St. Olaf professor makes directorial debut with “The Area”

College professors are extremely profound people. Most, if not all, lead provocative and interesting lives outside of the classroom. This is especially true for St. Olaf Professor of Sociology and Anthropology David Schalliol, who made his directorial debut this fall with his documentary “The Area.”

The film premiered to a sold-out house at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest Festival in August. Now, three months later, director, producer and professor Schalliol gets the chance to share his documentary with the St. Olaf community.

“’The Area is a five-year odyssey of a South Side Chicago neighborhood, where more than 400 African-American families are being displaced by a multi-billion dollar freight company. The documentary film follows homeowner-turned-activist Deborah Payne, who vows to be the last house standing, and the Row Row Boys, teen friends who must start a new life across gang lines,” according to the film’s website.

“The Area” sheds light upon topics not often addressed in media, such as gentrification, poverty and urban decay as seen through abandonment of buildings.

The latter of these three ideas is what really drew Schalliol’s attention.

“Architectural photography is something that has always interested me,” Schalliol said. “When you photograph or film a building, respect is being promoted. These visuals give homes the attention that other buildings get.”

Schalliol’s interest in urban photography grew out of his PhD project at the University of Chicago, where he documented buildings around the city which were scheduled for demolition.

“I had been working on a project that was attempting to see the effects of the demolition of homes,” said Schalliol. “This film was an attempt to contextualize that dynamic. Since I had already been doing work in the city with demolition within South Side neighborhoods, the two things converged.”

The entire documentary reflected a unique style. Many of the perspectives included in the film consisted of extended shots of individual buildings, apartment blocks or empty lots. These shots were essentially extended photographs, used to add emphasis or importance to certain locations at certain times.

“The language of architectural photography is an aesthetic reminder of the significance of these homes.” – David Schalliol

Often, as in the title shot of the film, these photograph-like scenes captured the demolition of homes within the Englewood neighborhood. 

“I use lenses that aren’t often used in filmmaking,” Schalliol said, alluding to the shift-tilt function that allowed the director to capture the top of homes without having to physically turn the camera upwards. “Coming from my background with architectural photography, I wanted to give the homes the respect that they deserve.”

This idea of respect and reverence was highlighted by Schalliol’s unique filmmaking style.

“The language of architectural photography is an aesthetic reminder of the significance of these homes,” Schalliol said.

This unique, photography-driven style highlights the importance of place, an emphasis critical to the message of the film.

After the film finished, I found myself very emotional. Through the story of Deborah and her community’s impassioned, yet futile, fight against the corporate titan of Norfolk Southern, viewers were able to truly connect with the plight of these Chicagoans.

Schalliol’s directorial style allowed viewers to form a deep connection with his film.

Schalliol was excited to share his film with students.

“I’m eager to hear the wide range of responses,” Schalliol said. “This film gives students the ability to look beyond particulars. Different students will share different opinions and experiences when watching the film. It’s exciting.”

“The Area” has two upcoming screenings in December at Kennedy-King College and the Weinberg/Newton Gallery on Dec. 3 and 6, respectively. Schalliol hopes to continue spreading the film around the country, so more people can find their own connections with Deborah and her community’s struggle.

“The most important thing is that people are connecting with the film,” Schalliol said. “The film is doing something.”

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