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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “The City Dark” Director Ian Cheney

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "The City Dark" Director Ian Cheney

“The City Dark” chronicles the disappearance of darkness. When filmmaker Ian Cheney moves to New York City and discovers skies almost completely devoid of stars, a simple question – what do we lose, when we lost the night? – spawns a journey to America’s brightest and darkest corners. Astronomers, cancer researchers, ecologists and philosophers provide glimpses of what is lost in the glare of city lights; blending a humorous, searching tone with poetic footage of the night sky, what unravels is an introduction to the science of the dark, and an exploration of the human relationship to the stars. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“The City Dark”
Documentary Competition
Director: Ian Cheney
Producer: Ian Cheney
Cinematographer: Taylor Gentry
Editor: Ian Cheney, Frederick Shanahan
Music: The Fishermen Three, Ben Fries

Responses courtesy of “The City Dark” director Ian Cheney.

Stumbling into filmmaking…

Admittedly, I’m not one of those people who grew up watching a million movies, who made his first movie with a camera bought from scraped-together nickels, who has forever dreamed of the silver screen. Nah. I grew up writing a lot of bad nonfiction, and taking a lot of what-I-considered-artsy still photographs, but rarely thought my interest in journalism and my attraction to the arts could find common outlet in any sort of career. Fortunately, I stumbled into documentary filmmaking through my interest in food and agriculture during my first film, “King Corn.” 

With my best friend Curt and his cousin Aaron, we wanted to unravel the ways in which the American food system was, well, broken. Too much junk food, too few sustainable farms — but how do you get modern young people interested in agriculture? Trying to weave together a story and a message with some degree of artistry and humor was an infectious challenge — a challenge I believe is inherent, if not unique, to filmmaking. It makes for a lot of long, frustrating days in the editing room, but I’m now one of those people who scrape together nickels to buy a new camera…

Falling in love with the night sky…

Most of the photographs I took when I was a kid were taken at night. Spending a lot of my childhood in rural Maine, I fell in love with the night sky and wanted to try and capture it as best I could. I used a Pentax camera borrowed from my Dad, a high school photography teacher, and experimented with different long exposures using an unforgivable amount of Dad’s Kodak Gold film. And spending so many nights out under the stars, I became something of an amateur astronomer as a teenager, even building my own telescope out of an old cardboard construction tube.

But as I grew up and spent more and more time in cities, my connection to the stars faded. If I paused to wonder what this disconnection meant, I couldn’t put it into words, and rarely thought if mattered much. Why would we need the stars? But then a few years ago, I heard that someone calculated that for the first time in history, the world was now a predominantly urban population, with more of us living in cities than in the countryside. It occurred to me that my own migration from countryside to city – and from dark, starry skies to bright, electric lights – mirrored the world’s demographic shift in a rather startling way. With so few of us growing up with a connection to the stars, might we be losing something rather fundamental? The more I thought about it, the more I felt I had lost something — something I couldn’t put my finger on.

The science of the night…

I started with a simple question: “why do we need the stars?” And clearly the first people to talk to were astronomers. And though they wove together an impressive array of astronomy-based answers for why we should be able to see a clear night sky – to detect earth-killing asteroids, say, or to discover what the universe is actually made of – many of them pushed me towards thinking outside the observatory, in two main ways.

First, it was clear that many of the astronomers I spoke to, especially the unpaid amateur astronomers, felt a kind of spiritual or emotional connection to the stars, much the way a person might feel an affection for a beautiful mountain, ocean view, or city park. Are the stars part of nature? How can we define what we gain from seeing the universe? Does human culture somehow need the context of the greater cosmos, to help us keep things in perspective? These intangible lines of inquiry became the undercurrent of the film, alongside another realm of inquiry that the astronomers pushed me towards: the science of the night. Given that the planet earth has evolved for billions of years with a very consistent rhythm of light and dark, might the sudden introduction of electric light affect more than our view of the stars?

“The City Dark” also engages the relatively new field of the ecology of the night in an attempt to understand how our loss of darkness is affecting humans and wildlife. In all, the visual treatment of the film carries these two lines of inquiry forward by weaving together more poetic, meditative footage of the night sky with handheld footage of real people exploring these issues by day.

Making it fun to watch…

As an inherently idea-driven film concept, a core challenge was figuring out how to weave it together narratively, and make it fun to watch. Fortunately, there was also a real, honest journey built into the making of the film; my own search for an understanding of the meaning of the night, which in the film becomes a kind of proxy for the viewer’s journey. Meeting quirky characters – from asteroid hunters to dead bird collectors – and building a visual home-base for the film in New York became helpful ways of giving the narrative momentum, and in the end the film reflects a real evolution of ideas and experiences over the past three years. (And of course, the real challenge was paying the bills!)

Hitting up the oxygen tank…

One astronomer told me a rather appealing story that I wasn’t able to fit into the film. Apparently our eyes don’t work well at high altitudes where all the big observatories lurk — not enough oxygen. But the skies are clearest up there, with less atmosphere getting in the way, so the telescopes are up there all the same. Anyway, this one astronomer found an oxygen tank that they keep for emergencies, went out on the mountainside, let his eyes adjust to the dark, and then took a big hit of oxygen — he said it was like someone up in the sky had suddenly switched on the lights, there were so many stars filling the sky, more than he’d seen.

Future projects…

With my colleague Tamara Rosenberg I’m developing a film about lost and dying arts; with my longtime collaborator Curt Ellis and with writer Jenny 8 Lee I’m producing a film about Chinese food called “The Search for General Tso;” and I’m completing a short film about Appalachian Melungeons entitled “Vardaman’s Valley.”

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