The University of Chicago News Office
May 17, 2002 Press Contact: Julia Morse
(773) 702-8359

Full-length feature film about mime, made by student groups and funded by a $10,000 University grant, to debut at Doc Films

The age-old struggle between father and son. Religious allegory. References to Marx and Hegel. Mimes. What else could one ask for in a feature film?

Haunting Pierrot’s Ghost, a collaborative project by University Theatre and filmmaking club Fire Escape Productions, offers all this and more. The film will debut at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, May 26 at Doc Films, Max Palevsky Cinema, 1212 E. 59th St. Tickets cost $4. For directions, call the 24-hour Doc hotline at (773) 702-8575.

Haunting Pierrot’s Ghost, written and directed by alumnus Nima Bassiri (A.B.’01), was made with the support of a $10,000 grant from UChicagoArts, the University of Chicago’s new arts funding body. The genre-defying film tells the story of Byron Delacroix (Brendan Donaldson), the son of a famous French mime artist who died when Byron was a baby. In the attempt to find out more about his father, Byron encounters Spectre, a mime troupe whose homeless, starving members survive in the basements of University of Chicago buildings. Drawn into the culture of mime, Byron tries to resist by bringing the mimes out from underground and onto the stage–with unexpected, tragic results.

Bassiri first came up with the idea for a collaborative UT-Fire Escape project last spring, and proposed it to Jeff Sousa, Fire Escape’s incoming president. Though Bassiri had only the roughest idea for a storyline–“I didn’t even have the mime thing yet,” he said–Sousa was immediately interested.

Not wanting to write a script about “a guy and a girl and a dog,” Bassiri eventually settled on the idea of mime: “I don’t know of any movies about mime, except Children of Paradise from 1945,” he said. The fact that mime is so reviled also intrigued him. “The earliest mimes were really heavily Marxist. It was revolutionary theater for them–a new style of theater that laid the groundwork for performance art. But then it fizzled out and became a joke. That interested me: at what point does a form die, become a shell?”

Even more intriguing, the hatred of mime seems to be an American phenomenon, he said. “Europeans don’t perceive mime in a negative way. Mime for them is a very important aspect of theater, a distinctly European theater. But in American culture it’s problematic. Perhaps because of the lingering political tension associated with mime as a result of its heavily Marxist roots. Perhaps because of the European connection it carries.”

Over the summer, Bassiri hashed out a rough script and even rougher storyboards; pre-production began in the fall quarter. After an open casting call brought 300 headshots and 50 auditions but “no results,” Bassiri said, the film was cast with a combination of students (fourth-year Eric Pogrelis, third-year Bryson Engelen), alumni (Avram Klein, A.B.’01; Dan Stearns, A.B.’91, A.M.’93), and friends of friends.

By winter quarter, the group had not only won financial support from both UT and Fire Escape, but also a $10,000 grant from UChicagoArts. The film wrapped on April 20 after an all-day shoot requiring the closing of Blackstone Ave. between 57th and 58th streets.

While Hyde Park and University of Chicago locations figure heavily in the film, viewers will not necessarily recognize what they see. Some scenes were shot in the crypt under Rockefeller Chapel, others in the old ballroom of Shoreland Residence Hall, currently being used “as a storage space for old furniture and general junk,” said fourth-year Tony Gannon, the project’s art director. “It elicited images of a past greatness. I don't think I would have wanted to shoot in any other space on this campus or even Chicago.”

Unusually, Pierrot’s Ghost was partly shot on video, partly on film–a decision that ties in with one of the project’s main themes, the complicated relationship between father and son. “Video is like the son of film,” said Bassiri. “People say that video is cheaper, and eventually we won’t need film anymore. It’s just like a son saying I won’t ever need my father anymore.”

In the actual making of Pierrot’s Ghost, however, the film/video relationship is mirrored by a father/daughter relationship: the project’s main cinematographer, fourth-year Kristina Nikolova, is the daughter of two well-known Bulgarian cinematographers. While Kristina was responsible for shooting the basic narrative of the movie on video, her father, Georgi Nikolova, was flown in from Bulgaria to shoot the mime performances on film. Both the video and film sections feature a “roaming camera,” Kristina explained. “The camera often pans away while an actor is still talking, looks around the space and pans back to the actor. This prepares the viewer for the final disappearance of the mimes and asks the question whether they were ever there.”

None of the actors in the film had ever performed as mimes before, so they had to teach themselves “a vocabulary of movement we all could share,” said Engelen. While he does not plan to start performing in parks anytime soon, using his body more expressively was a skill worth learning, he said: “I think mime is useful for the actor in training him how to convey an idea with the body, not just use the body to support the spoken word. There is a language of the body that is outside speech.”

The film’s opening at Doc is not so much a premiere as a test screening; the filmmakers plan to pass out surveys afterward to measure audience reaction. Eventually, they would like to submit Pierrot’s Ghost to student film festivals around the country.

“The project is really very University of Chicago, in that it’s so ambitious,” said Director of UT Heidi Coleman, who advised the group on its UChicagoArts grant application. “Anywhere else, the students might have been encouraged to scale it back, make a ten-minute short. But here, they’re not doing anything halfway.”

Bassiri, who was involved with both Fire Escape and UT as an undergraduate, credits UT with teaching him and many of the actors and crew members how to work so quickly. “UT is very rigorous. Two years ago, UT was doing 30 shows a year. That’s a lot. So I thought, one project? Over a year? No problem.”

Additional contact:
Nima Bassiri

Print-quality photos are available.

For more information and a complete schedule go to
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

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