By Amy Skjerseth
Avery LaFlamme, currently a third year PhD student in CMS, also received his bachelor’s degree from UChicago. He started by studying Political Science, and then, after his advisor suggested that he take some film courses, majored in Cinema and Media Studies as well. “I started to take courses that were cross-listed in both CMST and PLSC,” LaFlamme says. “My plan was to try for both majors, to deepen my understanding of political media and film history, and then ultimately to work in documentary production.” He wrote his BA thesis on an animated documentary on the abduction crisis in southern Sudan. While doing so, he worked as a freelance videographer, a commercial photographer, and an editing intern at a documentary production house. “But despite my angling for a career in production, it was my work as an intern with Black Cinema House that initiated my turn back to the university.”
Working with Black Cinema House between college and graduate school, LaFlamme nurtured his longstanding interest in Black film and documentary. “I gained a more specific interest in the social life of Black film, the sites of its exhibition, and the communities of artists and spectators that produced it and were produced by it.” Black Cinema House is a project of Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit founded by Theaster Gates in part to create new spaces for arts programming on the South Side of Chicago. It hosts free screenings and discussions of Black films, inviting artists, academics, and residents for screenings that range from classics to works-in-progress. While LaFlamme worked at Black Cinema House, he became increasingly excited by the conversations and screenings that were happening in South Shore. “I started to miss the opportunity to really sit with a film and study it, to question its form and effects, and to explore the various histories that coincide with its production and exhibition,” LaFlamme recalls. “I wanted a chance to return to some of the questions I had only begun to explore as an undergraduate about Black film and about documentary ethics, and I also wanted to explore the histories of Black film exhibition—basically, I wanted to attempt a project that would question and historicize spaces like Black Cinema House.” His desire to support programs like Black Cinema House as a film scholar and programmer also inspired his return to graduate school. In the future, he hopes it will be possible to found new initiatives that make use of university talent and resources to develop programming for communities beyond campus.
Since LaFlamme stayed in Chicago after graduation, he has maintained his connections to many of the same people and organizations that he worked with as a BA student. His BA thesis advisor, Professor Jacqueline Stewart, also supervised his internships with Black Cinema House and the South Side Home Movie Project. “Most recently, I’ve been working on some virtual programming with SSHMP called Spinning Home Movies, where Chicago-based artists are invited to build a compilation of films from the SSHMP collection scored to an original audio mix,” LaFlamme says. “It’s been an interesting new space for a different kind of film viewing, and also let me get back to some production work that I’ve been away from for a while.” In the first year of his PhD, he also continued to support fundraising efforts and arts programming at Kaleidoscope, a child welfare organization that he worked with in the years after graduating. “I’ve also been lucky to have a network of friends around the city, many of whom I’ve known since my first week of college. Having to explain what it is that a film PhD student ‘does’ to a bunch of mid-20s pre-professionals ironically has helped me answer that question for myself.”
During his doctoral coursework, LaFlamme has become more and more excited by the possibilities of working in the archive. “I’m fascinated by the social lives of Black artists just as film was beginning to emerge. I’m captivated by the glimpses we’re afforded in film fragments, newspaper clippings, and recordings of Black artists that explored new possibilities for Black performance by pushing against the anti-Black formations of the stage, the set and the city. I’d love to continue enriching our understanding of these figures and these early films, and beyond that, I’d like to bring that work into contact with some of the more recent questions posed in Black studies by Afropessimist thinkers about the structural impossibility of the Black human subject.” LaFlamme also hopes to find ways to collaborate with people outside of the university. “I’d love to stay involved in projects to challenge the university to redress its long history of policing and displacement and disinvestment in Black study,” he says. Other projects might align with his interests in contemporary Black film exhibition or the accelerating pipeline of streaming documentaries. “I’d also like to explore the already well-studied world of Black music and minstrelsy, but maybe with a focus on the communities and technologies of digital music production.”
In Spring Quarter, LaFlamme will serve as a course assistant for Daniel Morgan’s section of Film and the Moving Image. “This is will be my first experience teaching in a university setting, and I’m both eager and anxious,” he says. “The opportunity to teach was one of the reasons I decided to apply to graduate school, so some part of me expects to learn a lot about myself and about my own progress during this initial effort.” LaFlamme has taught before in other settings, mostly as a teaching-artist for middle schoolers. He is sure that leading sections of undergraduates in a college course will be very different from supervising squirming adolescents on summer afternoons, but he wonders which parts of his past experiences will emerge as strengths in this context. He is also curious about remote teaching. “I’m nervous about trying to connect with students over Zoom, but perhaps we’ll all benefit from all the creative work and troubleshooting that other graduate students and faculty have been doing since March to make the most of remote learning.”
Throughout COVID-19, LaFlamme has had quite the varied media diet. When he relocated back to his parents’ house in the suburbs of Detroit at the start of the pandemic, he watched their selections. “My dad really likes self-serious action movies and historical dramas, so I finally sat through a cable matinee of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. He loved it. My mom likes to watch the same movies over and over, so (re)watching School Daze while she quoted all the lines was another highlight. My younger sister is more of Netflix binge-watcher, and without the roulette of Tiger King, Great British Bake Off, and Insecure, I’m not sure how I would’ve been able to tell time. Another unexpected blessing of the pandemic was what felt like a surge in online screenings and exhibitions, so I also had a chance to see some things that had been on my list like Melvonna Ballenger’s Rain and Reece Auguiste’s Twilight City. But in the end, the solo, virtual screening can’t really compete with watching Trolls World Tour with my family.”