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Robert Banks: The Last Cleveland Filmmaker

Robert Banks: The Last Cleveland Filmmaker

Kevin Naughton

Robert Banks is the rare sort of artist who has been exploring his craft since early childhood. A Cleveland native, he first hit the international stage in 1992, receiving critical acclaim for his film X: The Baby Cinema. His abstract, interpretive films have been featured at Sundance, SXSW and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Banks was an honored guest filmmaker at the BBC British Short Film Festival in 2000, and received the prestigious title of Filmmaker of the Year at the Midwest Filmmakers Conference in 2001. Now, after 25 years in the business, Banks is putting the finishing touches on his first feature-length narrative film, Paper Shadows.

Banks first started experimenting with film in the early ‘70s at the age of six, screening reels in the backyard for his neighborhood friends. With an old cassette recorder, he would tape sounds from the TV and other household noises, splicing and dubbing them to create his own makeshift soundtracks  to accompany the films. Growing up in the Hough neighborhood of East Cleveland, a community still reeling from the aftermath of riots that occurred just months before he was born, his mother and father worked hard to support his unique hobby. “Growing up in the ‘hood’, that was very unusual. So I was the only kid that stood out for doing these weird little film nights in my backyard,” he said.

What seemed like a quirky childhood hobby would prove to be an important education when it came to working with film. A graduate of the Cleveland School of the Arts, Banks briefly attended the Cleveland Institute of Art but dropped out after a year, unable to afford the cost of tuition. Still determined to pursue his passion as a career, he enlisted in the Air Force, and later completed his education at the Ohio School of Broadcast Technique where he received his FCC certification. He has continued to share his love of film, teaching at Cuyahoga Community College, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland State University, and the Newbridge Academy, where he’s worked as a film and photography instructor since October of 2010.

What truly sets Robert Banks apart as a filmmaker is the medium with which he works. His medium is film, with a capital “F.” He’s one of the few independent filmmakers left who chooses to work almost exclusively with analog film. While the medium isn’t completely dead, it’s certainly being edged out by an industry widely adopting digital technology, given its perception of being a comparable and inexpensive alternative to traditional film. Banks doesn’t see the issue as being quite so black and white.

Inspired by trailblazing experimental filmmakers from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s like Norman McLaren, Arthur Lipsett, and Jordan Belzen, Banks works primarily with 35mm film, physically splicing, manipulating and editing frames without the use of a digital intermediary. For that reason, many of the processes used are outright impossible to duplicate digitally. And it’s not that he favors film as the superior format. Instead, he argues that a medium should be considered for its merits, not its cost, because each medium has its advantages and disadvantages. “There’s just a discipline behind what you’re using and how you’re using it,” he explained. “I’m not trying to substitute one for the other.”

With 30 films under his belt, and some exceptional motivation, Banks set out on the monumental task of creating his first feature film, funded primary out of his own pocket. Banks described Paper Shadows as “a surrealist experimental film about the shared creative angst of an elderly black man and a younger white female art student.”

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In the fall of 2014, Banks launched his first Kickstarter campaign, raising over $12,000 from contributors around the world. Using the funds for editing and post-production, which began this past January, Banks is anxious to finish the film. “I want her to see this,” he said when speaking about one of his greatest supporters, his mother. “She’ll be 90 this year, and I want her to see at least one feature film that I’ve made.”

The film, which he plans to release this coming August, has already been requested by festivals and private cinemas around the world. After Paper Shadows is finished, Banks plans to join the Directors Guild of America, an exclusive organization of accomplished filmmakers that has been sending him applications for years. Beyond that, he’s keeping his options open.

Robert Banks is an independent filmmaker in the truest sense of the term, and his vision is distinctly his own. He’s acknowledged that he’ll never be commercially successful, and he’s aware that his films aren’t for everyone, but he’s not interested in compromising.
“A lot of people aren’t going to like it. They’re going to think, ‘this is weird, it’s boring, it’s pretentious,’ you know. I’m telling people up front, you don’t have to like it, but I would much rather have you dislike it than not simply forget it.”

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