Interview: Mimi Plauché on How the Pandemic Changed the Film Festival and Her Picks for Not-to-Miss Films

With a two-year-plus pandemic in our collective rearview mirrors, the 58th Chicago International Film Festival is poised to take up residency in several venues around the city October 12-23, including its primary home base at AMC River East. Supplemental special events will happen at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Music Box Theatre, the Chicago History Museum, Austin Town Hall, and Hamilton Park Cultural Center—the latter two as part of the festival’s Community Cinema effort at two Chicago Part District locations. And while this year’s event will still include a virtual component that will offer a selection of features, documentaries, and short films from the festival program, gone is the drive-in component after a successful two-year transition.

Although the total number of films isn’t quite back up to pre-pandemic levels, 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 to bring to audiences. And pay particular attention to the Opening Night festivities at the Music Box, which will not only feature Oscar-nominated, Chicago-based documentarian Steve James’ latest, A Compassionate Spy, but also a cinema-themed block party along Southport Avenue in front of the theater, open to the public.

As we do every year as part of our preview of the Chicago International Film Festival’s offerings, we sat down for an extensive interview with Cinema/Chicago Artistic Director Mimi Plauché, who walks us through this year’s offerings, including a detailed list of under-the-radar films that she believes deserve your attention from among the festival’s 72 features, 20 documentaries, and 56 shorts, representing 53 countries, with 42 percent of all titles directed by women. Plauché 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.

Technically, this year is still considered a hybrid festival since you have a virtual component.

Technically, yes. 2020 was definitely a hybrid, in that it was mostly online but some in-person with the drive-in screenings. This year has flip-flopped, with this year being mostly in-person, with the online component. Every year is a little bit different now. I’m sure when we talked last year, having no idea if our audience would be returning, we were asking people in the theater “How many of you are back in a theater for the first time since March 2020,” and it would be between 40 and 60 percent of people raising their hands. But a festival is a unique experience, whether it’s the first time you’ll have a chance to see something in Chicago, with talent coming in, or something you’ll never have the chance to see again with filmmakers coming in from around the world. We’re seeing a really positive response with the first week of ticket sales. We’re excited to see everyone back in theaters.

We talked a lot last year about accessibility and how the virtual screenings do help people who can’t necessarily make it in person. Was that a big deciding factor for your team in deciding to keep some portion of the festival virtual

I would say it was THE deciding factor for us. Obviously, there’s a big push to return to theaters and get back to the in-person experience, both in terms of the success of films and the theatrical model but also, festivals are events, and a lot of the energy that comes from a festival and launching a film is that in-person experience with the filmmakers. With that being said, it did become more apparent that among some audience members who have come year after year, some are still hesitant to return to theaters. Knowing that, we decided that we did want to keep some portion of the festival virtual. Speaking of more accessibility, there are other ways we are approaching the in-person screenings in terms of geographic locations. We’re launching this pilot program with the Chicago Park District, with two different screenings in the parks, and we’re hoping to continue that after the festival beginning in November and looking at what it might look like into next year, thinking about some sort of semi-regular screening series. So we’re thinking about physical locations, in terms of accessibility, as well as doing some accessible screenings with open captioning as well.

When I first started coming to this festival in the early 1990s, the screenings were all over the city, five or six theaters. Does it feel like a natural progression of where you were headed pre-pandemic to get back to playing in several different theaters across the city?

Yeah, in terms of thinking about how we can better serve Chicagoans from across the city. I think in the time you’re talking about, most of the theaters were on the north side, right? Part of it is thinking about how we can use non-traditional spaces, whether it’s a museum or a cultural center in the park or other spaces to give the festival a wider footprint around the city, not just going north but also going south and west.

You’ve always said submissions go up every year, but did they continue that trend this year? Is there a continued backlog of films that were waiting to come out after the pandemic?

I think last year felt more like that. In 2020, there was a small dip, and last year, there was a huge jump. So we’re pretty much on par with where we were last year, maybe a little bit ahead. But if we were to track that percentage progression from 2019, which was the last year before the pandemic, I think we’d be right where we would have been without the pandemic, in terms of yearly increase. So it wasn’t quite a straight line, but it only dipped a little and came right back up.

Are you still seeing some kind of impact in terms of the types of films you’re getting? I feel like now more than ever, I’m seeing films that I can tell were made during the pandemic—not that they are people on Zoom calls, but they have small casts, just a couple of locations.

Even amongst the programming team, we were talking about films, whether they ended up getting programmed or not, the rise in the number of films that were chamber dramas. Of course, it’s not a new form, but like you said, it’s a form that’s had a resurgence because of COVID safety precautions. Obviously, it’s lower budget as well, so combining those two factors led to an increase in the number of films that were limited in terms of characters and locations. A couple of them even were theatrical productions, adapted for the screen but were really chamber dramas. We definitely saw a larger number of those kinds of films, to the point where we were commenting on it amongst ourselves. We also noticed the way that COVID factors became normalized, like with people wearing masks. I’m curious to see if that trend will continue, because part of it looks at how our daily life has changed because of the pandemic, and I think moving forward, a lot more people will be wearing masks. And those things will not be the conversation piece or the disruptor, but part of everyday life.

Looking at the program itself, in addition to having the entire film listing in alphabetical order and not broken out into categories, you’ve also decided not to spotlight a particular country or region or genre.

Over the years, it’s gone back and forth. It’s something we try to experiment with, just to see what is the easiest to digest in terms of the printed piece. But if you go online, everything is still broken out. We haven’t done a printed guide since 2019, and it’s about half the size in terms of page count. We made the write-ups a little bit shorter, but leave the longer ones on the website still. This is really meant to be a guide. It doesn’t matter how many indexes you do, it’s always going to be easier online to sort films by genre or country or language.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (L-R) Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Daniel Craig. Photo credit John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

And most people build their schedules online anyway, so that makes sense. I notice you do have a new category: Snapshots. What is that exactly?

It’s what we used to call World Cinema. It’s a much smaller category than it used to be with the reduction in the size of the program. It’s meant to show the current state of contemporary international and independent cinema, so we came up with Snapshot to show “This is where it is.”

One of the biggest new additions to the festivities is this Opening Night block party on Southport. How did you come up with this idea, and what’s going to be there exactly?

It came out of a brainstorming session, and we were wondering, since we’re in the neighborhood for opening night, do we open up what we’re doing to a broader audience to really launch the festival? We’re also not doing it the way we used to those big indoor parties, so it’s a nice way we could be outside and welcome the broader community in and also work with the Chambers of Commerce and the city to showcase what is happening in Chicago filmmaking right now or film exhibition across the board. We’ve invited a lot of different theaters and organizations to come and have a table and present, but there are also going to be food trucks and music. It will be a lot of film-themed activities.

You have a lot more tributes this year than you did last year, with Kathryn Hahn from Glass Onion and a Northwestern alum; Jonathan Majors, who is on the verge of blowing up bigger than anyone; Anna Diop from Nanny; and you just announced Sarah Polley and her Women Talking cinematographer Luc Montpellier. How did you land on these folks?

Part of it, like you said about Kathryn, is a Chicago connection, and she’s someone I’ve always admired. Up until recently, directors always seem to appreciate her, but she may not have gotten the broader recognition she deserves. Glass Onion is such a fun film, an ensemble piece, and because of her local connections, I was thrilled we could bring her to Chicago. When we were shown Devotion, we just knew…we’d been following Jonathan’s career and work, and this seemed like a fantastic opportunity to showcase his incredible dramatic acting skills. And we do have this long-running Black Perspectives program, and in the past, we’d done the Rising Star Award, and this year it seemed like a great opportunity to bring it back [for Anna Diop]. And when you see Women Talking, you’ll see her strength as a storyteller. And going back to that idea of a limited setting, it’s mostly set in a hay barn, but it’s incredibly visually stunning. It’s definitely a case where the images contribute so much to the storytelling. It’s was natural to bring she and Luc in together.

Were there any other behind-the-scenes adjustments made for this year’s festival that we haven’t talked about?

Well, the programming team is one person bigger because of that increase in submissions, and we wanted to make sure we covered everything fully and fairly. Even though we mostly continued to work remotely, it did feel like the conversations we were able to have were more robust than ever because of the size of the team. And this idea of accessibility is going to be a multi-year process, from moving online and closed captioning to being much more proactive in terms of providing different types of accessible offerings.

We’re only a couple years away from the festival’s 60th anniversary. Have you started thinking about that at all?

Yes and no. It is something that has come up in conversation, and we’ve put some ideas down. It’s never too early to start planning. But with this being our first year in a while being back so substantially in theaters, we’re kind of moving through this at the moment, so we’ll get there.

In reviewing our interview from last year, you made the startling admission that it takes a lot to make you cry. Did anything this year make you cry?

Yeah, one that immediately comes to mind is The Blue Caftan, which is a director (MaryamTouzani] whose work we’ve had before in our New Directors Competition; she’s from Morocco. It’s such an incredibly moving story and elegant and patient and well told. It has a gay love story at its center, in a culture where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be out. There’s just a real humanity at the heart of it of people seeing and recognizing each other and loving each other in many different ways.

Other recommendations from Plauche

Burning Days (Turkey)—It’s a thriller that unfolds in this unique landscape. There’s an environmental aspect to it as well; it’s in a place where there are sinkholes, and it becomes this question about what’s in the open, what’s hidden. It’s a prosecutor who’s sent out to the country as a posting, and he has to confront the local authorities and network of corruption across government, police, etc. It’s so captivating, and the setting really contributes to it in a unique way.

Close (Belgium)—Such a touching story about young boys, and it’s about their friendship. It takes you back into your own childhood; it’s almost like you’re reminiscing in the way that it’s shot, with the close ups; there’s a real intimacy. It’s about that bond between friends as well as betrayal, and as you grow older, friendships ebb and flow.

Huesera (Mexico/Peru)—I’m really excited for this one. Besides being chilling, it works on so many different levels as a narrative. It also carries this question about motherhood, which I think drives the narrative, and the imagery is amazing.

The Inspection (U.S.)—In the International Competition, we have this film from director Elegance Bratton, which is autobiographical, about an African-American man who decides to enter the military at the height of don’t ask/don’t tell, and what does it mean to be gay in the military at that moment, what does it mean to be Black and gay at that moment, in terms of familial relations, etc. It’s not always in the case, but in this case, the autobiographical elements make the film so much more authentic, and it pulls you in because it’s so personal.

King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones (France/U.S.)—What I love about this film is that it’s a window into Chicago history. In Bronzeville, Edward Jones had this numbers organization. The film speaks to who he was, what that meant in Chicago. He went up against the mafia. And the filmmaker is his granddaughter. And it also looks at the way he was treated by the authorities as opposed to some of his white counterparts.

The Kings of the World (Colombia)—From Colombian director Laura Mora, whose film Killing Jesus, we had in the festival previously; it won the Roger Ebert Award that year. We love when we see that progression. Kings of the World just won the Best Film Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It’s great to see the film get that recognition.

Loudmouth (U.S.)—We just announced that the Rev. Al Sharpton is coming in for the screening of this. The way in which the film gives insight into his person, his career, and the legacy he’s laid out for others is so well done, and it will be a privilege to have him there.

La Maternal (Spain)—From director Pilar Palomero, whose first feature Las Niñas we played, and it won the Goya award that year, an incredibly strong debut, and I think this new film is also strong. She clearly has this amazing gift of working with young actors, and it tells the story of a girl who unknowingly becomes pregnant and is taken into the state system, into a home, to deliver the child. It’s not this cautionary tale; it’s this tale of friendship and camaraderie that develops among the girls and young women who live in the home. It’s such an interesting window into a world that would likely be portrayed in a very different or negative way, and it’s not like there isn’t a darkness to it, but there’s also a lot of light.

Noise (Mexico)—It’s a mother who’s looking for her disappeared daughter, going to every possible means and people to try and find her, with the full recognition that the local authorities are uninterested or really don’t want to help for various reasons. I think every year, we see a number of films on this topic, but there’s something very unique about this film. Stylistically, she uses documentary style, but in many ways it’s a road movie, and we’re taken on this mother’s journey to different places across Mexico in her search. But we’re also taken through the places and the people and the movement and everybody who is working to solve this problem from the grassroots level. It’s all interwoven into this really powerful narrative.

No Other Campaign (U.S.)—Another film we’re world premiering is this inspiring story about [former Obama political director] Brian Wallach and his fight to push the government toward putting money toward finding a cure for ALS. It’s not just documenting their activism but it’s a piece of the activism, so the way the film is actively participating in the work is interesting.

Plan 75 (Japan)—It’s set in the near-future in Japan. Imagine a world in which the elderly—75 and above—essentially are given the opportunity to choose euthanasia as a means of lightening the economic strain on society. The filmmaker tells the story through several different characters who are in some way either making this choice or participating in this system, either as caregivers or the bureaucrats or administrators of this system. The chilling part is that it feels like it’s something that may not be that far off from happening. By telling this story from so many different perspectives, you really feel the impact of what this dystopian future could be.

Rounding (U.S.)—I love that you can see this next-step growth from the director of Saint Frances, Alex Thompson. There’s thriller elements to it, but it’s really story driven, and the performances in it are really good, with a lot of Steppenwolf Theatre talent.

Saint Omer (France)—From Senegalese-French director Alice Diop, who established herself as this fantastic, award-winning documentarian, and it’s the first time she’s delved into fiction filmmaking. I think it’s one of the most powerful films we have in the festival.

Sick (U.S.)—This is really fun, and a great choice for an opening night After Dark film, with a lot of fantastic jump scares, but also a pandemic setting. It’s intelligent and funny in the way it uses the pandemic in its story.

The Year Between (U.S.)—From local filmmaker Alex Heller, this acerbic, autobiographic comedy that looks at the very serious subject of bipolar disorder, but in a way that’s funny and smart and painful, all at once. We’re actually doing a panel with Second City about using comedy to pull us through stories about mental illness and help us out of them.

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For more details on the full Chicago International Film Festival lineup and to purchase tickets, go to: https://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/. Also see our festival preview for a capsule review of the opening night film, A Compassionate Spy.  

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 (SlashFilm.com) 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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