Chris Ivey is easy enough to reach by cell phone. But scheduling an appointment with the busy filmmaker -- who calls his production company Hyperboy Media -- can be a challenge. Sometimes, it's easier to just ring him while he's out running around, and have him drop by your house.
Indeed, Ivey seems busier than ever these days -- even though he's phasing out commercial work to focus on projects with greater personal and social relevance. This spring, for instance, he was finishing work as a camera-operator and assistant director for Serial Passage, a PBS documentary series on AIDS in the black community by acclaimed producer Claudia Pryor. Meanwhile, Ivey continued to simultaneously shoot, edit and promote his own massive documentary project: East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions.
The documentary explores the past, present and uncertain future of a long-suffering Pittsburgh neighborhood now facing gentrification. Its wide-angle look at the neighborhood features perspectives of everyone from scholars and development officials to community activists and people in the street. And it airs the controversial viewpoints of critics of neighborhood redevelopment, or at least of how it's been carried out.
The film, says Ivey, "is not Pittsburgh-polite."
His passion for the project took root in May 2005, when a community group hired him to document the demolition of an apartment building that previously housed low-income residents. Community organizers had promoted a festival atmosphere, in part by encouraging residents to use the condemned high-rise as a paintball target. But many of the predominantly African-American neighbors Ivey spoke to had mixed emotions about the event, and about the place some had called home.
So began East of Liberty, a two-years-and-counting labor of love that Ivey intends to make a three-part documentary, with each chapter a full-length film. In 2006, Ivey began holding public screenings for early versions of the movie; the showings have often generated thoughtful post-movie discussions. Ivey even screened the documentary for staff at Perkins Eastman, an architecture firm doing planning work for the neighborhood.
"This was a wonderful opportunity to see the issue from a fresh perspective," says Perkins Eastman principal Stefani Danes.
The film has even received an international imprimatur. In May 2007, the community activists of Hackney Independent -- who discovered East of Liberty on YouTube -- brought Ivey to their London neighborhood to screen the film, along with footage from post-Katrina New Orleans, which Ivey visited in 2005. Hackney's Andy Walpole says his working-class neighborhood faces an East Liberty-like mix of poverty and gentrification. East of Liberty, he adds by e-mail, is a rare film offering the voices of real Americans. "Its content, in terms of production and political message, is a cut above the rest out there," writes Walpole.
No doubt Ivey's professional experience plays a role. The North Carolina native came to study at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in 1995, when he was in his early 20s. He found freelance work on local television-commercial productions, and by 2000 was doing more on his own, including award-winning ads for Jones Soda. He's also made numerous music videos, including two for noted underground rapper J-Live.
Ivey describes his style as "in-your-face, humorous, maybe a little dark or edgy -- but not real dark." In an Ivey ad for the local Washington Wild Things independent-league baseball team, for example, a ballplayer steals sunflower seeds from a bird-feeder … and shows up at the ballpark with bandages covering his beak-inflicted wounds.
Life as an African-American filmmaker with an offbeat approach has its frustrations. Ivey recalls that an ad guy he knew once told him that "People love me but they were terrified to work with me, because my style was so different."
Ivey still does some commercial projects -- his summer schedule included shoots for a reality-show pilot about a local professional athlete -- and he continues to develop a planned feature film set among Pittsburgh paramedics. But currently he seems most fired up about the chance to amplify unheard voices, and for making audiences rethink long-held assumptions.
For a guy who made his name partly with soda-pop ads, it's still fresh terrain. "The thing for me is to show things the way [they are], not sweeten it up," Ivey says. "Working on documentaries has been more rewarding. It's kinda getting me back to being an artist."