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Meet Chicago’s next big director, Minhal Baig

No one’s story is simple, and writer-director Minhal Baig’s third feature, “We Grown Now,” tries to portray its main characters—two boys growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing projects in 1992 and then drifting apart—as watchful takes care. , multi-layered individuals with many tales inside them.

Baig is in the same situation. Now 34, he grew up in a Pakistani-American Muslim household in Rogers Park, attended high school at Northside College Prep, where he would film many scenes for his second, semi-autobiographical feature film. “So” (2019)It is produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company and is currently streaming on Apple TV.

When I first saw “We Grown Now” before its U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, it struck me not only as a vital and important event. nice addition It belongs to the list of important Chicago films about Chicago, but as a film that highlights its own style of poetic realism.

From the beginning, his short films looked like a million and stood out without being overly slick. Now Sony Pictures Classics has also shown interest and has begun distributing “We Grown Now” for a commercial release scheduled for spring 2024.

“When I was growing up,” Baig told me, “I would always see the Sony Pictures Classics blue logo screen coming up and I knew I was in for something good. So I feel very lucky that (co-chairs) Michael Barker and Tom Bernard understood exactly what we were going for with our movie.” “They looked.”

Following its sold-out Oct. 11 CIFF screening, Baig told the festival’s artistic director, Mimi Plauché, that the purpose of telling “We Grown Now” from a child’s perspective was simply to dramatize that “these lives should never feel too small to be underestimated.” on the big screen.”

I spoke with Baig at the Hyde Park apartment she had just purchased and shared with her husband, film production executive Michael Finfer, who lives in Los Angeles. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: So you’re back. Do you mostly live here now?

A: Yes. My father passed away in 2013. It’s strange to think how ten years have passed. I was working in Los Angeles at the time and came back for what I thought would be a summer. It’s finally been two years. At the time, I was struggling with the death of my father and realized that we all have time, no matter how short. It’s time to do something. Do something. This is where my movie “Hala” came from.

The “We Grown Now” experience came about when my siblings and I were trying to figure out what to do with our family home, the first house my father bought in Rogers Park. My family still owns the place, but after he died it became difficult to live there. I wanted to explore this idea of ​​home, but not in a directly autobiographical way, which I had done with “Hala” (about a Pakistani Muslim teenager’s senior year at a high school in Chicago). This time I had to deal with a perspective that wasn’t my own.

After college, I moved back to Chicago and at the time, Cabrini-Green’s last skyscraper had been demolished in 2011. I started reading. Ben Austen’s book “High-Risers” follows the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green. Ben was one of the first people I talked to about reaching out to Cabrini-Green residents and talking to them about what this place means to them.

There I started hearing all these stories about daily life. One of the people I interviewed, Tremayne Johnson, was a kid there in the ’90s, and he talked about jumping off mattresses and skipping school, and then he invited me to interview his whole family. They were there at the festival screening last night. His family had lived there for generations and immigrated here from Mississippi. So the interviews and all the research took several years.

Writer-director Minhal Baig outside her home in Hyde Park, Chicago, October 16, 2023.

Q: Have you encountered any skepticism from people about having an outsider come in to tell the Cabrini-Green story?

A: I think the Cabrini-Green community, which remains really strong and engaged, has a justified wariness of representation that feels exploitative. When I began the interview process, I initially expected some resistance. But almost everyone I spoke to shared their story. Mostly they were just wondering: Why do you want to hear about my life in Cabrini-Green in the ’90s? It helped that I was from Chicago. Even though I have been away for a long time, I have been coming back frequently for work and family reasons in the last five or six years after my father’s death.

Q: Can you review your timeline for me?

A: I graduated from Northside College Prep in 2008, then graduated from Yale in 2012. I graduated from the fine arts department. And painting. I also studied playwriting and thought that might be my career path. But I always saw theater as a ladder that I didn’t know how to climb. I wanted to find a way to combine writing with visual storytelling, and film felt like the right medium. I worked in the mailroom at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles and then as an assistant to a TV literary agent. I don’t think I lasted seven months.

Q: Why was that?

A: I wasn’t a bad assistant, I just felt my spirit was crushed. Slowly. I am a person who has to achieve everything I set my heart on, so if I decide to become a development manager or producer, I will try as much as possible in this regard. But I couldn’t see myself happy there. All the aspiring artists out there, the assistants, the people in the mailroom, anyone with a desire to write or direct, were hoping to turn what they had into something more. And I realized that it didn’t turn into anything for me (laughs). So I left to do my own thing.

Around Thanksgiving of that year, 2012, I received news that my father was not doing well. So I left Los Angeles to come back to Chicago. And passed the next April. Two years after that, I came back to Los Angeles with the intention of making a movie. Because by then I had written “Still”. (His first film was the micro-budget “1 Night”.)

I think that was the last conversation I had with my father, right before he went into a coma. The whole conversation was about dreams; It was about how he had all these dreams when he moved here from Pakistan. We were talking on the phone and I was telling him about my job as an assistant and how I wasn’t feeling happy. Then he brought up his own unhappiness, which was a shock to me. I never heard of my father being dissatisfied with his career or how it all turned out.

When I returned to Chicago, after he passed away, I started working in retail (at a video game store where he encountered all kinds of high school friends) and wrote the rest of the time. My goal was to get out of Chicago again, back to Los Angeles, and find a way to do “Still.”

Question: Can you tell us about your next project?

A: I can talk a little bit about that. I’m working on a noir drama for Amazon and it’s still in the writing stages. We haven’t released the episodes yet. We started again this week (after the strike).

Q: So what’s your next feature?

A: I’m in this place where I lost my father 10 years ago, and my mother became seriously ill while we were in the production of “We Grown Now.” He is currently in hospice care with end-stage dementia, and his decline is very different from my father’s. The end was sudden; she went to the hospital and passed away 17 days later. My mother has been declining cognitively for the last 10, 12 years. It feels like I’ve lost it in pieces over time.

The next movie explores some of this. I don’t consider myself a very old person, but I’ve struggled with some… weight, I guess. It was difficult to make a movie while all this was going on. It was a period when I devoted most of my time to myself and my work, and my personal relationships with my mother and family suffered. I was so far away. That was part of why I finished the movie; I realized that I needed to change my priorities in life.

Q: This is a huge burden.

Call.

Question: I wonder how all this will make you feel ten years from now? Maybe you can write a way to get rid of this. Or through him.

A: Yes. I always write my way out of things.

Question: So why Hyde Park?

A: For a long time, I wrote a lot of articles at Build Coffee, the coffee house in Experimental Station. Do you know that place? This is great. I call this the cultural center of Hyde Park. Artists, journalists, activists, South Side Weekly, Hyde Park Herald, many people from the University of Chicago are there. It feels like my community.

I’ve always loved this place. I wanted to be near the lake. And I spent a lot of time on the North Side growing up. Rogers Park is beautiful, but I needed a change of pace.

During a panel yesterday (CIFF) a question arose: “What do you feel like you’re missing as a filmmaker in Chicago? Do you think you are missing opportunities by being here?” For years, I felt like I would be missing out if I left Los Angeles. And then I realized that my own working process is simple: I need somewhere to write, to incubate something very quietly and carefully. And then when I need to put it out into the world, I’ll interact with the rest of the world.

“We Grown Now” will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in early 2024.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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