Film

Interview: Chicago International Film Festival’s Mimi Plauché on a Hybrid Fest, Hidden Gems and Helping Audiences Connect to Films

With the city of Chicago—not to mention the world, the nation, and the movie-going public—in various stages of pandemic living (Chicago specifically and Illinois in general seems to be doing much better than most), the programmers for the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, happening October 13-24, set about to pull together an event even as it was something of a moving, ever-shifting target. At a certain point, Cinema/Chicago Artistic Director Mimi Plauché and her team decided that things were safe enough to attempt to re-establish a sense of normality, with a few new provisions and safety protocols in place.

A year ago, the festival’s established downtown home, AMC River East 21, was at such reduced capacity that the decision was made to split the festival’s 58 feature titles and nine short film programs between a virtual platform and ChiTown Movies drive-in theater in Pilsen. The results were so successful, both financially and with audiences, that both formats are back in play in 2021, with the festival also returning to its primary River East venue as well. In addition, the festival is once again embracing its practice of spreading the fun among some of the city’s other neighborhoods, with additional screenings at Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theatre, the Loop’s Gene Siskel Film Center, and Bronzeville’s pop-up venue at the Parkway Ballroom.

With more than 80 feature films (in 2019, the festival featured more than 130) and 10 short film programs from around the world (in and out of competition), the number of offerings this year has grown considerably over 2020 as well. This includes two in-person tributes. One goes to filmmaker and actor Kenneth Branagh, who will be given a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of a screening of his latest directing effort, Belfast, on Thursday, October 21, at the Music Box Theatre; and the Artistic Achievement Award will be bestowed upon actor and newly-minted director Rebecca Hall, in connection with her filmmaking debut Passing, on Wednesday, October 20, at River East.

The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch / Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Other highlights this year include multiple opening night offerings: Wes Anderson’s spritely ensemble wonder, The French Dispatch (at the Music Box); Todd Haynes’ masterful music doc The Velvet Underground (at the Drive-In); and even the late-night horror morsel in David Gordon Green’s sequel Halloween Kills (also at the Music Box). Other films anchoring the festival include Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, and the closing night presentation, King Richard, starring Will Smith and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men).

Even with a reduced number of films and screenings, the festival’s 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 both in-person guests and a handful of virtual Q&As to accompany some of the feature films) to bring to audiences. As has been our annual tradition for around a decade, I chatted at length with Plauché—who, in August, was awarded the title and rank of “Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres” (Knight of the Order of Arts and Lettres) by the French Ministry of Culture—and as always, she is a knowledgeable guide through this year’s program, as well as through the thought processes that went into building this year’s unique event. Please enjoy…

Congratulations on your recognition by the French Ministry of Culture recently. I think the obvious first question is, in what ways will you abuse your newfound power of cultural influence?

[laughs] I can’t broadcast that, Steve, otherwise it doesn’t work.

You said during the festival’s recent press conference that there were 25 percent more submissions than 2019. What do you think accounts for that?

I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. One is that every year they go up in general; we’ve been consistently getting increases year over year in the 16 years that I’ve been here. I remember when we’d think 1500 shorts was a lot to consider, and now it’s like 4500. The other is that there were probably productions that were held up or held back because of the pandemic. Last year, we were just below 2019 submissions, so we were a little bit low our high, which we were surprised about. But this year, it shot way up. Plus of course, the reputation of the festival [laughs]!

Naturally. In most years, it’s about picking the films and scheduling them within a single venue. This year, you’re all over the place, you’re virtual again, you’re at the drive-in again. From a purely organizational standpoint, did this seem like an insane year to program?

It was but not necessarily for the reasons you’re saying. To a degree, when we invited a film to the drive-in, we were inviting them to screen at the drive-in. There was a little bit of clarity when we were inviting films about which venue they would play. For the Music Box, there’s a bit of clarity there too since it’s a big venue. And we’re also thinking about the classic look of the  Music Box and what should be there. The other side of it was, for example, working with the Gene Siskel Film Center, we went back and forth a lot about what we would possibly play there. In the end, we decided they should be films that had a connection with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—two of the filmmakers are graduates of SAIC. The Conversations at the Edge, we were already looking at Come Here, when we realized they were doing a program around [director] Anocha Suwichakornpong this fall, and we just organized the timing of that to be the last film in their series. That was a happy coincidence.

The other was consideration was that the Gene Siskel is a great venue that plays Chicago films, so the last two are Chicago documentaries by filmmakers whose work has shown there before. Once we started talking about the partnership, we weren’t quite sure what we were going to play there, but once we saw the program, it became clear what belonged there.

The biggest challenge was that last year we were hybrid, but the only in-person screenings were at the drive-in. This year, it’s like organizing two festivals at the same time. A much higher percentage of the films are online than we were anticipating, which is great. After last year, thinking about accessibility in a different way, whether it’s concerns about physically getting or being in the theater for safety reasons. We know audiences are starting to come back to the movies, but there are also a lot of audience members who aren’t comfortable. Last year, we were national for a lot of our outreach; this year, we’re going to be across seven states in the midwest. We did have a lot of audience members tuning in regionally, and it’s important to reach those audiences as well, maybe in places that don’t have the types of theaters that would play the types of films that we show.

Looking back at last year, how do you think it went?

We were really pleased with how it went. We ended up with about the same audience size that we would have in a normal year, give or take about 100. Because we couldn’t be in the theaters, people were tuning in. We got a lot of great feedback from people. For a small part of the audience, there was a learning curve with watching films online, but we had a great customer service staff that got people up and running, and after the first few days, there really weren’t issues with accessing any of the films. One of the other things we did that we learned from was doing these events online that did not have any geo-blocking restrictions, so we were getting people tuning into talks from around the world, so that was nice too.

With the drive-in, we got the funniest comments and personal emails saying “I felt human for the first time in six months.” We got a lot of positive feedback about that. People missed being in the theaters, so we’re glad we can be back this year. One of the things people really seemed to miss was standing in line or sitting in the theater next to people and talking about films that they’ve seen and getting recommendations. There’s a lot of camaraderie that builds up among the audiences when they’re together; that’s something you can’t re-create with the online experience. We did a large percentage of our Q&As last year as live-stream events, so that we could have audience participation, and we had audiences that were building their schedules around that, which was great. This year, because of travel restrictions, we’re going to have limited filmmaker attendance but a lot of participation in online Q&As, with some recorded and a lot of live-stream ones again as well.

You’re coming back to the drive-in again this year. Once you realized that people were taking to it last year, did you realize you had to come back at least one more time?

The biggest question this year wasn’t “Should we do it?” but “What films will let us do it there?” Who else is embracing the drive-in experience, because it’s very unique. That’s why we were trying to be strategic about what films belong there, and honestly, all of the films we invited to be there said yes, and they were thinking the same way we were that these are films that can be enhanced by someway by that unique drive-in experience. Last year, we had great success with Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia; people were telling us how they were dancing in their cars. Obviously, The Velvet Underground is a different type of film than that, but there’s a lot of music in it and a similar audience as well. And then the others are sci-fi, horror—The Harder They Fall is a mash-up of genres and a lot of fun, and the drive-in seemed like a fun way to experience that film.

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground / Image courtesy of AppleTV

Are there still some ideas for the festival that the team was considering pre-pandemic that you’re still waiting to implement when things get 100 percent back to normal?

A lot of the changes as an institution or organization were never meant to take place over a one-year period. Some things, even with the pandemic, we’ve been able to establish—and some of it is behind-the-scenes stuff. As a film festival, the thinking is always about how do we amplify the films that we’re showing and provide a great platform for them, not just here in Chicago but beyond. Playing at the festival in Chicago is not only good for a film because it exposes it to a Chicago audience, it builds word of mouth, but also it helps those films that maybe don’t have distribution yet that, by being at the festival, we’re providing a platform for them. It’s more a question of how do we do what we’re doing better?

Another part of that this year is, we were able to launch our Chicago Industry Exchange, that’s something that’s been in the works a long time. Part of that was finally getting the funding to do it and part was building up Industry Days. That goes back to considering how we support the filmmaking community, whether it’s a filmmaker who has a film in the festival or local filmmakers, where we ca provide create production support. It’s essentially like a creative producers lab, working with producers and directors and writers, getting in at the pre-production stage to do development.

A lot of exciting things are happening now in Chicago in terms of production, especially on the TV side, and one of the things that allows is more independent filmmakers to work throughout the year on set and then stay in Chicago because they can do that. Over the years, I’ve had so many filmmakers from Chicago say “I’d love to come back and shoot here,” and this was before the tax credit. At one point, there was only one A-list crew, and if a Hollywood production came to shoot, there goes your crew. I think a lot of that is changing, and there’s a lot of creativity and a long history of DIY spirit. But the idea is to raise up those independent filmmakers and give them the connections and tools to be successful.

You have Kenneth Branagh and Rebecca Hall as your honorees this year. How did you land on them, aside from the fact that they both have these very personal films coming out soon?

Rebecca Hall won the best actress award at the Festival for Christine the year that came out, and she sent in a really lovely acceptance message that year—she was shooting somewhere else—so we never had the chance to welcome her to Chicago. But the award isn’t really about her acting; it’s about what she’s done creatively with Passing, and that what really interested us.

Once you see Belfast, it’s one of the biggest surprises of the year; it’s a strong and beautiful film, and a really personal film as well. If you looked at the history of his career, as both an actor and director, this film is a wonderful culmination of everything he’s done up to this point. We also have a long history of celebrating amazing British talent.

Among the many returning programs you have this year is the Comedy program, which I remember you telling me was introduced to counter the festival’s reputation of being overly serious.

Or any film festival, for that matter.

That is true. Now that it seems to be a permanent fixture, are people responding to that bit of counter-programming?

Oh yes. People see “Comedy,” and they run toward it. The trick is always finding the right comedies for the program, ones that play internationally, that feel that the humor translates. We don’t necessarily go for the super-broad slapstick comedy, but everyone once in a while, we’ll have one of those, often from the Nordic countries because there is often a darkness or edge to them. There are films we have this year, we had to ask ourselves if they belonged in that program—there are definitely comedic moments—like Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. There’s alway that balance, but we also want an audience that really wants to see a comedy that, after they left, they also get these other elements that make the film great, but it also needs to be a comedy. Plus, our comedy shorts program is always one of our best-selling shorts programs. It’s a great balance to the rest of the program, whether it’s a short or feature.

What unique aspects are there to this year’s architecture program?

We are going to be doing one in situ screening as part of the festival, and we’re finalizing the details now. It’s more limited this year, partly because our program is still quite a bit smaller than in pre-pandemic years. Both with the shorts program and White Building, which is in our New Directors Competition, from Cambodia, we’re looking for films not just about architecture or featuring architecture, which we’ve done in the past, but we wanted to play against the theme of this year’s biennial, which is The Available City, so these films play into those themes this year.

You also said during the press conference that cinema is better than ever, in an almost surprised fashion.

Well if you think about the challenges of making films in the last 18 months, logistically, financially, extra protocols in every country, there have been a lot of hurdles. One of the things that I love is the way in which so many filmmakers have adjusted. We have a couple of pandemic films that have actually taken it and used it as some kind of creative juice and turned it into something really unexpected. Again, Bad Luck Banging or The Tsugua Diaries, not only is he making a pandemic film but he’s making this incredible, extraordinary, creative film that surprises you at every moment and makes you think, and uses it as comedic fodder in a way. Yes, we’re all stuck, but what do we do with it? That isn’t to say we didn’t see a lot of pandemic-themed films that didn’t work in that way, but some of the great filmmakers are doing something super-creative, where they’ve had teams around them to make it possible to shoot interesting films in this period.

I always turn to you for under-the-radar suggestions for things to look out for at the festival this year.

With the New Directors Competition, one thing I will point out about it is that we have four films from South and Southeast Asia. It’s always diverse, but in terms of parts of the world, there’s only three from Western Europe in this competition. It made me think that these Asian filmmaker were able to make films during the pandemic and that’s extraordinary. There’s Whether the Weather Is Fine [Philippines] which takes a typhoon and the devastation that it reeks, as the backdrop of what’s happening. Essentially, it follows three people and their search about where are there love ones and what’s next. We follow them around as they confront the devastation, but there are also these beautiful moments of fantasy and gorgeous imagery that are a nice contrast to that.

Yuni is an Indonesian film by a young female director that is a great perspective on a coming-of-age story about a young woman, who is both an extraordinary character, with her charm, but she’s got all this promise but facing a system that’s still not set up to send a woman onto succeed, and she’s trying to make her own way in the world and forget a path in spite of all of that. Another one by a young woman that I love is Costa Brava, Lebanon, about a family with an activist in their lives. They’re living off the grid, in the mountains in Lebanon, and wake up one morning to find there’s going to be a landfill built right next to them.

With our documentaries, we have The Last Forest, we’ve had the filmmaker in before, but this film is really about how government policies or reversal of policies in the Amazon have led to the destruction, not just of the natural landscape, but of also the indigenous cultures and what the implications of that are and what it means to fight against it. Also, we were all struck by The Last Shelter. In the last 10 years, and even beyond that, there have been so many films that deal with migration and displaced people and refugees. This is about a shelter with refugees, a lot of young women, from different places in Africa, trying to get to Western Europe. It’s an observational documentary that isn’t about leaving or arriving but what it’s like to make the journey and what are young people running to or from. It’s quite moving, and from an African filmmaker, so it’s not an outsider’s perspective.

The Other Side of the River is about a young brigade of Kurdish women who are fighting. We get a lot of news coverage, mostly about U.S. troops in that part of the world, but this is an unexpected look at these young women fighting for their homeland. We love unique perspectives and something that introduces us to a person or event in the world that we don’t often have access to and one in a really intelligent way.

107 Mothers is incredibly unique. The filmmaker has a background as a documentary filmmaker, and while this is purely fiction, there are documentary elements to it, so it’s a really interesting approach to hybrid cinema. More often, we see hybrid as taking the documentary form and introducing elements of fiction through re-enactments or some staging. Here, it’s the opposite. He tells a fictional narrative but introduces documentary elements that give it more emotional heft, done really seamlessly. Nobody Has To Know is a Belgian director who stars in it as well. This is set in Scotland, and it’s an unexpected love story. Steve, it takes a lot to make me cry, and this one made me cry.

Nobody Has To Know

Nobody Has to Know / Image courtesy of Playtime

Those are two interesting pieces of information.

[laughs] It’s a touching love story about a man who’s working as a farm hand in Scotland and he loses his memory, and one of the women whose family owns the farm comes to help him and rescue him and reminds him that they actually were having a secret affair before this happened. The question is, how do you rebuild this, and there’s a twist that I don’t want to tell you. Another film from a documentary filmmaker who’s turning to fiction is Prayers for the Stolen, a Mexican filmmaker who takes this real-life experience and turns it into compelling fiction. Set in the mountains of Mexico in a small village, where it feels secluded and people are living their lives that’s separated from the rest of the world, yet the girls all cut their hair short and there’s always the threat of outside violence to essentially disappear the girls for different reasons. It’s a real insiders view of it, and something that would have also made a great documentary.

One of the rally unexpected ones for me this year, from the Berlin Film Festival, is What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? It’s a Georgian filmmaker making an unexpected love story that also has to do with memory. The evil eye strikes this couple down, and this couple that had love at first site is no longer able to recognize each other or themselves. So what do you do when you’re searching for a lost love you never had? It’s charming, creative, funny, and beautifully shot.

I’m really excited about some of these films in the City & State program.

Yeah, definitely this year we’re reminded what an amazing documentary filmmaking community we have here.

I’m especially curious about Punch 9 for Harold Washington because he was mayor when I moved here, so I didn’t get a lot of his background story before he died in 1987.

I grew up here, and my grandmother was very involved in politics and the democratic party, and she loved Harold. I was too young to really remember all of the stuff that went down then. It is eye-opening, but looking back at the history gives us a sense of how we got where we are right now. He’s a trailblazer, for sure, but it also asks the question, how far have we really come?

That’s one of the world premieres, as is Love, Charlie. I feel like, not every year, but almost every year, we have a documentary about a Chicago chef. I do think there’s a trend in making them because there’s a celebrity chef culture, but the fact that so many of them are from Chicago is a nice reminder of what a great restaurant and food city Chicago is.

Any Given Day, from Margaret Byrne: Often times, when a filmmaker places themselves as part of the story, you feel that it falls apart. In this case, it becomes so much stronger, in terms of living with mental illness and navigating any system. And Margaret makes it a film that gives a broad and nuanced perspective on what it means to live with mental illness and work through the social system or penitentiary or any part of the great social fabric. Bringing her perspective to it only makes it stronger.

Again, it’s the format of the festival that makes it so different this year. Whatever the challenges may be, we get excited about trying new things and seeing what works. Like I said, we’ll take from last year what worked, like the live stream Q&As or the coffee talks we did every morning last year—we’ll do four of five this year. They were some of the most interesting conversations that happened last year, and not being able to be together in person meant we could bring people together from different parts of the world online. Usually we did it thematically, and we’d get these conversations going. And at a time when the filmmakers can’t interact with each other because they can’t come here, they were watching each others’ films in advance and connecting in these events.

Assuming you have the potential to go fully back to theaters next year, are there any elements from this pandemic version of the festival that you might hold onto, like a virtual component?

I think we’ll evaluate at the end of this year. I think this hybrid format will continue in some way, but we’ll probably tweak it to fit where we are at that moment. Again, when we think about accessibility, how does that play into it? What are we able to provide that we can’t if we’re just in person? How are we able to bring people together? Those are the most important things. We’re always mindful that a film festival is an event, and having the in-person component be the main thrust of it is so important. It’s not the same as watching a film at home alone. But if being online provides a springboard for these films to get to audiences that otherwise might not see them or can’t travel to Chicago, then we also want to serve both audiences and the films in that way. We don’t want to do one to the detriment of the other.

Mimi, thank you once again. Hopefully, we’ll run into each other this year.

I hope so. Bye, Steve.

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