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Manes: A documentary deserving of donations

AarWickenden (from left) Peter AntDan Rybicky.  |  Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

Aaron Wickenden (from left), Peter Anton and Dan Rybicky. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:09AM



Renoir: “This man looks mad. Are you mad? They scare you (arthritic fingers). Deformity. The genius sucked out through the fingernails. Amedeo Modigliani, are you mad? (Modigliani gestures that he’s probably a little crazy.) I knew that.”

— From the film “Modigliani”

My interview with Dan Rybicky took place outside the historic 90-year-old Hoosier Theater in Whiting just before a sneak preview of a documentary he co-produced and co-directed with Aaron Wickenden. It is entitled “Almost There” and depicts the life of East Chicago artist Peter Anton. Pierogi Fest was in full swing.

Rybicky, 47, has lived in Miller for six years. For 10 years, he has worked as a professor in cinema art and science at Columbia College in Chicago. He helps run the documentary program there.

***

Are you Polish?

“Polish and Ukranian,” he said. “I grew up in a Polish and Ukranian town of about 2,000 people in upstate New York near Utica. I don’t know how big Whiting is, but this area has a small-town feel to it. I feel a connection to Lake Michigan and these people of Northwest Indiana. It really reminds me of my upbringing. The older women I see around here remind me of the women from my grandmother’s church. I grew up eating this kind of food.”

Miller?

“Love Miller, love this area. The Miller community is a really interesting mixture of artists and academics and blue-collar people.”

“Almost There”?

“We met Peter Anton, the star of our film, here at Pierogi Fest doing pastel portraits of children eight years ago to the day.

“We simply came out here because of my love of pierogies and because we wanted to see the world’s largest pierogi. We wanted to meet Mr. Pierogi. There’s a real fun spirit to this place. It’s almost perverse that you choose to have a celebration of this heavy, buttery, doughy item in the middle of summer.”

More about Peter Anton?

“We met Peter here and were really taken by him. He was cracking jokes and had a really charismatic and funny demeanor. Peter charged so little. We felt that he had come from this other era, which, in a way, he did. Here’s this man who looked like a disheveled dandy dressed in 1955 attire. Even his prices were 1955.

“But you could tell Peter was someone who was a little afraid. You meet a person every now and then where you think, ‘God, this guy’s funny and has a great spirit, but he looks like he needs help.’ Do you know that feeling?”

Yes. Like the circus clown who has painted a happy face on himself but has a tear in his eye.

“Exactly. Peter also was eccentric and interesting. He was one of those people who you wonder, ‘What is their story?’ I mean, you do human interest stories; don’t you ever meet people on the street where you think, ‘I just want to know what’s up with this person?’ ”

Every day of my life. Will Anton be here today?

“Oh, yeah. Aaron’s bringing him.”

How old is he?

“He’s 82. Since the 1930s, he had spent his life in the house he grew up in on Hemlock Street in East Chicago. He’s Greek Orthodox and his father worked in the mill. Once you see the film, you’ll learn a lot more about his past and the area where he lived. There are a lot of people from Northwest Indiana featured in the film that really helped him survive.

“The film also explores the relationship that builds between a filmmaker and a subject. And a lot of the things an audience never sees that happens behind the scenes. For a lot of filmmakers who work with subjects, especially at-risk subjects, the boundary line between filming and being an advocate or a caretaker gets very blurred. Do you know what I mean? It gets addressed in the film.”

How long is the documentary?

“It’s 90 minutes. We’ll probably cut a shorter version for European television and other places, but the hope is that we can keep it this length, which is the length for festivals which will open in the fall.”

Has Peter changed much in the past eight years?

“Peter has always described his life as one lived on a roller coaster. The journey that we’ve been on, the odyssey, of these eight years has definitely changed us all. We’ve dubbed the film ‘a coming of old age story.’ We feel that Peter has made some changes that most people never go through at this late stage in life. Having been extracted from his home and having to start afresh, and the way he is thriving, is very rare.”

How long has Anton been out of East Chicago?

“His house was condemned in 2011. Jeff, we literally had to wear masks when we interviewed him. It was beyond belief. We didn’t sugarcoat anything in the film.

“A lot of great docs, for me, and I’m not saying ours is, don’t start with the idea of a social issue, but rather the curiosity about a human being, and then sometimes you start to see the issues that are played out in the human being. We started just wanting to tell his story of how he wanted to have his life’s last wish be fulfilled, which is having his art shared with the world and the story of his life shared with the world.”

Anton’s work?

“ ‘Outsider’ art. It’s a term not describing the person, but art that is made outside of the cultural and commercial mainstream. Jeff, you seem like an ‘outsider’ reporter.”

Unorthodox, perhaps.

“We’re independent filmmakers, Peter’s spirit is really much alive in a lot of people, this idea of creating because you purely and passionately need to create. Not for some sort of reward.”

I do it for the big bucks. Is the film going to be shown on WYIN?

“I think we’re going to be shown nationally on every channel. The project was funded by the Independent Television Service. We were one of four films chosen from like 2,000. It’s very rare to get this kind of funding.

“With that said, we’re in the midst of raising $20,000 on our Kickstarter campaign to help with the release of our film. If people are interested in helping this film be seen in festivals and schools, they can go to our Kickstarter site. We’re about 65 percent funded right now. We have until Aug. 8.”

What happens if you don’t make your Kickstarter goal?

“We don’t get any money. So it’s really stressful. We’re up to $13,000, we need another $7,000 by Aug. 8.”

***

With our interview complete, I was one of about 150 people who had the opportunity to view “Almost There” in the Hoosier Theater. The film is hilarious, heartbreaking and haunting. It’s dark, disturbing, thought-provoking, powerful and, at times, simply hard to watch. It’s a brilliant piece of work and a must-see.

Please help fund this film.

To donate to “Almost There,” visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/almostthereproject/almost-there-a-coming-of-old-age-story.

(Editor’s note: As of Friday afternoon, donations totaled $16,745 with seven days to go, according to the website.)



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