Reeling Film Festival 2022 shows the work of Chicago Norm Bruns


Norm Bruns had no formal training as a filmmaker: his camera came from a garage sale, his cast members were friends, and his sets were homemade. Despite all this, he worked at a breakneck pace in the early 1980s and created films that were quickly compared to the greatest of all time.

His grainy short films – shot with a Super 8 camera, mostly in black and white – have won acclaim in the Chicago Reader in 1982 as “Amazingly Safe and Weird” and shown at the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1989 – the year before his death from AIDS.

Norm Bruns in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Bruns family

After his death at age 40, Bruns’ films went unscreened for almost three decades. They were sometimes talked about in an almost mythical way among Super 8 enthusiasts, but they were mostly considered long-lost art, said Josh B. Mabe, a local filmmaker.

Now, thanks to Mabe’s determination and perhaps a touch of movie magic, Chicago audiences will be reintroduced to Bruns’ work at the 40th Annual Reeling Film Festival – formerly known as the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival which showed its work over 30 years ago.

Barbara Scharres, who wrote the Reader article on Bruns, compared his “extremely ghostly” films to the work of French filmmaker Jean Cocteau and avant-garde American filmmakers like Maya Deren and Curtis Harrington.

“It is all the more surprising that Bruns is largely foreign to the tradition in which his work clearly falls,” writes Scharres.

The Lost Films of Norm Bruns

Mabe, a Chicago librarian, had gone looking for these “ghost” movies once around 2012. In an effort to find a relative, he called all the Browns he could find in Cook County, but is arrived empty-handed. Mabe decided in 2019 to once again try to find the work of a man he never met, but whose lost films were legendary in some quarters.

Using a genealogy database, Mabe said she found an old address for Bruns and then her mother’s obituary with a list of all of her children’s names. This led Mabe to Facebook, where he found a photo of Neil Bruns – one of Norm’s younger brothers – which included where he worked. Mabe called him to work and eventually headed for the missing treasure.

The movies Mabe had spent years looking for were all safe in another Bruns brother’s basement in Oregon, Illinois. So Mabe called Noel Bruns: The Art Keeper.

“I didn’t know what to do with it,” said Noel Bruns, who stored his brother’s films safely for nearly 30 years until Mabe called. “The family and I are all so grateful that he gave them new life.”

Mabe and Noel Bruns went online just before the pandemic brought the world – and film festivals – to a standstill, but with the goods in hand and enough time at home to watch movies, Mabe may have had a plan. tailor-made for locking.

When he turned on the films, he saw elaborate homemade sets and costumes; he saw scenes shot in Chicago apartments, but also in bingo halls and outdoors in nature; and in all of it he saw the work of an amateur filmmaker who felt complex and confident.

“There’s a nice dreamlike quality to the movies that just shows a confidence that you wouldn’t expect from someone who is, quote-unquote, an amateur,” Mabe said. “He’s an amateur in the best sense of the word: someone who is passionate about the job and about getting the job done.

To look at Brown’s films is to be transported to a different world – a world that feels both outdated and somehow timeless. The work looks less like a product of the 80s and much more like something that may have been done decades earlier. The sets are often simple, but Mabe said the messages are surprisingly complex — and a bit haunting.

“Norm Bruns’ work embodies the kind of work that Reeling was founded to support, which is experimental film with a queer sensibility,” Brenda Webb, executive director of Reeling, said in a statement.

Since 2020, Mabe has shown Bruns’ shorts a few times, including at a film festival in New York this year. In Reeling however, they will return to Chicago, where Bruns lived and worked – and where the films will ultimately be archived.

The Dizzying screening of Bruns’ work – billed as Rediscover the magic of Norm Bruns — is a compilation of 10 short films lasting between 3 and 13 minutes each. In total, the program will last a little over an hour.

The man behind the camera

Bruns had a way of putting people at ease when he was behind the camera, said his close friend Mary Beth Bush, who appears in Screen testwhich will be presented at Reeling.

Beyond creating films, Bruns also took photographs and dabbled in poetry and sculpture. He was outgoing, a prankster who could make his friends laugh and a fountain of ideas, Bush said.

“He was the most creative person I’ve ever known,” Bush said.

Bruns grew up in suburban Palatine, the eldest of a large progeny of children – seven sons and a daughter, raised by a father who worked in a factory and a mother who stayed at home. Bruns and her father didn’t always agree, her brother Noel said.

Norm Bruns, left, with his parents and siblings in an undated photo.
Norm Bruns, left, with his parents and siblings in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Bruns family

As a young adult living in Chicago, Bruns sought adventure. His friend Geoff Grove said Bruns had a knack for finding gems all over town – from dive bars to drag bars – Bruns seemed to have endless energy to explore and a desire to meet new people.

When Bruns fell ill, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak in the United States. From 1981 to 1990, more than 100,000 people in the United States death from AIDSwith the highest number of deaths occurring among men aged 25-44.

“When Norm was diagnosed with AIDS, I saw a change in my father, and I speak of my father in particular, because I had no idea which direction he would go,” said Noel Bruns. “Where there had been no heat before, there was heat.”

Towards the end of his life, Bruns often spent time in Wisconsin. But when he became too weak to make the trip, his parents took him home, where he died in 1990.

Mary Beth Bush, a close friend of Norm Bruns, appears in the film
Mary Beth Bush and Norm Bruns. Bush appears in the film “Screen Test,” which is among Bruns’ works to be screened at the Reeling Film Festival this year. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

The gift of seeing Bruns’ work

Woody Johnson met Bruns at a bar in 1983, when Bruns was renting a unit in a “very old building, where most of the apartments had stoves, so the place would be freezing,” Johnson said. Located on Grand, not far from Halsted, the one-bedroom apartment cost around $100 a month, at a time when Johnson recalls most other apartments cost five times as much.

Woody Johnson and Norm Bruns.
Woody Johnson and Norm Bruns. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

Bruns’ day job was at a picture framing business, where he designed artwork, and by the time he met Johnson, Bruns had largely finished making films – the bulk of which part was made in an incredibly short period of time between 1980 and 1981.

“He said everything he wanted to say with the movie, so he didn’t do anything after that,” said Johnson, Bruns’ former partner.

When Johnson saw Bruns’ finished films, he “knew they were beautiful,” but couldn’t put into words what he loved about them.

Barbara Scharres could. In this 1982 Reader article, which ran with the title “Trance Occurrences”, Scharres – who was the longtime programming director of what is now known as the Gene Siskel Film Center – wrote of the “artful innocence” in Bruns’ work.

“Most films aren’t humorous, yet sometimes you want to laugh with delight at the magic and purity of their vision,” she continued. “To see Bruns’ films is to be granted a too brief and fragile vision of his mysterious underground world, to be the recipient of a dark gift.”

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Am here @cmkueppers.

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