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‘Belleville Nights’ short film recognized

Watch "Belleville Nights" online

John Birkner liked to hang out at Illegal Tone Recordings in Belleville, so he was upset when the city forced its live-music venue to close in April for "safety reasons."

The 20-year-old guitarist and college student was left with nothing but fond memories and more than 10 hours of digital video.

Birkner had captured images of young people dancing, performing in bands and, in the final days, protesting the venue’s closure.

"There were a lot positive things going on there, but a lot of older people didn’t see that," he said. "They think we’re just crazy kids making noise."

Birkner decided to use the footage to create a seven-minute documentary, "Belleville Nights," as part of a filmmaking class at Southwestern Illinois College last spring.

He also entered a five-minute version in the Illinois Humanities Council’s new Looking for Democracy Short Film Contest this fall and won honorable mention.

"If anybody sees this film, it will really change their minds about young people and the idea of all-ages music venues," said associate professor Dan Cross, who teaches filmmaking at SWIC.

"It will give them a more positive and realistic outlook and help them realize there’s nothing harmful about having a place where (young people of all ages) can go and listen to live music."

Birkner interviewed Cross for the documentary because Cross is a musician and former owner of The Ground Floor, a coffee house, bar and music venue that is now closed.

Illegal Tone is a recording studio at 6 S. Church St. It formerly hosted local and regional bands such as the Stiff Kittens, Five Second Rule, the Undefined, How to Steat and Cheal and Patrick Cadaver and admitted audience members of all ages.

"It’s a good group of kids," Belleville guitarist Jeff Hursey states in the documentary. "All they want to do is go out and have fun and be a part of something positive and constructive."

Birkner and Hursey are former members of the band Oh No You Didn’t. Birkner now plays bass guitar with Trenchfoot.

The city ordered Illegal Tone to close its live-music venue in April, citing concerns related to large crowds, possible alcohol and drug use, and combined patronage of young teens and adults in their 20s.

More than 25 people protested in downtown Belleville and about 50 attended a Belleville City Council meeting. Birkner filmed testimony by the group’s spokesman, Patrick Cook.

The documentary also includes a statement by Belleville mayor Mark Eckert that appeared on St. Louis TV news broadcasts at the time.

"I’m not saying they’re bad kids by any means," Eckert said. "But (Illegal Tone’s owner) has way too many people for the building, and he has way too little supervision.

"So we feel that he needs to cease for safety reasons, and he does need to come in compliance with our teen-center ordinance."

The Illinois Humanities Council received 20 entries in the Looking for Democracy Short Film Contest. The top four were shown Oct. 28 at Columbia College Chicago.

"The judges really enjoyed ("Belleville Nights")," said Communications Manager Maggie Berndt. "They thought it was entertaining enough that they wanted to see it screened publicly."

Birkner also was part of the SWIC team that won first place in last summer’s 48 Hour Film Project in St. Louis. He helped with lighting and props and co-wrote original music for the seven-minute short "Earl, Son of God."

Birkner got his movie-making start in high school. He filmed his younger brother, Ryan, skateboarding and posted videos on YouTube.

It’s been seven months since Illegal Tone closed its live-music venue. Birkner and his musician friends still are feeling a void.

"It was just a wide variety of people (from throughout the metro-east) who would come to hang out and have a good time," he said. "There are things to do in Belleville, but not much for this age group that is drug free."

This article originally appeared online in the Belleville News-Democrat.