PEORIA — Politics compelled Allison Walsh to make her first film.
“I was in my last year at Bradley University during the 2016 election,” said Walsh, 25, during a recent interview in Zion Coffee. “I wanted to do something. I wasn’t happy with the dialogue going on and I thought there was a way I could be a part of the protest. I thought I could become part of the U.S./Mexico dialogue.”
Walsh, who had very little training in video production, launched a Kickstarter campaign and bought her first video camera. Then she traveled to El Paso, Texas, where she stayed with relatives for two weeks while making a short film on the border crisis.
“Parallel Lines” focuses on a Juarez resident, who once worked as an undocumented maid in Austin, and a former U.S. border patrol agent. The result is a compassionate and artistically-rendered glimpse of real people living at the center of this politically-charged issue.
The 10-minute film, which was nominated for best documentary at the Paris Art and Movie Awards and was an official selection at Festival Sayulita, Mexico, was the start of Walsh’s career as a filmmaker.
Parallel Lines from Allison Walsh on Vimeo.
Today, she’s head of the Big Picture Film Festival happening Oct. 11/12 and making a living shooting videos for various organizations in central Illinois. She’s also planning her first full-length documentary. And even though she's from Chicago and recently finished a four-month documentary filmmaking internship with Kartemquin Films in Chicago, she has no plans to leave central Illinois.
“Stories happen everywhere. Peoria has a ton of stories not being told yet. I wouldn’t want to go some place where there is a lot of competition and we are all telling the same stories,” she said. “And there is a very warm, supportive art community here. For me, it’s so important to have support from the community and my friends.”
Walsh has met other filmmakers through the artist organization YAKU. She also met Doug and Eileen Leunig, founders of the Big Picture Initiative, the parent company of the annual festival, and last year they asked her to run the first Big Picture Film Festival.
Through the endeavor, Walsh became acquainted with even more filmmakers living in central Illinois.
“There are a lot of people who work in marketing who make short films on the side,” said Walsh. “There are also a number of freelance filmmakers and people who make creative films.”
The rising popularity of video as an art form is due, in part, to the fact that video equipment is much more accessible than it was in the past, said Doug Leunig.
“Back in the day when I was growing up, I had a desire to get involved in both photography and video, but it was very expensive to do anything in video,” he said. “Now everyone carries cellphones with built-in video cameras.”
Though anyone can make a video, it takes training to make a good one, said Eileen Leunig.
“To stand out you need to know more about technique and storytelling,” she said.
Part of the Big Picture Initiative’s mission is art education, so they recently equipped a video lab at Greeley School, the home of Art Inc. Earlier this summer, students in Art Inc.’s first summer camp learned filmmaking.
“Big Picture hired a student from the U of I to teach the class,” said Eileen Leunig. “Our hope is that it will continue through the school year, and we are talking to the Peoria Art Guild about co-sponsoring adult classes at Greeley.”
Filmmaking has the potential to be more than a hobby for anyone who learns the skill. The Leunigs are well aware of the economic potential of growing a filmmaking industry in central Illinois.
“Some states offer incentives to companies who make films in their state, and we have them in Illinois,” said Eileen Leunig. “You can make a film here at a lower cost than on the coasts, and there are so many great sets here, like Moss Avenue and the Warehouse District.”
Filmmakers employ a surprising amount of people in the course of making a film, said Doug Leunig.
“There are the drivers and the gaffers and the grips. It’s quite startling to think this one industry could hire many, many people, and that’s what we would like to see more of in central Illinois,” he said.
This year the Big Picture Film Festival is accepting submissions from filmmakers living all over the world. There are already a total of 56 submissions, and thanks to Walsh’s connections in Paris and Chicago, a few out-of-town submissions have already come in.
The film festival will run over two evenings. All accepted submissions will be screened on Friday, Oct. 11 in businesses along Main Street near Sheridan Road. The winning films will be shown again on Saturday at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
“They are all short films, up to 20-minutes long,” said Walsh. “And there are five categories: animation, narrative films, music videos, student films, and documentary.”
Though Walsh makes her living mostly by shooting videos for businesses, her heart is in documentary, which typically does not provide a financial return. Because she feels strongly about her documentary projects, she does fundraising to make them happen.
“I think those stories should be told,” she said.
Walsh is currently fundraising to produce a full-length documentary on a world religions class at her old high school in Mount Pleasant.
“I was a student of the class and it had such a profound effect on me,” said Walsh. “I’m excited to tell this story. I think religious literacy is something we really need right now in this country.”
Though a recent fundraising event at the Peoria Art Guild didn’t quite reach it’s monetary goal, Walsh was heartened by the amount of support she got from the community. It’s something she’s experienced repeatedly while living in Peoria.
“I had never seen 'community' as such an important part of my work and my life until I lived in Peoria. I love this place and it means a lot to me,” said Walsh, who has met others who feel the same way.
“They are entrepreneurs, developers, community advocates, creatives of all different kinds, and they really care about this place,” she said. “They want to make a difference and they see Peoria for all of its beauty and potential.”
Part of what makes Peoria attractive to Walsh and her peers is the low cost of living and easy commute.
“In Chicago, being an artist is much more difficult,” she said. “The two hours I’d be spending on the commute could be time I was spending on a project.”
Easy living allows for more creative experimentation, which ultimately fosters new ideas, said Walsh.
“Here there is less risk, especially with a film that may or may not work… I think it’s a really exciting time to be a part of the Peoria filmmaking community.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.