Interview: Chicago Film Festival’s Mimi Plauché on Transitioning to Virtual Events and Festival Gems to Seek Out at 56th Annual Affair

Needless to say, things for the programmers of the 56th Chicago International Film Festival are a little different in 2020. At the same time, some things never change. Although the festival’s regular venue (downtown’s AMC River East 21) is currently open and playing films, the combination of the venue’s capacity limits and the uncertain future of movie theaters in general made it necessary for Cinema/Chicago Artistic Director Mimi Plauché and her team to seek out other alternatives for screening movies, both in person and virtually.

As a result, this year’s festival—taking place October 14-25—includes 58 feature films (including seven world premieres), nine short film programs and a reduced number of tributes to and conversations with filmmakers and actors. Embracing the current state of both the world and film festivals with its 2020 edition, the Chicago International Film Festival will retain its signature screening slate of international features and shorts in and out of competition. Virtual screenings and events will be ticketed, and, for the first time in 2020, many films will be accessible to national audiences via the festival’s streaming platform. In addition to the bulk of the festival’s offerings available to stream, they will also show a total of eight films live at ChiTown Movies drive-in theater in Pilsen, including the world premiere of the John Belushi documentary Belushi on opening night, and the much-talked-about latest work from director Chloe Zhao (The Rider), Nomadland, for closing night.

With its slate cut by more than half, the festival programming team has managed to strike its usual balance of true international cinematic discoveries, works from a fresh and diverse crop of rising new filmmakers, and a handful of recognizable titles and talent (there will be a handful of virtual Q&As to accompany some of the features) to bring to audiences. Once again, I chatted at length with Plauché, and as always, she is a knowledgeable, reliable guide through this year’s program, despite certain planned events having to be put on hold this year. More than ever, audiences have access to so many terrific Chicago International Film Festival titles and you don’t even have to leave your home to view most of them.

So I guess the obvious first question is, at what point did you and your team start to realize that a traditional film festival wasn’t going to be possible, that screening in a traditional movie theater wasn’t going to be an option?

Fairly early on actually. I remember having conversations about this as far back as late March, when things started shutting down. A couple of other festivals began moving to a virtual model, so logistically, you just need to figure out what the impact of making that move was. Originally—back in March and April—we were still hopeful that there was still a possibility of doing something in a theater, but really, we’re a year-round organization, we do member screenings throughout the year, and we had our CineYouth Festival coming up at that point, which we had to postpone. So we did our first online event starting at the end of April, and a lot of that was looking at where we are now, and we wanted to make sure we stay connected with our audiences. But in the back of our minds, we’re thinking about the eventuality of not being in theaters, and by the time October rolls around, we need to train ourselves and our audience used to interacting with films and filmmakers in this space.

Obviously, people watch a lot online and on TV, but it’s not how our audiences would interact with the festival films or a film with a Q&A after, so we started doing that really early, not with the intention of, come October, that’s where we would still be. We were hoping we wouldn’t be, but if we were, we wanted to be fully prepared and know what worked and didn’t work. From some of those early events, we felt enthusiastic about the response we were getting and the way audiences were, in fact, interacting at Q&As, asking questions, and having chats with each other in the chat box. It felt a little bit like a film club at points, with the Q&A going on at the same time. Once we found that that was happening and was a possibility, it felt very promising.

In fact, Cinema/Chicago was one of the first organizations to adopt the virtual cinema format, usually with Q&As.

We pretty much only wanted to do stuff where we could do Q&As [with the screening]. We were also careful and communicative with a lot of the local theaters, not wanting to step on their toes. Some of it was doing advance screenings of titles that were going to be coming out on platforms, and some were films that didn’t have a theatrical release in place yet. As the independent movie theaters were moving into that space, we didn’t want to be stepping on anyone’s toes, because for all of us, it’s important that they thrive, now more than ever.

So at what point did you start considering alternative ways of hosting a festival? And which alternatives stood out the most doable and accessible? Some festivals have gone all-virtual; some genre festivals have gone all drive-in, and you’ve got this great combination of the two.

I would say we started looking at drive-in options really early, probably starting in May, knowing that if it was something we would have to build, it would take a lot of work and fundraising and a different type of focus than what we were used to. So early on, we were exploring a lot of options of what a drive-in scenario might look like. And as various drive-ins started popping up, and we started getting wind of different ones coming to the city and the suburbs, we started paying attention to that and wondering if it would be possible and maybe a better idea to work with one that was already up and running. We had a lot of conversations about what those different options were, even as we were thinking there was still the possibility of moving back into theaters. By May or July, we were thinking it would be hybrid and what would that mean. We were prepared to be online but also we wanted some in-person component, whether that was a combination of theatrical and drive-in or just one or the other. The hybrid model could have taken many different forms, and we were trying to keep our options open. It wasn’t really until the beginning of August that it became clear that we weren’t going to be in theaters and the drive-in was going to be a possibility. All along, we were preparing to have some component of it in the virtual cinema space, but what the other components were going to be was the question that took longer to figure out.

I think I read somewhere that the Chi-Town Movies venue upgraded their equipment for either the festival or the Music Box of Horrors, but can’t remember which.

[laughs] I think it was a joint effort. For us, it was very important to be able to be there with new releases, and for that, we needed to have DCP projection. And I think at the same time, the Music Box had been in talks to do the 31 Nights of Terror. My understanding is that between both of us, it was an ongoing conversation that crystalized, and as far as I’ve heard, they’ve been great to work with.

Now that the schedule is out there and the formats are in place, what has been the reaction from members and other attendees?

Back in July, we sent out surveys to members and former ticket buyers to get a sense of what were audiences not only comfortable with but also enthusiastic about. Again, we were pleasantly surprised how many people expressed enthusiasm about being in an online space with the festival, but also people open to the possibility of a drive-in. And of course, we’re aware that not everybody has the capacity or desire to go to a drive-in. I’m sympathetic because I don’t have a car. Understanding that some people might not be able to participate in that part of the festival, it’s complicated because there’s increased accessibility in terms of being online. You don’t have to travel or take the train downtown, you don’t have to get on a plane—it’s accessible in so many ways. It felt like that was balancing it out. It was also important to us to have some sort of in-person component, knowing that it wasn’t going to be on the scale of what we usually do. We still wanted to provide a type of in-person experience in a safe way; that was important.

Did this change impact the way you programmed the festival, outside of a pared-down number of titles?

Yes and no. Like you were saying, it’s actually less than half of the features that we usually have. I would say that the goal remained the same, but it was something we talked a lot about—what does a program look like this year? It became clear that it was important for us to really stay true to our identity and really continue to showcase the types of films and filmmakers and different programs we have, whether it’s new directors competition or Black perspectives program, which I think is stronger than ever this year. So we were really thinking about how we keep that through-line with our identity and the integrity of the program, but also think about what it means if you’re at a drive-in or in an online space. How is that experience different? This isn’t any different from any year, but what does this moment culturally, socially, politically look like, and what is cinema’s relation to that? That’s something we’re always thinking about, but this particular moment with the pandemic just happens to be very different than what we’re usually looking at in cinema’s response to. In terms of the caliber of films and the type of cinema that we not only have a long history of but are proud to showcase, it became clear that that was very important.

Programming a festival in a time of societal upheaval—you don’t program in a bubble. Can you elaborate how the nation and the world helped shape the film choices?

One of the things that I think is always so interesting is sometimes how you get films that are made before a moment happens and almost predict it. You can’t help be intrigued by certain films that were probably written 2-3 years ago but are so relevant. For example, the Greek film Apples, the backdrop of it is a global pandemic but it’s a pandemic that causes amnesia. There were several films that were incredibly strong this year that have civil unrest or protest as part of the major narrative drive in them, whether it’s Michel Franco’s New Order or the German film in competition called And Tomorrow the Entire World, or even Dear Comrades!, a 1960s-set Soviet film about protest at a factory in a small industrial city. Some of our Black Perspective films, which I think would be relevant in any moment, have that relevance that really shines through because of this moment of heightened awareness, whether it’s Regina King’s One Night in Miami, which is based on a stage play and has this question and what it means to be an activist, or the documentary 40 Years a Prisoner, which follows Michael Africa Jr. as he spends basically his lifetime trying to get his parents out of jail on a wrongful conviction. It’s interesting in the ways in which the films are almost predicting what’s going to happen or the filmmaker or writers are tuned into the moment even before the rest of us are.

Apples / Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Have you found that people want to be reminded of the world around them, or are they looking for an escape from it?

The thing when we’re programming is that not every film can or will be that, so it’s important to us to continue with our comedy programs or anything that helps keep a balance in our programming. Love stories make us feel good, so it’s equally important to have films that take us away from the world around us.

As far as I can tell, the only themed programming this year, outside of the categories you have every year, is something called “Love in the Time of….” Can you explain what that is exactly?

As we pared down the program, we’ve often had a large program out of competition that was called World Cinema or U.S. Indies, so we were really thinking about the other themes that were coming through. We could tap into a theme and really draw something out that would connect an audience with those films rather than just a broader category. So at some point, it became clear that that was an interesting and attractive organizing principle for a lot of the films.

You’re going to offer most of the non-drive-in titles virtually for the duration of the festival.

We do have a handful of films that are called “Appointment Screenings” in the online space. For example, we’re doing Fireball and we’re doing a Q&A with Werner Herzog directly tied to that, so that is definitely a case where you watch the film at a certain time and go into the Q&A. A lot of other festivals running at the same time as us, we were trying to think about how to combine that festival experience but also understand that people are at home, watching film in their own time and schedule, which is how people have been watching films throughout this pandemic and before. The way that we’re trying to tap into that festival experience is that we’re scheduling real-time Q&As with filmmakers. For example, we have the world premiere of this Venezuelan film The Special, so it’s available beginning October 14, opening night, but we are also going to be doing a Q&A with the filmmaker and the producer and maybe one of the actors at a set time. So what we’ll do is suggest a certain start time if you want to go right into the Q&A after the film, but you can watch it at any time and still participate in the Q&A. And we’ll be recording the Q&As, and you may watch that first and become more interested in the film and watch it later.

Are there any Q&As you’re pre-recording to have on hand if people want to watch them?

It’s going to be a combination of the two. We decided to do set-time, livestream Q&As at the same time every day, so if audiences know that every day at 2pm, 7pm and 9pm, there’s going to be a live Q&A that you can tune into. At 11am, we’re going to do a series of more casual conversations with groups of filmmakers. One of the things we wanted was to offer some opportunities for interaction between filmmakers and audience members because that is one of the defining factors of a film festival that makes it different than just going to a screening at a movie theater.

Your opening-night film had to be one of the easiest choices you’ve ever had as a programmer. Talk about getting Belushi, and was there even another film in the running?

It is a perfect opening-night film. Even before we saw the film, we thought that but as soon as we saw it, it confirmed what we knew already. It’s not just a film about John Belushi; it’s an amazing film about John Belushi. It’s not just your standard talking-head reflection on a man and his legacy; it’s an incredibly dynamic film with all of these recorded interviews from a long time ago, but the way that the interviews are matched with the images and how they capture his relationship with Judy Belushi and her correspondence with John when they weren’t in the same place over the years, I think it’s not just a reminder of why John Belushi is so iconic but also it shows a different side of him. Once we saw it, it became clear to us that it would be a great opening night film.

Belushi / Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

And I love that you also have the perfect companion film in the Del Close documentary [For Madmen Only].

I know. That actually came to us first. One thing we’re always thinking about is having a certain percentage of the program connect with Chicago, and some of that has to do with Chicago-made films. Both of these are connecting with Chicago as a city of comedy, as the Second City, so it felt like a natural fit. When we first got hold of For Madmen Only, we didn’t know what was going to be happening with Belushi. And they’re very different films, but we’re excited to have audiences see both of them.

Were there any ideas for specialty programming that had to be postponed this year?

Last year, we did the program around Production Design, and that was so successful, so we were thinking about other ways to showcase the crafts and arts people that go into making a film. So this year the intention was going to be cinematography. We decided to postpone that because it was going to be too complicated to do those types of master classes online in the way that we wanted to. It’s not canceled; it’s postponed [laughs]. We’d also been in talks with the city—and this isn’t postponed but extended—is something tied into the year of Chicago music, which was starting in the summer and continuing through the festival. We did a few events during the summer around sound and music in cinema, so that motivated us to send an invitation to Terence Blanchard to do a master class. There are certain things that we had planned that we are continuing to be able to do as well.

You have tributes planned as always. How are those going to look?

The Kate Winslet tribute is going to be pre-recorded. But the Rachel Brosnahan one is going to have a live audience, and there will opportunities for audience members to ask questions. I think even on Zoom, there’s a sense of immediacy that will come through.

All right, it’s time for your annual below-the-radar picks for titles that viewers should pay attention to that aren’t at the drive-in and may not get the love that some of the other high-profile films will.

One of the things I push every year is the New Directors Competition. There are some filmmakers who you just know that this is going to be the first of many in a long career of making great film. One I would like to point out is Memory House, which is a Brazilian drama, set in the south of Brazil and an indigenous Black Brazilian man has to move down there to take a job in a dairy factory. He’s placed in an Australian colony, left over from World War II migration. And he’s moving into an environment that to him is very hostile toward him, and he finds refuge in this abandoned house that has these relics that seem to have a mysterious power that connects him to where he came from in the north but emboldens him to confront his tormentors.

Also in that competition is a Japanese film called Any Crybabies Around? I think Sato Takuma is an up-and-coming voice. In some ways, it’s a coming-of-age story of a young man who has spent his life shirking responsibilities and he becomes an outcast. He goes to Tokyo but decides he wants to go back to the town he grew up in and face up to his past mistakes. One of the things the film does so beautifully is the way it integrates certain aspects of Japanese culture seamlessly into the story.

I want to bring up the two Chicago documentaries we’re world premiering. Mama Gloria does such a good job of not only telling her story but showing how her story is part of the Chicago story and also the LGBTQ community, especially the trans community’s story that we don’t often see, starting with the ball scene in Bronzeville in the 1960s to all of the work that she’s done in the trans community of Chicago. It’s quite inspiring. The other one is The Road Up, which is by the directing duo of Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, who made a big splash with Louder Than a Bomb. This is also a very Chicago story set in the world of the social services organization Cara, specifically this training program they have that provides job training and life training. It follows this one class and one mentor as they go through the process of trying to get back on their feet, get job ready, life ready—all of the triumphs and sorrows that go along with that. That’s actually going to play at the drive-in, and I think it’s really important to have Chicago represented at the drive-in.

The Road Up
The Road Up / Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

We have a really strong lineup of Italian films, and Padremostro is playing in competition. To a degree, it’s based on the experiences of the director but there’s also this magical-realist element to it. It follows this 10-year-old boy who witnesses the attempted assassination of his father and the world that he has to escape into in order to survive that trauma. It’s an incredibly beautiful, heart-wrenching film, but it’s also an interesting take on that PTSD experience for a child. And we’re also doing a tribute to Gianfranco Rosi, who became best known recently for Fire at Sea, but we’re playing his latest film Notturno, which is a layered film that is a gorgeous contemplation and also the life, trauma and hardship at the same time living life on the Syrian/Turkish/Kurdish/Iraqi border. It’s really compelling.

We have two strong Iranian films this year, including There Is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, by Mohammad Rasoulof; we’re shown many of his films, which have won awards in the past. This film is playing as part of our Masters program. The film looks at the social, personal, and political ramifications of having the death penalty that is still government sanctioned. Through these four stories, it shines a light on different aspects of that, but can also be very relevant to this country.

We have a documentary called Transoceanicas, which is a unique film that is correspondence over years between a Spanish filmmaker, whose first feature we showed two years ago—Chasing the Wind—and this Argentine filmmaker who became friends when they were both living in the same place and over years lived apart. But as creative filmmakers, instead of just writing emails or text messages or letters, they sent each other video letters, and they’re quite intimate but also have this beautiful narrative arc because these women go through different periods in their own lives. It’s a unique and touching documentary, but also formally very different than what we often show.

We have a number of female filmmakers who have taken on genres that are more traditionally directed by men. Under the Open Sky by the Japanese director Nishikawa Miwa; it’s the tale of a Yakuzu who’s coming out of prison after many years and has to integrate into society. It’s definitely a different thing, even though it has elements of traditional Yakuza film, the character is a different take on that story. There’s also Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman, which is definitely a crime story told from the woman’s perspective, who is maybe more surrounded by criminals. Similarly there’s another crime drama from Switzerland by a first-time director called Of Fish and Men. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about the question of responsibility and forgiveness.

I guess the unexpected silver lining is that in terms of audience members and guests, you may have people be a part of this festival that you otherwise might not have.

The thing that I find inspiring in the response we’re getting from audiences is them being excited about the films, about the festival. Even though it’s going to take a very different form, it’s all new content and we’ll be having these live components. And as we’re booking these Q&As with filmmakers, normally they’d all be coming to Chicago but they’re very enthusiastic about the possibility of meeting audiences in the online space and feeling like they’re part of the festival this year. Early on, maybe in July, I had a conversation with a filmmaker and the question was, What does it mean for the filmmakers to have their films to be shown in this very different way? They made them with the expectation that they would have these theatrical festival showings and tour the world with them, and some are saying that festivals are a lifeline and we need them now more than other, as a way to have the work shown to audiences and get it out there. Once I heard that, I felt confident moving forward in the online space.

Have you found that audience members like the idea of not having as stringent a schedule for most of the screenings?

We’ll get the statistics at the end, but what we’ve heard during past festivals is that our sweet spot is to show something between 6pm and 8pm. What we’re hearing is that at home people start watching at 9pm. That doesn’t affect us one way or the other, but I think it will be very different. And you’re right, we’re looking for those silver linings and takeaways that we can lean into.

If you do get to do something resembling a normal festival next year, I’m curious if any of this year’s ideas carry over into next year.

Yes! I think there is a sense that some things will live on, definitely. But until we go through it this year, we’re not going to know what those are and what would make sense moving forward.

Well best of luck to you and your team.

Yeah, it will be different, but I think we have a really good handle on what’s possible. There are different types of limitations when we’re not just putting a film on screens, but we’re ready.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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