Daniel Tomei knows how to work a camera — he’s a professional film producer and has worked in the commercial film business for years. But what he never dug into was documentary film and nonfiction features. Until now.
When he met Chicago architect Paul Christianson at a party, Tomei learned about the John Pennycuff LGBTQ affordable housing project that was approved in July in Logan Square. The project is probably familiar to the community; it is named after local LGBTQ equality activist couple Robert Castillo and John Pennycuff, who passed away in 2012.
According to a DNAinfo article, the housing development will be a seven-story building at the site of Congress Pizzeria (2033 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and will offer 88 affordable-housing apartments, 18 parking spaces and 2,400 square feet of retail space. Tomei said project architects CSA Partners plan to break ground in November, and the complex should be finished by 2019. The John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments at Robert Castillo Plaza will be the second LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing building in Chicago and the largest, after seeing success from the first complex in Lakeview.
Tomei was presented the option to compete in a film contest from the American Institute of Architects, something he’d never done. Intrigued by the subject and its impact on the LGBTQ community, he decided to create a short documentary about the housing project featuring Castillo, 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno, the Center on Halsted and Cyrus Subawalla, the principal architect. Although the video did not win the competition, it has 569 views. From there, Tomei’s love for documentary work only grew.
LoganSquarist talked to the filmmaker about his documentary work, what he learned through the experience and why it is important right now.
Why did you want to make this short documentary?
The reason that I wanted to have this video was just to submit it to a film festival called “I Look Up” and [create] pieces of art showcasing particular Chicago neighborhoods and had something to do with architecture, had an impact and a possibility to develop further.
How was this different from your routine film work?
I’ve never submitted anything to a film festival. I usually do corporate videos; I do advertisements, promotional videos, sporting events, all sorts of commercials I’ve never actually done something as a passion project for myself, and this one was a great opportunity to actually make a documentary. I can call myself a filmmaker now because I have one film that has been part of a film festival, so yay. And the fact that you want to cover me is somewhat of a recognition of my work that I put in and it inspires and motivates me to go forward with it and I will.
I talked to [Castillo], and we are going to work on a feature film. We’re actually going to produce [and] shoot a documentary about the housing project. We already have a name and brainstormed about a month ago.
What did you learn throughout the making of the documentary?
I learned a lot about the Chicago LGBTQ community; I learned their struggles and I got to meet people like [Castillo] and support the community. [Castillo] was very honest and seems to be very determined to help the community and inspire it. What I didn’t know about the community is not all of them are rich or have the means to live. What happens in the LGBT community happens because of lack of understanding. With this documentary, I’m trying to bring awareness to the problems and their issues. We will feature every person in the LGBTQ acronym.
I have not seen a lot of documentaries focusing on homelessness, their struggles and day-to-day living. I hope that it will influence people, motivate them, inspire them to help to support the community and embrace it because ultimately we are in 2017, you know. Everywhere you see Latinos, black people, Asian people, trans — they should all be treated the same, in my opinion.
There’s never enough media out there to promote positivity and compassion, and through this documentary, I want to help people understand. I hope people find themselves in it, or not, but see that they are not mean people if they’re different than we are.
What is the next step to spreading the word on documentaries and progressive work from our culture’s current political tension?
My left friends post [liberal videos] on Facebook and they are super excited about them, but I pose this question: Do you guys know if these videos are being watched by people that have to understand it? If you run a video in your community and like-minded people are all super excited about it and you’re not running it outside of that sphere, I don’t know if you are going to make an impact. So, what I want to do is go to a Republican community and then have screenings there. I have a lot of Republican friends in some of the leadership in Chicago and I’ll be like, ‘Look, how about you guys have a screening for your youth?’ It’s better to be raised with the idea of acceptance for another person.