A version of "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" sung by Liza Minnelli plays over the opening moments of "Four Days in Chicago," Haskell Wexler's documentary about the protesters who came to town last year during the NATO summit. As Liza sings of State Street, that great street, Wexler intercuts footage of helmeted police stationed downtown, dressed in quasi-military gear, their batons at the ready, a clutch of plastic tie handcuffs dangling suggestively from their uniforms.
As the song winds to a finish, Wexler's camera zooms in on a CTA bus and the digital sign that usually bears route info. Instead it flashes the words: "My kind of town."
Talk about your dissonance. It's an effective start to a film that Wexler made as a counterbalance to media coverage that focused on the potential for violence rather than the issues being protested. It screens Friday as part of the Chicago International Social Change Film Festival at the Showplace ICON.
In terms of subject matter, this isn't new territory for Wexler.
A Chicago native and Oscar-winning cinematographer whose credits include "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Wexler shot his film "Medium Cool" (a blend of fiction and nonfiction) in downtown Chicago during the height of chaos at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, getting tear-gassed in the process.
This time around, he's strictly working as a documentarian. He appears on camera throughout the film, toting a small digital camera himself, walking through the Loop in his denim shirt, sunglasses and baseball cap, looking to engage with anyone willing to talk.
He was 90 at the time, it seems worth mentioning. A small group of filmmakers was also on hand to capture footage, including Ron Pitts, the pioneering filmmaker who shot footage of the Chicago Bears in the 1960s for George Halas and was the first black professor hired to teach in Columbia College Chicago's film department. (In a sad coda, Pitts died last weekend.)
I reached Wexler at his home in Los Angeles recently and asked why he put himself in the film.
"That was because some young Chicago people (Wexler's collaborators on the project), most of them graduates of Columbia College, knew that I have a certain visibility in Chicago and that, as a filmmaker and as a Chicagoan, could allow the investigation that we were doing with our cameras to be seen by more people."
There's an irony to that observation because many of the non-protesters he stops to chat with are almost dismissive, gritting their teeth and just barely polite, as if to say: "Who is this old guy approaching me? I wish he'd bug off."
"Absolutely," Wexler said as I described the reaction he generated. Do you think any of these people knew they were talking to an Oscar winner, I asked? "Most of the people I talked to wouldn't give a (expletive) about Oscars and stuff like that!" (The film is available for purchase on DVD at fourdaysinchicago.com, and Wexler has been sending personal notes to those who order a copy.)
Later in the film, he stands outside a local news studio, which has a large window that opens onto the street. On this day it was conspicuously covered by a tarp -- "for security," Wexler says to the camera. "I think it's very symbolic that the people's media have to close themselves off to what's happening in this square. Very, very significant."
"I was not interested in what the media is desperately interested in," he told me, "someone throwing a brick or hitting someone on the head. They're not interested in the causes or the reasons or even the people involved (in the protests). There's not enough bing-bang in that." The film acts as a corrective, folding in the disparate causes that drew people to Chicago last year to demonstrate against NATO. They offered far from a unified message aside from the overwhelming sense of frustration.
The goal, as Wexler says in the film, was to "tell stories and make pictures that may not be out there if we didn't do it." Or as he put it when we spoke by phone: "They give us words like 'activist' -- as if someone who is interested in democracy and interaction is something separate and disorganized.
"When the establishment -- that means your newspaper, the media and the mayor of Chicago -- can maintain an element of fear about their own people exercising their democratic rights to speak against further wars, against austerity, I don't accept that. When they speak about 'We the people ...,' we the people have to have a voice. It can't just be the establishment voice."
This article ran in print originally on September 27, 2013.