By Anna Brüner
When I sat down to watch Catalyst, a short film by filmmaker Serena Illuminati screened at Chicago’s first annual Feminist Film Festival, I went into it expecting a love story of sorts. In its fourteen minute running time, I received so much more than I could have imagined. Calling Catalyst a love story would be like calling Black Swan a movie about ballet. The love is there, but it is less the story and more the binding ingredient of the ambitious messages that the film sets out to deliver. Isolation. Unity. The power of protest. Commentary on the corrupt system of college education. This is a story that is not just moving, but incredibly timely.
Catalyst begins with a suicide, the “catalyst” of the title. Overwhelmed by massive debt and unable to pay her student loans, feeling alone and helpless, a young woman writes a suicide note on the back of her student loan bill and hangs herself in her bedroom.
“I heard someone say the phrase, ‘You can't even get rid of your loans if you file for bankruptcy. The only way out is to kill yourself.’ That was what sparked the idea for this film,” Illuminati says. While it may seem like an exaggeration, it is the utmost truth.
The jarring cold open grabs audience members by their collars and pulls them in, letting them know right off the bat that the ride they’re about to go on is going to be an intense one, and that they, as much as the film’s characters, have to react to the desperate first moment they have just witnessed.
Catalyst follows two young women, each loosely connected to the woman who kills herself, as they fall in love and form a relationship while working as activists. They build a movement protesting against the “indentured servitude” the woman describes in her suicide notes, eventually going to extreme lengths for their cause.
“The biggest motif of Catalyst is isolation vs unity. Alone we are fucked nothing more than a loan,” Illuminati says of her film’s message. “Revolution requires empathy, requires camaraderie, requires love. All we can do is stand together and fight for each other.”
“She kills herself. Her death, however, brings people together. She sparks a political movement. There is a scene where two activists discuss her death. ‘What do you think she'd think of us?’ ‘Well, I don't think she would have killed herself if she had us.’”
Catalyst is as much a powerhouse in its production as it is in its message, with a cast and crew that is racially diverse, female centric, and queer. It represents an ambitious message, told by an equally ambitious artist, that rings strongly as a reality that will be all too familiar to most of its audience. You can see Catalyst at the first annual Chicago Feminist Film Festival, as well as on Youtube.