Deborah Stratman’s ‘The Illinois Parables’ Examines Centuries of American Conflict


Of the dozens of (mostly) short- and medium-length works that Chicago-based artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman has made, I had previously seen only one, O’er the Land (2009), a taut, near-hour-long essay filled with firepower spectacles: French-Indian War reenactments, machine-gun festivals, and other types of ammo orgies in the U.S. It’s a powerful interrogation of militarism’s appeal to many in this country, a line of inquiry that’s followed, among several others, in The Illinois Parables.

Comprising eleven chapters that encompass fourteen centuries, the sixty-minute film, shot in 16mm, catalogs a history of calamities — natural, political — in the Land of Lincoln. Stratman often juxtaposes static, serene landscape footage with an increasingly agitated soundtrack, arriving at an odd consonance amid so much dissonance.

In the third episode, datelined Golconda-Jonesboro, 1838–1839, beautifully snow-blanketed copses contrast with an off-screen voice reading a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, outraged over the forced removal of the Cherokee, who passed through southern Illinois on the Trail of Tears.

Later installments consist of dense audio collages — of survivors’ recollections, of terrified cries — accompanying archival footage of houses and schools destroyed by fire or tornados. The penultimate chapter, in Chicago, 1969, features the film’s most idiosyncratic conceit and its most effective: a staged, present-day reenactment of the FBI’s reenactment of the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Blank-faced men in suits perform strange movements with their hands and arms, the abstracted gestures of police power made all the more sickening by their compulsive repetition.

The Illinois Parables
Directed by Deborah Stratman
Anthology Film Archives, November 16-22