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The Man Who Shot 'Sliberty

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Chris Ivey came to Pittsburgh to make movies. Eleven years later, that's one reason he's still here. But it's not the only reason. He also wants to make a difference.

 

 

The chronically enthused Ivey, often operating as Hyperboy Media, is a familiar face on Pittsburgh's art scene. His credits include music videos for acclaimed underground Brooklyn-based rapper J-Live as well as promos for local performance outfits Attack Theatre and Sun Crumbs.

 

But while Ivey earns his living largely by directing locally produced TV commercials and doing other contract work, his current labor of love is East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions. It's a feature-length documentary about the once-prosperous, perennially troubled neighborhood.

 

The project began last spring, when Ivey documented the demolition of the high-rise apartment building that for decades had spanned Penn Avenue at East Liberty's western portal. Community organizers promoted a festival atmosphere, for instance inviting visitors to use the doomed and looming structure as a paintball target.

 

But when Ivey found that some neighbors, including former residents of the high-rise, had mixed emotions about such hi-jinks, he decided to keep rolling tape after the politicians and news crews had gone.

 

 Ivey's still shooting East of Liberty; he hopes to complete it in time for a May premiere. In the meantime, he cut a 13-minute short titled "At Liberty" for a recent gallery exhibition honoring August Wilson. "At Liberty" will highlight the Tue., March 14, installment of the monthly Film Kitchen series (co-sponsored by City Paper). Also screening are Mike Keeley's short documentary "Donna's Museum" and short videos by Marc Czornij.

 

Ivey, 33, grew up in Munroe, N.C., the small town that gave birth to Jesse Helms. In 1995, he came to study at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. He hit his stride, though, working with Lumiere Films, a Downtown-based production company. After a few years as a production assistant and such, Ivey was directing shoots and exhibiting a playful touch. His demo-reel highlights include an award-winning pair of ads in 2000 for Jones Soda, including a Superfly spoof.

 

Current long-term projects include a gig as cameraman and co-producer on a documentary about the toll of AIDS in the black community by Connecticut-based Diversity Films. The project is national, even international, in scope, but planned shoots include one next year at Westinghouse High School. "That's really going to have an effect on people's lives," Ivey says of the documentary.

 

In "At Liberty," Ivey samples a few voices from East of Liberty. In footage of rapper Ezra Smith taking to 'Sliberty sidewalks, Ivey's camera hops to the rhythms of the performance. But in three other interviews -- an ex-gang member who's now a jitney driver, the mother of a slain college student, and a drug counselor -- Ivey veils his subjects' faces with multilayered imagery, notably scenes of the high-rise going to dusty pieces. The goal is to make us listen to stories we might at first dismiss as overfamiliar.

 

"I just want to make sure that everything that's been going on there [isn't] swept underneath the rug," Ivey says. "If you really want to make a change in a community, with people, you've got to see and you've got to hear."

 

Even if you know who John Brown was -- and Mike Keeley finds that surprisingly many people don't -- you're probably unaware that the famed abolitionist once lived a couple hours' drive north of Pittsburgh.

 

The former Brown farm sits in Crawford County, about 10 miles outside Meadville, where Keeley chairs the Communication Arts department at Allegheny College. Brown and his family lived there from 1825-1836 -- two decades before Brown's fateful raid on Harper's Ferry. The farm was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

 

Today the site is owned by the family of Donna Coburn, who operates a small exhibit of Browniana. Keeley, 44, shot the 25-minute "Donna's Museum" while on sabbatical in 2004. Despite the annual John Brown Picnic and various Civil War re-enactments, the museum is quite an informal operation, says Keeley. "It really is a family thing."

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