JoAnn Elam (1949-2009) is a central figure in the in the history of Chicago's experimental film community. Her short experimental and documentary films capture the spirit and ethos of a politically active, feminist, and socially conscious artist.
Elam's father, James O. Elam, was a well-respected and successful physician who specialized in anesthesiology. James O. Elam was a professor in Anesthesiology at the University of Chicago and is credited with developing a technique referred to as "rescue breathing" and numerous advances in clinical anesthesiology and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He made a number of films that document and promote the medical techniques he developed, including Rescue Breathing (mid 1950s), in which JoAnn Elam appears as a young child and demonstrates her father's rescue breathing technique on another child.
JoAnn Elam was very close to her mother # who very politically engaged and an active member of the League of Women Voters in Chicago.
After high school, Elam attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio for one year. She soon lost interest in getting a college degree, but liked the politically progressive lifestyle of the school and artistic community, so she stayed in Yellow Springs. She met her first husband, filmmaker Bill Brand, at Antioch during this time. In the late 1960s, the experimental film community that developed in and out of Antioch College was extremely vibrant, active, and influential. Paul Sharits was teaching there at the time, and Bill Brand was working with and for Sharits on various film and audio pieces. It is during this time that Elam began making films on 8mm.
Elam travelled quite a bit during the late 1960s, and spent the summer of 1967 (the "Summer of Love") in San Francisco. While she was in San Francisco, Elam would crash with friends and occasionally on the street, following her own desires, passions, and ideas about life. She supported herself with knitting, which she would sell or trade to friends and the people she met in Haight-Ashbury. Throughout Elam's life she was very dedicated to making things from scratch - knitted clothes, bread, cake, etc.
After Brand graduated from Antioch, he and Elam moved to Chicago where Brand began the MFA program in film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Although Elam wasn't a student at SAIC, she was very much a part of the community of experimental filmmakers that developed out of the film department at the School of the Art Institute in the early 1970s. Stan Brakhage was teaching at the school at the time, and JoAnn regularly attended his lectures, which were 4-5 hour talks and screenings on filmmakers ranging from D.W. Griffith to Sergei Eisenstein to more contemporary experimental film artists. Some of Elam's friends and fellow experimental filmmakers during this time included Saul Levine, Coleen Fitzgibbon, and Marjorie Keller, among others.
Filmmakers such as Elam, Levine, and Keller who were making films on Regular 8mm and Super-8mm film at the time were considered a minority group within the experimental film community. Some of the (mostly) male filmmakers who worked in 16mm film looked down on artists such as Elam who chose to work in the less expensive, consumer, home movie format of 8mm. At the time Elam was shooting on 8mm film, it was already considered to be an outdated format (superseded by the introduction of Super 8mm film) and cameras and film stock were relatively inexpensive. 8mm cameras and editing equipment were portable and allowed the filmmaker to work at home, which was a part of the appeal for an artist without institutional access and support like Elam. The 8mm experimental film scene at this time was extremely vibrant and active, and filmmakers such as Levine, Keller and Elam developed a very particular aesthetic out of the constraints and possibilities afforded by the small gauge medium.
The 8mm films that Elam made during the 1970s and 80s captured various aspects of life in Chicago, domestic spaces, and everyday people. There wasn't a strong division between the styles of experimental cinema and documentary filmmaking in the community at this time, and Elam's films employed experimental shooting and editing strategies while simultaneously documenting of various aspects of her life, community of friends, filmmakers and artists, and the city of Chicago.
The merging of documentary and experimental aesthetics would become more pronounced in the films that Elam is most recognized for, Rape (1975) and Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982). These two films are probing feminist examinations of sexual assault and the representation of women, and utilize experimental techniques in order to call into question the way in which women are depicted on screen. Both Rape and Lie Back and Enjoy It are referenced in several key texts on documentary and feminist cinema, and are fascinating examples of Elam's interest in merging radical form and technique with radical political content.
JoAnn Elam, Bill Brand, Warner Wada, and Dan O'Chiva formed Chicago Filmmakers (initially called Filmgroup, with screenings held at N.A.M.E. Gallery) in 1973 with the intention of showing challenging contemporary experimental work and films that were being made by local artists - work which they felt were neglected by the more institutional and established venues in Chicago. Elam was actively involved in programming and the day-to-day operations (including keeping track of the group's financial records, since she was a gifted mathematician) of Chicago Filmmakers. One of the goals of these early screenings at Chicago Filmmakers was to have the filmmaker in attendance to discuss her/his work, and filmmakers would often travel to these screenings in exchange for a small amount of money, a bed to crash on, and some dinner.
JoAnn Elam became friends with Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage during this time, around 1974, as Kleinhans and Lesage were starting the cinema journal Jump Cut. The Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, headed by Camille Cook and B. Ruby Rich, had just started as well. About once or twice a month JoAnn Elam, B. Ruby Rich, Linda Williams (who was teaching at the UIC circle campus, Chicago), Stephanie Goldberg, Julia Lesage, Chuck Kleinhans, and various other artists, filmmakers, scholars, and enthusiasts associated with Jump Cut and Chicago Filmmakers would have a dinner party followed by a screening of films by the people in attendance. This group of colleagues and friends adopted the name "The Rhinos" after walking to a screening at Kartemquin on a cold winter evening, and having a group of kids throw snowballs at them and tell them that they looked like a group of Rhinos.
In 1973, Elam began working at the US Post Office. The Post Office has historically been an attractive workplace for intellectuals and artists, and Elam saw it as conducive to her artistic sensibility, her belief in supporting and working in a socially and racially diverse workplace, and her need to meet the economic demand of regular wage. Elam worked for the US Post Office, primarily in Logan Square, for 10 years. During this time she formed a strong social network with her fellow employees, and met her second husband, Joe Hendrix. There was a huge postal strike in 1980 and Elam was very politically engaged with the postal workers union and labor rights issues. She documented a number of union rallies and protests, as well as her fellow letter carriers during this time. She had a strong personality and set of personal ethics, and often questioned authority. Unwilling to be silent when faced with unjust practices, Elam would stand up for her beliefs even if this meant she faced resistance from post office management.
Elam's unfinished project, Everyday People (1979-1990), is based on her experiences as a letter carrier for the US Postal Service in Chicago, the various people she met while on the job, the political struggles they faced with the administration and the union, and larger issues related to the history of labor struggle and activism in the United States. Everyday People was influenced by Harry Braverman's analysis of the working conditions under capitalism, and Elam integrated these ideas into her study of USPS letter carriers, union members and protests, and the various ways in which USPS workers negotiated the system and the conditions of their employment. The form of the film changed as she continued to work on it, and combined experimental and observational documentary techniques in a radical manner. She screened the film in various stages of progress to both letter carriers and union members.
Elam maintained numerous journals and notebooks on the film project, in additional to creating approximately 250 film, video and audio elements. These notes and materials provide an unparalleled level of access to her creative process, political and artistic ideas, and the practical, economic, and ethical issues that impacted her work as an independent artist and filmmaker.
After working at the Post Office, JoAnn went on to work as a tax preparator. This was initially seasonal work, and she would eventually complete a BS degree in accounting from Northeastern University. She worked as a bookkeeper for various artists, activists, local arts organizations and the League of Women Voters, and saw this work as part of a larger mission to encourage fiscal responsibility and stability for artists and arts organizations. She loved to garden and worked to attain status as a "Master Gardener." She worked to help landscape and develop gardens in various communities in the city of Chicago, and often spoke of a fantasy of letter carriers also being master gardeners, delivering the mail, seeds, and gardening advice to their neighborhood. As Chuck Kleinhans commented in his remembrance of JoAnn, "a perfect evening for her was a gathering of friends, a meal of fresh fruits and vegetables from her garden (supplemented by her husband's Southern style barbeque), and rhubarb pie or chocolate cake followed by several people screening past films and works-in-progress."
-Chicago Film Archive