David Gioiella always had a knack for filmmaking. The 46-year-old grew up in Darien and became involved with film production in high school, even doing some work at Cable 12 News.
“I was interested in film from an early age, and in the Darien community, there wasn’t a lot of people doing it in our area and my parents encouraged me to pursue it,” he said. “I went to college at Northwestern for film production and graduated in 1995.”
During his senior year of college, Gioiella teamed with friend Mark Littman to open their own business, Northern Lights, a New York City-based company that today consists of motion design studio Mr. Wonderful, creative production studio Bodega, and full-service audio shop SuperExploder. With offices also in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the company helps with ideation through production, editorial, audio post and motion graphic design.
“We’ve always been involved in film, TV, marketing and promotions,” Gioella said. “Once in a while, we pick a film to be involved in if it’s a cause or topic we are interested in.”
One of those films was “Chi-Town,” which first came across Gioella’s desk in 2010.
“Chi-Town” shows the multi-year journey of high school student Keifer Sykes, whose meteoric rise from Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side to an improbable shot at the NBA is punctuated by personal loss, debilitating injury and tragic violence.
Standing just 5’11”, the odds were already low for Sykes’ dreams to come true, and adding in all he’s faced, make them seem that much more impossible. But the young man’s focus on his goal and his never-wavering support for his community is pure inspiration.
“This is an intimate, raw, surprising and unique behind-the- scenes look at a true champion — and what it really takes to make it,” said Gioiella, who is the executive producer of the documentary. “We got involved after some of the film had been shot and we were shown a rough cut that was more about kids growing up in inner city Chicago and trying to find an outlet to get them off the streets and basketball was a safe place for them to get out of the fray of the violence and issues impacting the community.”
Back then, the film was broader and followed a group of 4-5 kids, as well as police officers, church groups and schools. Northern Lights was asked to help with editing and music, and Gioiella told the filmmakers his company would be interested even further if the film was more focused on Sykes.
“Here was this kid who was charismatic, had a good story, was talented and clearly wanted to succeed,” Gioiella said. “We suggested the story be narrowed down, so the filmmakers went back and shot for four more years and captured Keifer’s life as he graduated from high school and went on to college on scholarship in Green Bay.”
He knew the project was a gamble but had faith in director Nick Budabin, who had a good knowledge of all the kids and people involved in the shoot.
“When you looked at how Keifer came across on camera, we just knew his story was really going to attract an audience because he was motivational, goal-oriented and family-oriented,” Gioiella said. “It was clear he would be an engaging main character to follow.”
Overall, the film took eight years to complete, including about two years of editing, which was cut from more than 200 hours of footage.
“It took a long time to hone the story in and really say what we wanted to say and do it in a very cinéma-vérité way and make Keifer the hero of the story with all the surrounding community of Chicago,” Gioiella said. “We did a few test screenings and refined the message.”
Once it was finished, the team started applying to film festivals with their first big break coming in 2018 when “Chi-Town” was selected for the noted SXSW Festival. It then went to the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, winning the Audience Award for best feature film; the Busan International Film Festival in Haeundae-gu, Busan South Korea; the Raindance Film Festival in London; the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis, Ind.; and most recently the Las Cruces Film Festival in New Mexico where it won both the Grand Jury and Best Director awards.
“We were getting good reviews and a big social following and we attracted the attention of some distributors — one of them being Amazon — and we decided to partner with them to distribute the film online,” Gioiella said. “It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon Prime.”
“Chi-Town” has a very strong component about showing kids there’s a path to succeed if they are in a tough situation and it requires skills, determination and family support, and setting goals and achieving them.
“That’s something that has really resonated with critics and audiences in every country and community it’s been shown in,” Gioiella said. “Because of that, we’ve arranged what we call ‘impact screenings,’ in communities that are similar to Keifer’s upbringing and show at-risk kids the film and talk to them about it. Sometimes Keifer will appear for a question-and-answer section.”
Today, Sykes is playing professional basketball in Italy for Sidigas Avellino of the Italian Lega Basket Serie A league.
“He’s a star player for that team, and his goal is still to come back and play for the NBA,” Gioiella said. “Keifer was determined to make a change in his life for him and his family and he made a path and achieved that.”
In May, there was a screening in Italy to 400 high school girl basketball players and Gioiella is excited to get more screenings on the schedule around the world.
For more information about “Chi-Town,” visit chitownthemovie.com.