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Interview: "The Painter" Addresses Violence With Art

When it comes to movie length, two hours seems to be the bare minimum; even the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” clocks in at 138 minutes. Yet a short film such as “The Painter” delivers as much of an emotional wallop as its long-running counterparts.

Written and directed by Kevin Cooper (“I Heart Shakey”), the film, which is part of the PBS Shorts Showcase, features a dialogue between a young painter and an unseen adult. Living in a violent neighborhood, this boy uses his art to express feelings about the world in which he lives.

“One of the challenges of making a short film is positing a question in the audience’s mind and getting them to actually want to watch it for 10 minutes,” Cooper explained when reached via telephone for an exclusive interview. “That’s a long time in the world of the Internet.”

The director added that his main character is not a real boy. Instead, the youthful painter represents all boys who lose their innocence in a violent culture.

“In a way, he’s an old man in a young boy’s body,” Cooper said. “He wears small glasses, he drinks coffee. He has a tattoo. In my mind, the backstory of that character is he stopped growing up when the violence started. Like Benjamin Button, he’s an old man in a young boy’s body.”

The Chicago-based Amarok Productions worked with UCAN and Youth Guidance, two organizations that help children in high-risk neighborhoods. The director expressed deep affection and love for Chicago, but he says the violence there puts the violence in other cities to shame.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. I have this deep adoration for the city, and yet I think it is very easy to turn a blind eye, pretend like it’s not happening,” he explained. “One of the reasons is that there are certain neighborhoods that people just stay away from. Being a Midwesterner, that was the big draw for me: to tell a story that affects all of us.”

Like the young painter, some Chicago residents feel trapped in the neighborhoods where they were born. Cooper wondered what he could do to make a difference in these areas:.

“I’m an artist, so I thought at least just express yourself and talk about the frustration, the tragedy. That’s really the prime motivation, this crossroads between art and activism. And trying to do what I can as an artist,” he said.

“That was one of the parts of the filmmaking process that I thought was rewarding. We cast and worked in those parts of Chicago. We brought people into the filmmaking process. For example, we had young people that shadowed us: some shadowed the cinematographer, some shadowed the producer and me, the director.”

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