites ignored me, but the new media ones responded. I networked with other web-series creators. If I saw a show I really liked, I promoted it on my Twitter feed, and the creators often returned the favor. Everyone likes to talk about the amazing opportunities of Internet distribution: the size of the potential audience, how cheap it is. But there are huge downsides too. There's so much noise that it's hard to rise above the static. You can put your show up on a website, but that's very different from getting anybody you don't personally know to watch it.
I was somewhat lucky. I did well enough on my own that a distributor ( took notice and picked up the show. They brought in a whole new level of viewership. We got 40,000 views our first month. But in the end, the show never went viral. It never got millions of views. Thankfully, I never thought it would. It's a gritty cop drama—not exactly the bread and butter of the Internet. I'm thrilled at the number of viewers I got, though.
QandA_QDrop.jpgAre you planning to make a season 2?


QandA_ADrop.jpgI have the second-season storyline mapped out, but I'm not sure when I'm going to make it.
QandA_QDrop.jpgCan you tell us about the feature film you're working on?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI'm taking a lot of the lessons I learned from making low-budget Internet projects and trying to piece together an independent feature on nights and weekends. Many of the same people who worked on Central Division are working on it. It's much more experimental than Central Division. We're shooting very spontaneously. If we find a location we like, we work it into the story, etc. Central Division was a pretty commercial project in terms of it's genre and style. I like to switch things up, so this new project is less mainstream. It's an indie sci-fi drama. I hope to finish shooting it before the end of the year.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhen can we find out if Central Division wins the Indie Intertube Award?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe winners for that will be announced January 20 via a live web stream. There are some much bigger shows nominated—so I'm gonna stick with "It's an honor just to be nominated" and not get my hopes up.

Ruthie Kott, AM'07

Stills courtesy Aleem Hossain

Maroon Lens: Roy Germano

Maroon Lens is an occasional column about alumni filmmakers. In this installment, political scientist-cum-filmmaker Roy Germano, AM'03, explores Mexican immigration from both sides of the border.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM'07

In 2008, while Roy Germano, AM'03, was getting his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, he filmed a documentary about Mexican immigration to the United States—the economic and social reasons that people leave their home cities and what happens to those left behind. "The problem is the lack of opportunities in the Mexican countryside," one man says in the film.

"I can't make it here," another man argues, "so I have to work in the US." The winner of the 2011 American Library Association Notable Video Award, The Other Side of Immigration has been screened at more than 50 film festivals and university events. Germano, now a visiting assistant professor at UT, has become a popular interview subject on US and Spanish-speaking news networks.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy did you make a documentary in addition to a written dissertation?

QandA_ADrop.jpgMy first introduction to the immigration issue came in 2003, when I worked as a waiter while finishing my master's thesis at U of C. Many of my coworkers at the restaurant—the cooks, the busboys, the dishwashers—were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Their stories about why they left home to work illegally in the United States inspired me to learn more about the root causes of Mexican immigration.
I enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin and spent much of next three years doing fieldwork in the Mexican countryside. The more research I did in Mexico, the more convinced I became that a deeper understanding of the factors that motivate undocumented immigration could help us design better immigration policies. The challenge for me then was to find a way to make this kind of information accessible to policymakers and the public. My dissertation wouldn’t do the trick. One day it dawned on me that I should try to make a documentary.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat kind of documentary-making experience did you have before making The Other Side of Immigration?
QandA_ADrop.jpgNot very much. My experience was basically limited to some video-production courses I took in high school. But I realize now how valuable those early experiences were. This was 15 years ago—before powerful laptops, digital video, and nonlinear editing software became ubiquitous. I believe that originally learning to edit linearly on tape taught me some important lessons about the fundamentals of editing and nonfiction filmmaking—lessons that I applied and built from when making The Other Side of Immigration.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did you find your subjects?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI shot most of the film in early 2008 while collecting quantitative data for my dissertation. My research team and I were in the field for about a month, and we surveyed more than 700 households in ten Mexican towns with extremely high rates of out-migration. Along the way I met dozens of individuals—farmers, return migrants, community leaders, and relatives of people who had gone to the United States—who were willing to tell their stories on camera.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow much time did you spend shooting and editing?
QandA_ADrop.jpgFilming lasted about two months. Editing was slow because I had a lot of work to do in developing my technical and storytelling skills. And I was working on the project alone. Lots of 16-hour days with the other eight spent dreaming about the next day’s editing. I submitted a cut to some film festivals after about five months of editing. None were interested. I thought about abandoning the project at that point, but instead decided to start over and completely re-edit the film. The subsequent cut fared much better. But even after the film premiered at the Las Vegas Film Festival in April 2009, a year after I finished shooting, I continued editing for about another year between festivals and university screenings, tweaking things here and there until I finally felt ready to lock in a cut in for the DVD.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat was the most challenging part of making the film?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe entire undertaking was pretty challenging. Money was definitely an issue. I funded the film with my own savings while living on a $14,000-a-year grad-student salary. That made it impossible to hire a crew or buy fancy equipment. There was a steep learning curve for certain tasks, like translation and subtitling (most of the film is in Spanish). And there was always pressure to keep up with dissertation writing. But looking back, I wouldn’t trade the experience. The process taught me countless lessons and proved to me that I am capable of stretching a dollar and producing a solid film under less-than-ideal circumstances.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWere there any particularly memorable moments?
QandA_ADrop.jpgJust about every interview I conducted was a memorable experience. The people I met in the Mexican countryside were extremely articulate and full of pragmatic insights about this complex issue. They are the true immigration experts. Their eloquence and insights really come across in the film. This tends to surprise some people, I think because so many Americans grow up with the false notion that Mexicans are not articulate or insightful people. But these are just the types of stereotypes I hope the film can play some role in breaking down.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy do you think it’s important to spread this message now?
QandA_ADrop.jpgAnti-immigrant sentiment is at its highest level in a century, and the mainstream media play a significant role in perpetuating myths that immigrants are criminals or here to have anchor babies. So what are Americans to believe if this is the primary way they get information about immigrants? Since I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about this issue, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to counter the myths. With a deeper understanding of the issue, I think many Americans would identify with, if not admire, those who make the very difficult and risky decision to migrate illegally. In itself, empathy and understanding are not policy solutions. But I think empathy and understanding are the first steps in imagining immigration policies that serve everyone better, citizens and immigrants alike.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHave you run into any hostility over the course of the interviews you've done about the film?
QandA_ADrop.jpgMy interviews with Fox News and Telemundo occurred within about an hour of one another. It was interesting to go from one studio to the other, since the two networks tend to present such different perspectives on immigration. But in both cases, everyone was completely professional, and I feel fortunate to have been able to reach such diverse audiences in the same day.
I also had the opportunity to speak with acclaimed journalist Jorge Ramos of Univision recently. I admire him a lot, so it was a big honor to be invited to his show. Although people of all backgrounds and political stripes attend my screenings and speaking engagements, there is rarely any hostility. The film avoids ideological arguments. It is not a left-wing film or a right-wing film. For me, the goal is putting the research out there so people can learn something new and make informed opinions.
QandA_QDrop.jpgTalk about your next project and how it relates to your first film.
QandA_ADrop.jpgWhile The Other Side of Immigration focuses entirely on Mexico, my next documentary will look more at border issues and immigration policy from the US perspective. I’m interested in making another film about immigration because, again, I think there are still a lot of stories and information that don’t make it into the mainstream media or our policy debate. I’m planning to make a big announcement in the coming months with more details about the next film.

Maroon Lens: Ben Kolak

Maroon Lens is an occasional column about alumni filmmakers. In this installment, Ben Kolak, director of Schizcago, discusses experimental comedy, anarchy, and Valois.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM'07


Ben Kolak, AB'06, was one of three alumni filmmakers to produce Scrappers, a heart-warming documentary about two men making a living scavenging Chicago alleyways for metal. Now he's cowritten and directed an "experimental-comedy" film, Schizcago (pronounced _skĭts'-kä'gō_), about a group of privileged friends in Chicago who spend their days "fak[ing] their way into clinical trials" and promoting themselves as "corporate youth consultants," and their nights partying. Don't watch the trailer at work or in a public library: one second in, you see bare nipples.

On May 20 and 21 the film has its first public showing—a preview, Kolak says in an e-mail, "mainly for those involved in making the film and to get some press," and to "drum up interest for online distribution and a rock band-like tour of the film at artist spaces, bars, etc, this autumn (which are cheaper/smaller/easier to book than movie theaters.)" If you're in Chicago, stop by the Building Stage (412 N. Carpenter Street) at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights to see the film.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow is making a fiction film different from a documentary?

QandA_ADrop.jpgI’ll begin by saying that risk-taking makes for good cinema: straying from traditional expectations of how projects are conceptualized, made and marketed. Documentaries usually involve small crews, so the main task is a personal one, of finding and relating to novel subjects and differentiating one's vision. On the other hand, since fiction films require a lot of people to make, the task is more a pragmatic and communal one, of teaming up with skilled collaborators who are up for working 14-hour days at minimum wage yet who are also committed to the nature of the experiment.
In terms of marketing, documentaries have an instant claim of educational and cultural value and an appeal to truth, reality, and intelligence, which can be used by cultural institutions and media outlets to market them, in contrast to studio films or television shows; whereas fictional films are more apt to be dismissed as entertainment, even when they engage serious issues with artistic legitimacy. In my experience, until one is able to get an agent or studio, marketing fictional films is really, really hard, which is why with Schizcago we're sticking to small venues (art galleries, bars) to build a base audience for online distribution and garner enough attention to make possible bigger projects in the future.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat does "experimental comedy" mean in the context of this film?
QandA_ADrop.jpgWe took a lot of risks, and we failed a lot, but I think the moments where the film works more than justify the strike-outs. One of the main risks in Schizcago was genre-mixing: changing, without any cues, from romantic comedy to science fiction to avante-garde modes of address. This made for some funny moments, which are also really hard to describe in an interview.

Working on such a tight budget and schedule, I gave total freedom to the art director, Daniel Evans, to forge his own style of hipster/drifter aesthetic, and I encouraged the talent to go with their first impulse in regards to performance style. So as director I was more charged with making sense of their art rather than directing it. We worked with what we had ready to hand in closets and dumpsters and through contacts to get props and access to locations. To move more quickly I had the cinematographer respond to the action as though it were a documentary rather than working through explicit storyboards and camera moves. All this gives the film a raw, often laughably amateur look and style, and that's a big part of where we want the comedy to come from: the audience ought to have a good chuckle making sense of how and why this film came to be.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhere did the idea come from?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe film is a mock-ethnography of privileged urban youth who participate in clinical trials and work as youth consumer consultants to pay their rent and support their art projects. I thought about the project as a documentary about how my friends got by and gave meaning to their lives, but twisted to be even more uncanny and socially relevant. We were striving for a surreal aesthetic: to create a world similar enough to our own to elicit empathy and reflection from our audience but different enough to seed new possibilities for thought about wage relations, the pharmaceutical industry, retail marketing, and the social experience of contemporary American youth. My most explicit consideration of the issues in the film began with two classes at U of C: Professor Jean Comaroff's Medicine and Culture and Professor W. J. T Mitchell's Theories of Media. But my biggest influence was U of C alum David Graeber, AB'87, PhD'96, who was kicked out of the anthropology department at Yale a few years ago for being an anarchist. I had the cast read and deliver reports on two of his books: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat was the casting like?
QandA_ADrop.jpgCasting took a few months, we saw a lot of great people from DePaul’s Theater School (two of which we cast, Christina Nieves and Zach Kennedy) as well as Northwestern, Columbia College (one of whom we cast, Molly Plunk), and many other established folks in Chicago’s theater community, including Ricardo Gamboa, who plays one of the leads, Morris.
QandA_QDrop.jpgDid you know Angeline Gragasin, AB'07, who plays Lacey in the film?

QandA_ADrop.jpgRicardo had worked with Angeline Gragasin at Redmoon Theater, and while I had known Angeline from U of C, I didn’t think she would be nerdy/sheepish enough to play Lacey, who was supposed to come off as kind of the third wheel of the sexy lesbian couple Renee and Sandy. But Ricky said I had a skewed vision of what nerdy was, coming from the U of C, and that Angeline was more than nerdy enough and would be perfect for the role. After having been really involved in University Theater, Angeline had kind of stopped acting to focus on being a web guru, but when I met with her and told her about how unconventional the project was, she was really into it, particularly the fact that she would be playing a character who got eyeballs implanted in her wrists as part of a military experiment and had cubist vision, and that she would get to do some of this cubist cinematography herself.

QandA_QDrop.jpgThere's a scene in the movie that takes place in Valois. What happened in that scene?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe scene in Valois involves three of the characters, Renee, Sandy, and Lacey, who wait for patrons to get up and leave, and then run to tables to eat the leftovers before the busboys take the food away. They’re broke because they’ve recently spent all their money making LED throwies and setting up pirate radio broadcast antennas. While in Valois, Renee and Sandy convince Lacey to partake in a new caper.