Norm Bruns self portrait
Norm Bruns in a self portrait. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

Rediscovering Norm Bruns: A Chicago filmmaker whose work was almost forgotten

Norm Bruns in a self portrait. Courtesy of Woody Johnson
Norm Bruns self portrait
Norm Bruns in a self portrait. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

Rediscovering Norm Bruns: A Chicago filmmaker whose work was almost forgotten

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Norm Bruns had no formal training as a filmmaker: His camera came from a garage sale, his cast members were friends and his sets were homemade. Despite all that, he worked at a blazing pace in the early 1980s and created films that were quickly compared to all-time greats.

His short, grainy films — shot on a Super 8 camera, mostly in black and white — were praised in the Chicago Reader in 1982 as “startlingly sure and eerie” and shown at the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1989 — the year before he died of AIDS.

Norm Bruns in an undated photo.
Norm Bruns in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Bruns family

After his death at age 40, Bruns’s films weren’t shown for nearly three decades. They were sometimes spoken about in a near mythical manner among Super 8 buffs, but were mostly chalked up as long lost art, said Josh B. Mabe, a local filmmaker.

Now, thanks to Mabe’s determination and perhaps a touch of movie magic, Chicago audiences will be reintroduced to Bruns’s work at the 40th annual Reeling Film Festival — formerly known as the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival that showed his work more than 30 years ago.

Barbara Scharres, who wrote the Reader article about Bruns, compared his “exceedingly ghostly” films to the work of French filmmaker Jean Cocteau and American avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren and Curtis Harrington.

“This is all the more surprising as Bruns is largely unfamiliar with the tradition into which his work clearly falls,” Scharres wrote.

The lost films of Norm Bruns

Mabe, a Chicago librarian, had gone looking for those “ghostly” films once before around 2012. In an effort to find a relative, he called every Bruns he could find in Cook County, but came up empty-handed. Mabe decided in 2019 to try one more time to track down the work of a man he never met, but whose lost films were legendary in certain circles.

Using a genealogy database, Mabe said he found an old address of Bruns’s, then his mother’s obituary with a list of all her children’s names. That led Mabe to Facebook, where he found a picture of Neil Bruns — one of Norm’s younger brothers — that included where he worked. Mabe called him at his job and finally was headed in the direction of the missing treasure.

The films Mabe had spent years searching for were all safe in another Bruns brother’s basement in Oregon, Illinois. So Mabe called Noel Bruns: The keeper of art.

“I had no idea what to do with them,” said Noel Bruns, who stored his brother’s films safely for almost 30 years, until Mabe’s call came. “The family and I are all just so grateful that he has given them a new life.”

Mabe and Noel Bruns connected just before the pandemic brought the world — and film festivals — to a halt, but with the goods in hand and ample time at home for movie viewing, Mabe had a project perhaps tailor-made for lockdown.

When he fired up the films, he saw elaborate homemade sets and costumes; he saw scenes shot in Chicago apartments, but also in bingo halls and outside in nature; and in it all he saw the work of an amateur filmmaker that felt complex and confident.

“There’s a lovely dreamlike quality to the films that just shows a confidence that you would not expect from somebody who is, quote-unquote, an amateur,” Mabe said. “He’s an amateur in the best sense of the word: someone who’s passionate about the work and about doing the work.”

To watch Bruns’s films is to be transported into a different world — one that feels both of another era and somehow timeless. The work feels less like a product of the ’80s and far more like something that may have been made decades earlier. The sets are often simple, but Mabe said the messages are surprisingly complex — and a tad haunting.

“Norm Bruns’s work embodies the kind of work that Reeling was founded to support, which is experimental film with a queer sensibility,” Brenda Webb, executive director of Reeling, said in a statement.

Since 2020, Mabe has shown Bruns’s shorts a couple of times, including at a film festival in New York this year. At Reeling though, they will come home to Chicago, where Bruns lived and worked — and where the films will eventually be archived.

The Reeling screening of Bruns’s work — billed as Rediscovering the Magic of Norm Bruns — is a compilation of 10 short films that run between three to 13 minutes each. In total, the program will be a little more than an hour.

The man behind the camera

Bruns had a way of making people feel at ease when he was behind the camera, said his close friend Mary Beth Bush, who appears in Screen Test, which will be shown at Reeling.

Beyond creating films, Bruns also took still photographs and dabbled in poetry and sculpture. He was outgoing, a prankster who could make his friends laugh and a fountain of ideas, Bush said.

“He was the most creative person I have ever known,” Bush said.

Bruns grew up in suburban Palatine, the oldest of a large brood of kids — seven sons and one daughter, raised by a dad who worked in a factory and a mom who stayed home. Bruns and his dad didn’t always see eye to eye, his brother Noel said.

Norm Bruns, left, with his parents and siblings in an undated photo.
Norm Bruns, left, with his parents and siblings in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Bruns family

As a young adult living in Chicago, Bruns sought out adventure. His friend Geoff Grove said Bruns had a knack for finding gems all across the city — from dive bars to drag bars — Bruns seemed to have endless energy to explore and a desire to meet new people.

When Bruns got sick, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak in the United States. From 1981 through 1990, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died of AIDS, with the greatest number of deaths occuring in men between the ages of 25 and 44.

“When Norm was diagnosed with AIDS, I saw a change in my dad, and I speak of my dad in particular, because I didn’t know what direction he would go,” Noel Bruns said. “Where there had not existed warmth before, there was warmth.”

Toward the end of his life, Bruns often spent time in Wisconsin. But when he got too weak to make the trip, his parents brought him home to their house, where he died in 1990.

Mary Beth Bush, a close friend of Norm Bruns's, appears in the film 'Screen Test,' which will be shown at the Reeling Film Festival this year.
Mary Beth Bush and Norm Bruns. Bush appears in the film ‘Screen Test,’ which is among the works of Bruns’s that will be shown at the Reeling Film Festival this year. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

The gift of seeing Bruns’s work

Woody Johnson met Bruns at a bar in 1983, when Bruns was renting a unit in a “very old building, where most of the apartments had stove heaters, so the place would be freezing,” Johnson said. Located on Grand, not far from Halsted, the one-bedroom went for about $100 a month, at a time when Johnson recalls most other apartments cost five times as much.

Woody Johnson and Norm Bruns.
Woody Johnson and Norm Bruns. Courtesy of Woody Johnson

Bruns’s day job was at a picture framing company, where he designed artwork, and by the time he met Johnson, Bruns was largely done making films — the bulk of which were made in a stunningly short period of time between 1980-81.

“He said all that he wanted to say with film, so he didn’t really do anymore after that,” said Johnson, Bruns’s former partner.

When Johnson saw Bruns’s finished films, he “knew they were beautiful,” but couldn’t put into words what he liked about them.

Barbara Scharres could. In that 1982 Reader article, which ran with the headline “Trance Occurrences,” Scharres — who was the longtime programming director of what is now known as the Gene Siskel Film Center — wrote about the “artful innocence” in Bruns’s work.

“Most of the films are not humorous, yet sometimes we want to laugh with joy at the magic and purity of their vision,” she continued. “To see Bruns’s films is to be granted a too-brief and fragile vision of his mysterious netherworld, to be the recipient of a shadowy gift.”

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.