Grantee Project: The Hills

Artist: Sommer Filmworks (Ines Sommer)
Neighborhood: Film Screenings in Multiple Locations
Art Type: Documentary Film
Grant Amount: $35,000

Ines Sommer

When the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast Side closed, they left toxic sites behind that look harmless to the naked eye. But combined with current industrial pollution, they continue to impact residents’ health. The Hills, a documentary film, will follow community members and environmental groups that are addressing these issues in a variety of ways: from advocacy, protests, and legal action to physical remediation work. The film will also touch on steel industry practices and the connection to climate change, labor history, community health impacts, and more.

The working title The Hills is inspired by a barren 67-acre hill located across from Wolf Lake and bounded to the north by Indian Creek. Recently declared a superfund site by the EPA, the property seems to be covered by harmless gravel, but this man-made mesa is actually comprised of slag that Republic Steel/LTV dumped here during the 1950s–80s. Slag is a byproduct of steelmaking and contains arsenic, chromium, lead, and other toxins. 

The unsecured site was left abandoned by its developer for decades and attracted heavy recreational use. In addition to exposing folks who were riding their dirt bikes and ATVs through clouds of harmful dust, toxins from the slag continue to leak into Indian Creek whenever it rains. Indian Creek is a rich habitat for fish and attracts birds, beavers, and bucks, and is the main connector between Wolf Lake, a major recreational fishing area, and the Calumet River which flows into Lake Michigan, Chicago’s source of drinking water. 

Film screenings and discussions will be co-presented with community and environmental organizations across Chicago. 

​​Ines Sommer is an award-winning filmmaker, cinematographer, film programmer, and educator, whose films have tackled topics ranging from the environment to the arts, participatory democracy, history, and politics. She has directed long format documentaries and experimental works alongside video installations. 

Her recent documentary Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm follows organic farmer Henry Brockman as he grapples with the impact of a changing climate on his family farm in rural Illinois. The film just completed its festival run and won Best Documentary awards at the Vail Film Festival, Big Muddy Film Festival, and the MINT Montana International Film Festival. Other projects have included the human rights documentary Beneath the Blindfold and the MacArthur Foundation-funded Count Me In, which aired on PBS stations across the nation in 2016.

Ines has been interested in environmental issues for her entire life and has worked on a number of commissioned environmental projects in the past, including contributing camerawork to Judith Helfand’s acclaimed documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. After she completed Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm, she felt a deep responsibility to continue working on environmental topics. 

The Hills brings many of Ines’ interests together – exploring the imbalanced relationship between humans, nature, and industry; the power of community; and the potential to envision what a green industry that’s based on ecology could look like.