The Illinois Parables ★★★½

[7]

A second viewing clarified for me just how crystal-clear this film is. It's rare to see any work - avant-garde, documentary, even fictional feature - with such a defined purpose. In fact, I think the first time I saw it I was a bit confused, because I expected there to be a bit more, something deeper and more resonant.

But that's not the way all films need to operate, and Stratman's Parables treats the history of the state of Illinois not as an opportunity for mythmaking or even storytelling, but as a framework for a set of historical core samples. From first contact with the Native Americans up through the murder of Fred Hampton and onto the present day, each segment is relatively self-contained. Stratman labels each one with a Roman numeral, and they are concatenated like file folders in a particularly damning dossier.

In her approach, Stratman makes work that is recognizably of a type. Her essay-films examine social and political histories through landscape, archival traces, and the evidence (often hidden in plain sight) that the world was once organized in radically different ways. Her films bear resemblance to those of James Benning, of course, but also John Gianvito, and as such The Illinois Parables is not afraid to open itself up, inviting in a polyphony of voices that do not necessarily resolve into a final meaning.

After all, Stratman asks us to consider both the violent removal of the Cherokee, along the infamous "Trail of Tears," and the role that the people living near Nauvoo, IL, played in persecuting the LDS church, local law enforcement allowing a mob to murder Joseph Smith while incarcerated in nearby Carthage. It's unlikely even today that many Mormons would feel compelled to speak out against the murder of Fred Hampton, or vice versa. And "Indian Removal" is discussed in very different terms, depending on the textbook and the region.

Point being, Stratman is not attempting to forge a single history of intersectional oppression. Rather, she is articulating a structural /geographical history - how a place is "settled," made safe for the dominant class - while logging objections along the way, from Emerson, Tocqueville, and others. In this way, Stratman emphasizes the fact that at all times, "Illinois" was a process, and it remains so. It is a political formation, defined by the decisions taken within its borders.

The fact that Stratman chose to make The Parables during a period when our president was a former senator and community organizer from Illinois seems hardly coincidental.