Eric Battersby, 42, grew up in Forest Park and his experiences as a white student in the 1980s at Proviso East High School changed how he felt about race from an early age, he said.
“Going to Proviso when I did, I got the chance to be in the minority for eight hours a day,” he said. “That changes perspective quickly.”
Battersby has just released Pyrite, a feature-length film on DVD that, he says, tackles the issue of racism in Chicago and the near suburbs.
Originally called Fool’s Gold, Battersby said the film took two years to shoot and 10 years to complete. Battersby screened an earlier version at the Lake Theatre in 2010.
“We changed the name to Pyrite, which is the scientific name for fool’s gold,” Battersby said. “A romantic comedy had just come out called Fool’s Gold and it was very poorly received.”
Battersby wrote, directed and produced the film while working full-time for IBM in the computer industry.
“I was an independent filmmaker, part time, just like all the other software engineers in the world,” he joked. He’s finally retired from his day job of 19 years to work full time as a filmmaker.
The film follows a recent high school graduate, Curt Swain, as he struggles with the clash of his ideals and his family’s racial prejudices. His life intersects with a Chicago single mother, Tomika Banks, who is trying to raise her two boys in a housing project and keep them away from a friend-turned-dealer who now runs the neighborhood.
Battersby and a crew of friends filmed on location in Forest Park, Oak Park and in Chicago outside the abandoned Cabrini Green housing project between 2005 and 2007.
In Forest Park, he filmed at his family’s old home at 533 Marengo Ave., which had been purchased and remodeled. The new owners allowed the crew to work in the house for local scenes.
Battersby cast several Proviso East students in the film: Justin Williams played Swain’s best friend, and Terron Carter and Jeremy Porter had small roles as well. Williams just graduated from Beloit College, Battersby said.
In 1989, when he was a senior at PEHS and headed to University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, he spoke to a forum of Forest Park Middle School parents and students about misperceptions of Proviso East.
According to the Forest Park Review coverage of the time, he told parents he was initially intimidated by the fact that [at the time] Proviso was 80 percent African American. He said he never encountered any problems with other students, black or white. According to the paper, only 10 percent of Forest Park students attended Proviso East at the time.
Battersby still remembers the forum 24 years later.
“Growing up in Forest Park as I did, Proviso was still dubbed this ‘scary place,'” he said. “When I wound up going there and found out it wasn’t, it pissed me off. It made me mad that Forest Parkers were depriving kids of a good experience based on fear and fear of someone’s skin color being different than ours,” he added.
The perspective stayed with him when his parents moved to Arizona and he followed them.
Now that he’s finished the film at last, he said he’s heard from old high school friends.
“Especially my black friends. They’re proud of me for taking the path I did and for speaking out like I have,” Battersby said. “It felt like an honor to be standing up for the right thing.”
He wrote his first screenplay for Pyrite, in the mid-1990s. That version had to be cancelled mid-production when the project ran out of money.
By the time Battersby had re-written the script and raised more money, he said film technology had become cheap enough to make the project happen.
“The democratization of media finally kicked in and we could afford to get it done,” he said. “The technology evolved to a point where I could buy a camera for less than it previously cost us to rent one for the weekend.”
The film features music by Oak Park composer Phil Doyle, now director of Jazz Studies at Eastern Washington University. Other local Oak Parkers on the crew included co-producer Jonathan Lacocque and assistant director Jason Madoc. Set-builder John Severson of Oak Park constructed a mock el platform in a Forest Park backyard.
Pyrite was released Nov. 19 on DVD by Hollywood 27 Films and has been entered in several independent film contests, Battersby said, adding that he has also developed high school and college curricula exploring racism to go along with the film.
His next project is with a nonprofit documentary film company, Change the World Films, which will explore current events through the “Walk a Mile” project.
See the trailer for Pyrite at www.forestparkreview.com.