Interview: Chicago Int’l Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauché on New Locations, Emerging Themes and the Fest’s First Miyazaki
For the first time since the two-year-plus pandemic, the Chicago International Film Festival feels like its back to full strength, in terms of both its lineup and its potential as a world-class cinematic event. In many ways, this 59th edition of the festival (running October 11-22) feels like a launching pad for the celebration to be had next year, when the longest-running film festival in North America turns 60.
As it did last year, the fest expands its reach to include venues in different neighborhoods around the city; its primary home is AMC NEWCITY, the Music Box Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago History Museum, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and pop-up screenings at the Hamilton Park Cultural Center in the Englewood neighborhood, and Harrison Park in Pilsen. The festival is also doing a curated selection of films that will be available virtually via’s its streaming platform.
The program is essentially back to pre-pandemic numbers, including about 100 features and 58 shorts, three world premieres, one international premiere, 19 North American premieres, and 19 U.S. premieres, with the festival’s programming team striking its usual balance of true international cinematic discoveries, works from a fresh and diverse crop of rising new filmmakers, and a robust percentage of recognizable titles and talent.
Opening night is especially exciting, since it features two Chicago filmmakers with their latest works, both at the Music Box Theatre: Minhal Baig’s heartfelt, set-in-Cabrini Green We Grown Now, and Claire Cooney’s Departing Seniors, a Chicago-set teen slasher movie. The evening also sees the return of a cinema-themed block party along Southport Avenue in front of the theater, open to the public, which will include live music and a short-film program.
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 list of under-the-radar films that she believes deserve your attention. As always, Plauché is the perfect guide through this year’s program, as well as through the intentional and unintentional processes that went into building the themes of this year’s unique event.
Let’s first talk about the tagline for this year’s event: “Critics Welcome.” First of all, thank you. I feel seen. I’ve always felt pretty welcome, but what does this mean specifically to you and the festival.
I think what we want to do, whether you’re a professional film critic or not, is welcome people into the conversation about film. We all have opinions about what we’re watching, and critics do it professionally. But the way the festival is set up is that we’re trying to engage audiences with the work, not just be passive viewers but participate in some way. And it already happens on many levels: people stand in line and make recommendations after they see something, and we have more filmmakers back since the pandemic started, and we’re really leaning into the post-screening conversations—even having some where we don’t have a film guest in and just saying “Let’s talk about what we’re seeing, let’s exchange ideas and opinions.” We want everyone to feel like they’re included in that conversation.
There are platforms for so many people if they want to express their opinions and get them out into the world, and we want the festival to feels like an environment where we’re encouraging people to participate, hopefully in a productive way when exchanging ideas.
Relocating, I’m assuming out of necessity, to NEWCITY…
The last two years, in particular, we’ve shifted the model and decided to do something where we’re not just in one central location, where everybody has to come. There are benefits to that, but also when we think about access, we’re not just thinking about how we’re gradually building out accessibility program with screenings with open captions and ASL interpreters, but we’re also thinking about location and geographic accessibility and trying to bring the festival into different neighborhoods. Now, the move isn’t a part of that, but we were definitely open to change. The AMC River East 21 going under construction and not having a clear schedule was significant, but we were also thinking about the moviegoing experience at the festival for everyone.
We were thinking about how the seating is set up and that feeling of people watching a film together, for all those reasons, we made the decision to move. And NEWCITY has been so great about welcoming us, so we’re feeling really good about being there, regardless of what initiated having us explore what the other options were. The proximity to the Red Line and also thinking about where we are in the city and how we can grow the spokes portion of the model. Being at Harrison Park in Pilsen for the first time and pairing with the Logan Center for the Arts for the first time. We’re back at the MCA—we’d worked with them before, but there had been a gap. We were thinking about what venues we were in and what are the right films that belong at each venue, and how to engage audiences.
Even after River East reopens, do you think you might stay at NEWCITY?
It’s on the table for sure. We have to get through a festival there before we assess. It is part of the AMC family, so we are working with a few of the same people we worked with at River East, including the projectionists. And they have a new general manager, who is coming from River East, which was not instigated by the festival, but it’s nice working with people who we worked with before. I think that makes the transition for them and us much easier.
You’re doing the Opening Night Block Party again. Are you making any adjustments there?
We are doing live music this year; there are four Chicago bands playing, representing different styles of music. And we’re actually showing short films on a screen at the other end, so that’s a new addition. We have more vendors than last year, which was the first time we’d ever done it, and overall, it was a great success. I think we’ll get a lot more people out there this year.
For most of the time in the months leading up to this, you were dealing with multiple creatives striking. Did that impact your planning at all, and did being a director-focused festival actually help?
Right, if you consistently look at our history, there’s always been a focus on directors. Of course, we’ve always welcomed other talent, like actors, one year we built a whole program around production design, last year we did a program around composers. It’s important to celebrate all of the crafts and talents. The biggest questions around the strikes for us was, does it change what films were available or not? And that was maybe more the question. But in terms of wanting to support the health of the industry, that wasn’t ever going to be a focus for us. As far as the films, especially the independent films, the more quickly the strikes can be resolved, the better, because they might be the ones that are hurt the most by not having talent available to attend.
You mentioned at the preview event a couple weeks ago that a couple unintentional themes arose out of the programming—things you didn’t realize were there perhaps until you looked at the program as a finished whole.
The biggest one for us was Film Noir. We were seeing things and thinking that it could be described as a Film Noir, unconventionally, but it has all the elements of Noir. Alien Island is a documentary; Foremost By Night, which is a Spanish feature and an incredible debut; Limbo by the Australian director Iven Sen; the Chinese film Only the River Flows; and also The Theory of Everything, which premiered at Venice. It was really interesting to see these elements pop up.
When that happens, do you think it’s for a reason? Is it something in the filmmaking ether that people are just making darker, noir-like movies? Are they being driven there, or is it because no one has done Noir for a while?
I think so. When I think of Noir, I think of mistrust of government and paranoia and how that drives a crime thriller, but this general anxiety or unease is pervasive in the world, and you can explore that through the theme of Noir.
You also mentioned films about friendship as another theme that you noticed. There are a lot of films about friendship, but what specifically are you talking about? I’ve seen Saltburn, so I know that about friendship, or at least a unique version of friendship.
[laughs] That is about a unique brand of friendship. There is something different being tapped into. We Grown Now on Opening Night is very specifically about childhood friendship, and that might be something that’s maybe more commonly explored in that way. There’s a real tenderness, but there’s a moment where your friendship is tested, and does it continue and withstand pressures on it from external forces. A lot of it for me was about the friendships we were seeing on screen were taking over where we might have once seen something as romantic, not like a buddy comedy but something that felt much more intense and intimate in the way that friendship was explored.
Same question about this, why do you think that theme might be prevalent in the world right now?
That’s a really interesting question that I’m not sure I have an answer for. It’s not necessarily specific to a certain region of the world. Every once in a while, you’ll see an area of the world where there’s a preoccupation with certain things. Like right now in eastern Europe with themes of freedom of speech and decision making, we see that play out in many different ways, but you understand that there’s a major political shift that has happening, and how do you talk about that? Do you talk about it with something that’s contemporary, or do you explore something that’s happened in the past but has something about it that is very relevant to today?
With the theme of friendship, maybe it’s this idea of a found family or constructed family, whether it’s circumstantial or by choice. Through friendship, you’re creating a sense of family and a support system. A Happy Day is a Norwegian film that's one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen recently, something very tender and creative about the refugee crisis. What’s so amazing about the film is the depiction of the youth in this place for under-18 refugees and this promise of a different life could be and the dreams.
Housekeeping for Beginners, which is also about a found family, it’s a family of queer adults and youth who have created a safe space in an environment that wouldn’t be welcoming. When I put those two films next to each other, it’s interesting to see how they both feature an external environment that is hostile to them, and the found family becomes a refuge from that.
Have you been thinking at all about growing the festival, even just in terms of the number of days, or in any way really?
Well we used to be 130 features, even in 2019.
But you also used to be a full two-week festival.
Yes, we were 15 days and we brought it down to 12, which I think we’re really happy with. The thing that makes a festival feel like a festival is that it’s more of an event, and it felt a little too stretched out for that. Now we feel that bringing it down to 12 days, opening on a Wednesday, closing on a Sunday, that it feels like great energy and momentum the whole time. So regardless of the number of films and whether it goes up or down, having it in that compressed timeline is something we’re very happy with. I don’t think we could handle a longer timeline.
Let’s talk a little more on We Grown Now, your Opening Night film. How did you land on that title as you opener, other than it being a local production?
And it’s a really good film. Last year, we opened with a Chicago filmmaker [Steve James], but there were a couple of things for this year. One, we just loved the film. The tone of it is great for Opening Night, it tells a great Chicago story in that Chicago is showcased. It’s set in the early 1990s, during a changing Chicago that I think is still undergoing change. Minhal Baig being a festival alum, too, is something we love showcasing. All of those aspects combined made it seems like a perfect film for opening night.
And any filmmaker who’s local has to be so excited about playing their movie on that screen in front of that many people.
Oh yeah. One of the things that’s really nice is a lot of the people who worked on the film will be in attendance. It’s such an exciting way to open the festival. I know the energy in the theater is going to be amazing.
Are there any of the higher-profile titles that you’re especially excited you get to play?
For me, it’s The Boy and the Heron. My background is in Japanese cinema, so it’s personal.
Has the festival ever played a Miyazaki film before?
I don’t think so. And I would add, Miyazaki films don’t usually play festivals, but we’re so excited about the film, and got even more excited once we saw it. It’s a beautiful film, and the way he talks about this world being somewhere between life and death, and this this magic world that’s existing side by side in his films with the world that we know and live in. And the way he’s exploring themes of life and death and the intersection of the two, and questions about the relationship with your parents and friendship, it’s all quite moving. As always, there’s a subtle complexity to his storytelling, and the visuals are stunning too.
Are there ideas you have for upcoming festivals where the ball is already rolling on implementing them?
Well because next years is the 60th festival, we are thinking about that. The one thing is when we’re planning for the 60th is, how do you celebrate the past but also make it about the present and the future. What are the through-lines from the past and celebrating history and continuity, but also where we’re forward looking? To me, the New Directors competition is always a really clear indicator that we’re looking at the present-future of cinema and celebrating what’s new and upcoming and what are those new voices. For us, that’s going to be the challenge of putting together this program because you always want to bring back people who have been important to the history of the festival but also tying them into what the future of film and the festival is.
So let’s dive into the program a little. Let me know about some of the titles that you want to make sure people don’t overlook this year.
I mentioned this film in the New Directors Competition, Foremost By Night, which is really interesting because it’s really difficult to put you finger on what genre of film it is. But it’s so engaging the whole time and taking all of these elements of different genres and actually weaving them together. It’s the story of these two mothers and one son, and the mothers are both connected to the son, and them finding each other and coming together. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a bit of a road movie, a bit of a heist movie, elements of Noir, and it’s a family drama. Visually, there are some interesting and incredible elements to it.
On the documentary front, In the Rearview, which is from a Polish director and is entirely shot from the perspective of camera looking at the back seat of a car. We see a lot of documentaries about areas of conflict, and this one is Ukraine. It’s an incredible way to humanize the conflict. It’s quite moving and powerful.
Black Box, also by a festival alum, produced by the Dardenne brothers. It’s a social thriller, set in an apartment building in Berlin, and the building becomes a pressure cooker, so there’s already tension around question of gentrification and new ownership coming in. But you have a building that is fairly diverse and multicultural, and without any explanation, special forces come in and lock the building down and no one is allowed to come or go, and all of these tension among the neighbors come to the surface. And questions about how you would act when put to the test arise.
Strange that being trapped in an apartment buildings is at the center of this, Concrete Utopia, and Infested.
[laughs] Very different situations, but all films in which the apartment building is the location of the conflict and how the structures themselves are playing a role in that.
Out of competition is this film Here by Bas Devos, whose work we’ve shown before. Caught me off guard, it’s a really quiet film. It’s set in Belgium, and it’s a border-crossing film where the two lead characters aren’t from Belgium—they’re a Romanian construction worker and a Chinese microbiologist, whose paths unexpectedly cross. He’s leaving the city to go home, and she’s very much focused on…I love the title, this question of Here, at really looked at the flora of the area in a very intense way. As their paths cross and their relationship to it is quite different, just how they come together is quite moving.
Very different, but also from Belgium is Holly, which has this supernatural, magical realist sense to it. She’s a young woman who is a little bit of an outsider but also she also seems to have this magical healing power in her openness to the world, she befriends this one young classmate who is neurodiverse and has this calming effect on the people around her. And one day, she wakes up and has this feeling she shouldn’t go to school, so she calls in sick, and there’s a fire at the school. So these people around begin to think that she has this uncanny foresight, and there’s something special about her, and she ends up going with this volunteer group to comfort people who have lost loved ones in the fire. But then all of this attention causes more and more people to want things from her, and it becomes about what are people seeking from faith and religion.
Solo in our Outlook section just won Best Canadian Film at TIFF this year. It’s set in the world of drag performance, and the way in which the performances and the backstage are shot is incredible, lush, fun, and celebratory. It’s also about family relationships, romantic relationships, power dynamics and control. It’s an incredible year for film, and I think the lineup reflects that. In fact, 20 of the Oscar submissions for Best International Feature are in the festival.
That has to be a record for you. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk and sharing your recommendations with us.
I’ll see you around, I’m guessing.
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.