North America’s longest-running competitive film festival, the 55th Chicago International Film Festival kicks off on October 16 at the AMC River East 21 (where nearly every festival screening will, once again, be this year), running through October 27. This particular year is unique for one very significant reason: with festival founder Michael Kutza having officially retired, 2019 marks the first year he’s had no real impact on programming (although he still holds the title of Emeritus CEO; he began the festival in 1964).
As something of a symbolic way to mark this new phase in CIFF’s existence, the festival has rebranded itself in a manner organizers say “respects its history but looking forward” (more on that in a moment). In terms of programming, many of the selections in competition seem bolder and more formally daring.
As is the case with every major film festival, the Chicago festival programming team has to strike a careful balance between true international cinematic discoveries, works from a fresh and diverse crop of rising new filmmakers, and a handful of recognizable titles and talent to bring in audiences who are on the lookout for the occasional celebrity sighting. This year’s higher-profile titles collect some of the most talked about films from the year’s festival circuit; there are even a couple world premieres thrown into the mix, including the Chicago-centric Closing Night documentary about legendary blues musician Buddy Guy, The Torch.
Playing to its strength as a directors’ festival, Chicago International Film Festival remains focused on both new and established filmmakers, and the number of filmmakers coming in from around the world this year is impressive. And as it was last year, the festival spotlights Comedy, with a 10-film slate (plus a Comedy-themed shorts program) featuring a variety of selections from around the world, emphasizing the range of what is considered funny.
I sat down with Artistic Director Mimi Plauché, who was elevated within Cinema/Chicago, the Festival’s presenting non-profit organization, from Programming Director to her current position in 2018. In our conversation, Plauché (who has worked for Cinema/Chicago since 2006) and I go over the highlights and special events of this year’s festival. As always, she is a knowledgeable, reliable guide through the 130-plus films from dozens of countries. Take notes, and don’t be afraid to see something you’ve never heard of before—discovery is the joy of any film festival.
The morning press conference held to announce this year’s lineup felt different this year, starting with the fact that it was the first one I’ve ever been to where Michael Kutza wasn’t there. It felt like something of a rebirth in both enthusiasm and the approach to much of the festival.
Well, Michael is completely retired. We are in regular touch with him, but he’s not coming into the office at all. He wasn’t part of the film-selection committee. In some ways, it is the first year we’re doing it on our own. So one of the focuses of this year is, how do we continue the legacy of 55 years and respect that and take the things that we think are not just working but are great about the festival and make sure we’re doing those as well as we’ve ever done them? And then we look at the new things we can do to make it new, fresh, make it feel different. This isn’t a one-year plan. We’re really working with our board of directors and with some organizations and groups on the outside to think about, not just where we want to be this year but where we want to take it in the next 5-10 years.
Specifically, the word rebranding was used. What were some of things you felt you needed or wanted to rebrand?
Thinking again about that idea of rebirth, we wanted to make it feel fresh, make sure everything is crisp and clean, that the target audiences feel like we’re speaking to them with the way that we brand and present ourselves. The biggest thing was working with [advertising/public relations agency] Ogilvy this year. We had early conversations with them, talking about the legacy, talking about the logo, and also thinking abut how we wanted to present ourselves. In the end, there’s a small tweak to the logo, making it cleaner, but it all came down to thinking about this year’s campaign and the message around it. The campaign is “What role will you play?” We’re playing the idea of, whether it’s a role in a film or film set or the festival community, but also the role our audiences play—the life of a film and film festival. We want to make sure everybody knows there’s a role they can play, whether they’re a casual moviegoer or hardcore cinephile and everything in between.
Audiences in general are playing a bigger role because they are more vocal, in good ways and bad ways, and have more outlets to be heard. Is that also what you’re talking about? Be part of the conversation, rather than just sit through movies and talk to each other.
We’ve always been about that, but we want to make that clear. I think you’ll see with our campaigns with social media, we’re really trying to engage audiences. I’ve always felt the festival was about bringing the community together. When I started 15 years ago, there weren’t streaming services, and people were watching movies differently. It’s really about getting people from all walks of life. Let’s say we have a Mexican film, and you’ll have a core contingency of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans there, but you’ll also have this huge cross-section of the city of Chicago.
There are always interesting conversations that can happen after a film; it’s not just one type of audience member who is participating, so there’s a very specific type of interaction that can happen and we can encourage, and we feel only a film festival can provide. We still believe in going to the theater and seeing the film on the big screen, which you can do outside of the festival, but in terms of the atmosphere and post-screening discussions, we really want to encourage that kind of interaction among audiences and with the filmmakers themselves.
Are there specific programming things you’re doing differently this year, or perhaps things you’re building up to?
Building up to, for sure. One of those things is Industry Days [this is the fifth year of Industry Days, which focuses on programming for filmmakers and film industry professionals]. As the Chicago industry has grown—even before we started Industry Days—we were building more and more industry-focused programs. This year for the first time, we had an Industry Committee, so key players from different parts of the industry were part of the conversation about that program, and we wanted to make sure their interests were represented, and we’re opening that up to all aspects of the industry. It’s not just for aspiring directors or first-time producers; we’re making sure we’re welcoming to cinematographers, writers, etc.
One thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it’s just come to fruition this year, was production design master classes. We really started thinking about doing something that is architecture related that isn’t a documentary, although we are doing a lot of interesting ones about a building or designer. But we also wanted to think about cinemas relationship to architecture and design and the architectural language of cinema and the role that production designers are playing in world building. We have Hannah Beachler, who has done everything from Moonlight to Black Panther, and with her we can ask, what are particular production designers from different background bringing to their work, how are they working with filmmakers to create these world that we’re engaging with?
Are there other behind-the-scenes jobs you’d like to highlight moving forward?
I’ve thought a little bit about it, but I’m not sure yet. Last year, it started us thinking when we had [costumer designer] Ruth E. Carter. It’s not something we’ve totally landed on, in terms of whether it will be something we’ll do every year or will build up consistency so that it becomes something we’re known for. We got the grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and our grant application listed the four production designers that we have coming in, and we were able to get them all. These were our top choices, and we were looking for diversity of designers, whether it’s their background or the type of work that they do or where they are in their careers. We’re really happy with that.
Even before the press conference, the Festival did something I can’t remember doing before. Usually in your preview piece, you release the titles of 12-15 seemingly random titles, not necessarily headliners. But this year, you announced nearly all of your Special Presentation and Galas out for the world to admire, and it was exciting. What was the thinking?
Like you said, the thinking behind the “random group of titles” approach was, we wanted to make sure we were inclusive and let all the audiences know that we have something for them at the festival, whether it was different genres or countries, something from our Black Perspectives series or Cinema of the Americas and Outlook. That was our strategy for so many years. But we did shift strategies this year and started thinking about how we do this. We weren’t sure at first it would be all Galas and special events, but that’s what we did. We have some really great titles in the program this year, so it ended up making a huge splash this year, which was fun. That first release is about getting audiences and the press really excited, so that it raises awareness of the festival in general, so that when we do later releases, people are already paying attention. We held a few things back for the press conference that got some very audible responses [laughs].
Was there a process on landing on Motherless Brooklyn as the Opening Night title?
Always, we’re looking for a film that we just think is a great film, so that’s been the strategy for the last several years. What is a film that’s going to set the tone for the rest of the festival? Tonally, the films have been different from year to year, but I think with Motherless Brooklyn, we’ve had [director/lead actor] Edward Norton at the festival before; it’s both engaging and funny and borrowing some of the tropes of film noir that I think audiences will really respond to. It’s also incredibly well made; the ensemble cast could not be more perfect. So it’s about how to get the tone of the festival off in the right direction. One of the other things we love about the film is that it’s produced by Gigi Pritzker; it’s always nice when there’s a Chicago connection.
Speaking of Chicago connections, you’re closing with a very Chicago film [The Torch], which is also one of two world premieres. The festival doesn’t do many world premieres, and this one seems special. How did this come onto your radar?
IFC Films picked it up, and we started talking really early with them, before the film was finished, about doing something big with it. Obviously, because Buddy Guy is such a massive icon in the blues community, but particularly in Chicago. It became a series of conversations where we thought, if Buddy could be in town on closing night, it’s the right film to close with. We wanted to make sure he could be here for the premiere of the film.
So far, you’ve only announced the one tribute, to Gael García Bernal. People think of him as young, but he’s been acting since before he was a teenager—something like 30 years as an actor. Again, how did you land on him?
Gael is someone I have wanted to give a tribute to for a long time. He came in with Amores Perros, which was before I was here, and we’ve shown so many films he’s been in over the years. He’s a busy actor but he’s also busy as a producer. I’ve worked with people who have worked on the traveling documentary festival that he did in Mexico. And we showed his first feature that he directed [Déficit]. When we started talking with his production company about his new film [Chicuarotes], we said that this is the year we’d really love to do a tribute to him. He is so busy, but it ended up working out with his schedule, so we’re really excited. Personally, I think he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation. He can go seamlessly between drama and comedy, and handle different languages—he’s so versatile.
You said of the films in the International Competition that they were “bolder and more formally daring.”
There are a handful of films in there that are going to be particularly appealing to the cinephiles among us. We have the new Pedro Costa film Vitalina Varela, which is really beautiful; The Painted Bird from the Czech Republic, their Oscar contender; it’s a tough subject, and I think people who read the novel will know that. The Fever is a Brazilian first feature by a documentary director and Fire Will Come from Oliver Laxe, a Spanish director. He’s one of the bold, new generation of Spaniards working. They’re all narrative films, but they’re definitely out of the box in some way.
The director of The Fever, which is one of my favorite films in the festival, she’s a first-time feature director with a documentary background, and she’s working with non-professional actors in this. The room within the indigenous community in Brazil has always been contested in some way, and she’s dealing with that, but she didn’t know what was going to be happening in the Amazon today. It feels particularly poignant right now. It’s such an unexpected way of approaching her subject of an indigenous man could between cultures. I think you can lift it out of that very particular situation and think about migrant communities in different places and what it means to be in between.
You played Rian Johnson’s Brick when it was first on the festival circuit…
We did, and we also opened with Brother’s Bloom one year.
I’m excited that he’s coming back
We are too, and Knives Out is such a smart, funny, intelligent film. It’ll be such a fun screening, with a big, full house.
Are there any of the bigger titles you’re especially proud to have gotten or really wanted to get?
Personally, The Truth by Hirokazu Kore-eda. My background is in Japanese cinema, and we’ll have the U.S. premiere of it, so to be the first festival to showcase it—it opened Venice—is great because he’s a personal favorite. One of the things I love about this film is, sometimes you get nervous about a director who is, not just accessible, but also so skilled and proficient and is able to capture their own culture in a way that is very specific but can also reach an international audience and have that broad appeal. And I feel like he’s been the conduit for Japan in many ways. A lot of times, we’ll see European directors come to Hollywood to make their first film, and some are complete successes and others not so much because it’s difficult culturally—whether it’s the culture of filmmaking or shifting to the English language or how you work with actors or creative control they might have to give up. So when you have a director that has this incredible career working in his own country and language, and in this case, go to France and work with these amazing, major French actresses, it’s such a delightful surprise. It almost feels like a French film but then you have that taste of Kore-eda in there.
Back to the architecture spotlight, you’re doing a couple screenings at the MCA this year.
This was an ongoing conversation with them, and this just seemed to be the year to do it. The conversation first started around Knives and Skin [from Chicago-based director Jennifer Reeder], and Jennifer Reeder’s background is as an artist, so there’s a history there as well. It seemed like once there was one film that made sense to present there, we went in search of another one—both screenings are in one night—that was a good fit for the first Friday of the festival, the 18th. So we decided to do The New Bauhaus, thinking about a film that is truly a Chicago film but also thematically works in the MCA space.
You also are playing a few French animated films, which is great because they always seem to be so well done but not talked about as much as maybe some of the animation coming out of Asia or the United States.
Again, we’ve had one or two animated films; this year, we have four. They’re all films that are completely unique. You’ll probably love I Lost My Body; the fourth one is in the New Director’s Competition, Bombay Rose. They’re all completely different films, in terms of style, story and audience appeal. They’re beautiful and so unique.
I believe this is the first time you’ve labeled [with a “W” icon] throughout the program every film that is directed by a woman [or female-identifying]. Talk about how intentionally you’ve sought out films directed by women to boost the festival’s percentages [one-third of the festival’s offerings are directed by women and 43% of the shorts].
It’s something that, over the last several years, I’ve started tracking—what have our percentages been? It’s been increasing every year once I was named Artistic Director. We decided not to say “We have to have this percentage,” but it’s something we’re always aware of and thinking about, and as it’s been going up every year, we’ve been wondering how we can showcase it in a way that what we’re doing on the programming side is part of the larger conversation. Even when I first started 15 years ago, some press would say “Give me the list of films that were written or directed by women,” so there have been people paying attention to it for a long time.
Last year, we did a whole listing in the back of the program, but it didn’t make sense to separate those out, so it was very intentional that we designate every film directed by a woman within the entirety of the program. We also have a piece in the back about Dr. Stacy Smith [founder and director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, who will be speaking on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 4:30pm], and we’re really excited to invite her in. With the industry on the rise in Chicago, we want them to be thinking about question about diversity and inclusion, but also we want to show how we’re participating as a festival in that conversation.
Have any of the recent changes you’ve made in the festival, or perhaps things you’re considering in future years, been based on audience suggestions?
The biggest thing in terms of the audience feedback that we get would be, for example, the comedy program. People have asked us “Where are the comedies?” and we point them out, but having a Comedy program was a response to that. Once we started doing that a few years ago, it made us pay more attention to how audiences are responding, both in terms of attending and how they’re rating the films. Again, it’s about finding the right comedies to show. But we are listening. The other feedback we get has to do with specific countries; it’s not that we do or don’t program a film because it’s from a particular country, but it makes us more aware as programmers, because there is so much film out there and it makes us look at how we’re training our focus and what we’re going after. I remember the first time I programmed a Lithuanian film, it ended up being one of the first films to sell out, and I realized that there was a large Lithuanian population in Chicago that was eager to see their cinema.
Last year was the first year you had a slightly shorter festival [in duration] than previous years. How did that go for you? What was the reaction?
It went great. One of the things we found out was that the size of our audience didn’t change, so that meant we had fuller houses for everything, which was great. The biggest thing we realized is that the festival is an event, and we have to look at how to keep the energy high and how to make sure audiences are energized by coming to the festival. Shortening it and ending it on a weekend make it easier to keep the levels up for audiences and staff members, and probably for the press too [laughs]. Overall, it was a positive response, and we think it was a success on all fronts.
Now is time for the moment of truth: let us hear a few off-the radar recommendations you have for our readers.
One thing I wanted to point out is that Clemency, which won the award at Sundance [Grand Jury Prize], has a Chicago connection. Chinonye Chukwu [director] came to Chicago when we premiered her first film, alaskaLand, and she was a lovely guest and really experienced the festival and talked to a lot of people, and we stayed in touch with her. She reached out when she started to work on Clemency, when she was in search of a producer, and I put her in touch with Bronwyn Cornelius, who we’ve had at the festival. So I’m super excited to present the film, and they’re both coming in and taking part in a workshop panel that is a case study about how the film was made.
Where should we go from there?
Well, you know New Directors is one of my favorite competitions. I talked about Just 6.5 at the press conference, because it represented the best of contemporary Iranian cinema with its subtlety and texture and unpacking of human relationships. It’s in the genre of a police thriller and the contemporary issue of drug use. I also love when we have returning directors too, so a couple of the directors in this competition, we showed their first film, and these are their second: Litigante by Franco Lolli, and The Orphanage by Shahrbanoo Sadat. It’s part a quintology—when there’s five parts—and this is the second part. Again, it follows one of the characters from the first film, who is now a street kid in Afghanistan. I love when it’s so different in terms of style and feeling, even though it’s part of a larger story.
I always love when one of the last films to come in is one of my favorites, because it has to be special because we have so few spots left, and we have to find ways to round out the program. This year, that film was A Thief’s Daughter [from Belén Funes], from a first-time director from Spain, about a young woman who is living a life where everything is built to be against her. She has a baby, living in public housing, her father is in jail, but she’s also someone who is determined to change her life.
Films we’re playing under Masters include, of course, Varda by Agnes, which I saw in Berlin, and then she passed. I always wanted it in the festival, but even more so then. Again, so many returning directors; in fact, I think they all may be returning directors.
In documentaries, probably Waiting for the Carnival, which is set in a small Brazilian city, the filmmaker’s hometown, is a great one. We’ve shown his works before, his features and he’s a screenwriter, but he went back to his hometown, which as become the jeans production center of Brazil. Everybody has left the big factory setting and set up their own factories. It’s an interesting take on people’s relation to labor and capitalism gone haywire. My Father and Me I love. I’m not always a personal doc kind of person, but these are not only interesting characters, but it’s so beautifully told story of a father and his son’s relationship.
Under Global Currents, Atlantics [pictured] is highly anticipated out of Cannes. It’s a story of migration told from the point of view of those that stay behind and thinking about labor and migration from the perspective of a young African woman. The County—I love Icelandic cinema—is from the director of Rams. Again, the woman who is lead character is widowed early in the film, so she has to run the family dairy farm on her own, and she starts to realize that there’s a co-op that is strong arming the community; not a co-op in the feel-good sense of the word—charging exorbitant prices from its members. And she decides she’s going to take a stand for herself and the community.
I’m super-excited about Les Misérables, France’s Academy Award selection. It’s about a multi-cultural, mostly African community in suburban Paris, dealing with a subject that is very familiar in Chicago—the relationship between the community and the police. It’s an action film. Let There Be Light is set in small-town Slovakia; it’s a man’s coming-of-age story—he’s working Germany, goes back for the holidays, and realizes that this ultra-conservative group is overtaking his town, and his son is somehow implicated in their doings, and he has to figure out how to take a stand. With Paradise Net, there’s a nice Chicago connection. It’s a Japanese director, working in Taiwan, and the producer actually went to Columbia College. It’s a great out-of-the-box drama. The Wild Goose Lake is another Asian film that is an action-crime-thriller, and the set pieces in it are amazing.
One more I’ll mention: Those Who Remained, which is Hungary’s Academy Award contender. it’s a post-Holocaust story, very affecting story about a young woman and middle-aged man who are left on their own because they lost family members to the Holocaust, and it looks at what it means to be a survivor.
Mimi, thank you so much for your insight. Always a pleasure.
The Chicago International Film Festival opens October 16 and runs through October 27, with hundreds of film screenings and special events throughout. Regular tickets run $18; special event tickets vary. Visit chicagofilmfestival.com for more details.
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