How do we think about the neighborhoods we live in? For many, Hyde Park is an idyllic gem on the lake, a case study in urban renewal, or the hub of 15,000 University of Chicago students’ frenetic energy. For filmmaker and self-declared trans-disciplinary healing artist Robert Beshara, it’s a neighborhood ready for its close-up. The neighborhood serves as both setting and protagonist in his unreleased film, Alchemy in Hyde Park.
“It was strange to me that an amazing neighborhood like Hyde Park didn’t have a full-length film set there,” he remarked in an interview over Skype in early February. He maintains that Alchemy in Hyde Park is the first digital feature-length film set and shot entirely in that neighborhood, placing it many steps beyond the measly opening scene in When Harry Met Sally.
The film follows four artists whose lives come to intertwine in an unlikely friendship. Not much more is certain about the plot of this “no-budget” film, although the film’s website reveals that colors, astrological signs, Tarot cards, and other arcane elements are employed as an elaborate network of symbols in the film. University of Chicago professor and co-star Paul Durica, says, however, that these esoteric elements “complement the film but are not critical to its reading.” He revealed also that the film contains no shortage of “love triangles and quadrangles,” balancing those occult symbols with a narrative viewers may be more familiar with.
Beshara, a native of Cairo, had his first encounter with Hyde Park in 2009. Coming to the city to complete a Masters in Fine Arts from Governors State University, he chose the neighborhood for the convenient Metra commute, not anticipating the pull of its vibrant arts and cultural communities. “A lot of people who live on the North Side have a fear of the South Side,” he pointed out, but he was impressed with the diversity in Hyde Park and what he describes as its “magical mix” between an urban and suburban ambiance. Beshara believes that his film has the power to be both informative and commemorative of the neighborhood.
Alchemy in Hyde Park strives towards some notion of hyperlocal cinema, a zoomed-in look at a single community and the way it works. Hyde Park, Beshara explained in his appeal on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, is personified in the meeting of people from “different backgrounds, people with different interests, and people from different socioeconomic classes” who must turn prejudices into meaningful friendships.
Durica agrees that the struggle for mutual understanding between the film’s main characters (“the academic; the Chicagoans who live outside Hyde Park and view it as a place of privilege; and a guitar-playing, long-haired, ne’er-do-well”) is a true reflection of the dynamic between the University of Chicago community and the city as a whole.
Durica is unsure whether the film was originally intended to portray this truth about Hyde Park specifically. “I don’t think there’s anything deliberate about Hyde Park. If the plot had been slightly different, it could have been in Bridgeport,” Durica remarked. He believes that the existing town-gown dynamic merely “fit the story Robert wanted to tell.”
However, Beshara’s earliest writing about the project, which in May of 2011 he called “The Trans-Film Manifesto,” does feature Hyde Park explicitly. He wrote in that piece that his film would explore a flurry of questions: “What is place? What does Hyde Park mean to those people? Why Hyde Park? What’s so special about it? Is it merely architecture? Is it more?”
Though Beshara’s choice of Hyde Park was deliberate, Durica may have a point. Until the film is released, though, it will be unclear whether it will offer a new and thoughtful look at the dynamics of Hyde Park. Without the veil of esotericism and the preoccupation with breaking artistic conventions, it may end up being a story we have already seen.
As Beshara wrote, though, his true interest is in exploring the mutual interplay between people and place. Durica, too, is optimistic about the film’s reception: “Hyde Parkers will enjoy the film, because they’re a fiercely proud community. They like living here and being involved in shaping the character of the neighborhood.”