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Self-Projected Artifice: The 49th Chicago International Film Festival

Self-Projected Artifice: The 49th Chicago International Film Festival

It was almost like a movie. Amat Escalante’s harrowing and
unapologetically bleak film Heli—which
looks at the crooked law enforcement and low-totem pole players of Mexico’s
drug cartel scene—came to a an ambiguous closing shot before dipping to white
for the end credits. The auditorium house lights came on at the press screening
I was at. No one moved from his or her seat. Utter silence. Then suddenly, a
critic in the row in front of me let out a groan. A very loud one. He wanted to
be heard. After 104 minutes of wince-inducing violence and despair, Heli offered no logical retribution for
its audience. The groaning critic was expressing one of two things: that he’d
witnessed a carefully nuanced, searing cross-section of a very real dilemma
south of the border—or that he’d just seen another arthouse trash film filled
with hot air. As other critics began leaving the auditorium, they started
chuckling at the thought of the groan. The groan seemed to carry an echo too,
as if it was a shared movie review, a unanimous proclamation that the Chicago
International Film Festival had once again managed to bring some of the more
polarizing films of world cinema to the Second City for the 49th consecutive
year. This year’s lineup was particularly dark in nature, from crude historical
narratives (James Gray’s The Immigrant,
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to
timely, devastating documentaries (the border crossing Purgatorio, the brotherly survival tale in Kenya’s Tough Bond). For all of its variety,
this year’s Chicago film fest found itself hovering over the theme of the
self-projected artifice, which was explored in three grossly differentiating
films.

You see, unlike most marquee U.S. film festivals such as
Sundance or SXSW, the Chicago International Film Festival has done a consistent
job of flying just below the radar of mainstream but several cuts above other
notable film festivals. Sure, there are “movie stars” who make appearances at
opening night and certain gala events, but the main crux of the Chicago Film
Fest is focused on its usually impressive program of world cinema. The fest’s
red carpet schmoozing takes a backseat to the discovery of new artistic voices
from international films that would be hard to find stateside.

Consider the above-mentioned Mexican film, Heli. For most of its running time, the
camera is deliberate in its movements. Slow pans reveal awful imagery: a boot
pressed against a man’s face, a man being forced to roll face down over human
vomit, and the devastating reunion of a woman with her husband after he was
savagely beaten. These images are all the more powerful because the characters
in the narrative are desperately trying to fool themselves into thinking they’re
bound to escape or even create a new life. In the violent landscape ruled by
the drug cartel, these poor Mexican peasants are disillusioned at best. In an
early scene, the protagonist’s wife visits a local psychic in hopes of hearing
the possibility of a new venture or at least to give validity to her current
situation. Later, during the film’s gruesome torture scene, a group of
adolescents in the background gleefully plays their American video games on
consoles. At one point, a young boy whips out his cell phone to film a victim
being tortured with fire and thinks out loud about the idea of uploading the
footage to YouTube. It’s that self-projected artifice—that daily routine to
dilute the horrors of one’s reality—which is what’s really striking about Heli. Lots of drug films have shocking
violence, but few observe the nameless people at the peripheries of the
screen’s frame and examine their ways of coping with their environment.

Sometimes this artifice is therapeutic. Part of the
festival’s documentary program, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture shows us one filmmaker’s in the 70s transcendent
retelling of his unfathomable childhood experience as a prisoner of the Khmer
Rouge in Cambodia by way of hand-made art; rather than relying solely on
historical archival footage, Panh used small whittled-down clay figures as
stand-ins for a majority of the film’s recreations. The title of the doc
resonates exponentially as the simple toy-like sets suddenly become vessels for
ghostly imagery. We can only imagine how the scenes played out in real life and
thus are forced to project our own anxieties and shock onto the stoic faces of
the tiny clay models on the screen. The effect is heartbreaking and, more
importantly, is never played for gimmickry. 

Finally, taking a hard right turn from subject matters of
drug cartels and Cambodian genocide, we land at the Cannes Palme d’Or winner,
France’s Blue Is The Warmest Color,
directed by Abdellatif Kechiche—which was one of Chicago’s festival highlights
to be sure. Centered on a remarkable lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue chronicles several years in the
relationship of a lesbian couple. Exarchopoulos, the youngest of the pair, has
to carefully micromanage each of her self-projected artifices. At her high
school, she “dates” a male classmate in order to ward off any suspicion or
prejudice toward her actual sexuality from her peers. At home, she deceives her
parents by insisting that her partner Emma (played by Léa Seydoux) is just a
tutor. Emma even assists with the mirage and fabricates a boyfriend during a
dinner conversation. These self-projected artifices are juxtaposed with Emma’s
own vocation. She’s a painter, using Adèle as her model for many of her works.
So, on display in the walls of Emma’s art galleries, is her true love—but for a
good portion of the film’s running time, their relationship is taboo for most
of their public appearances. When Adèle and Emma are older and living together
during the second half of the film, their struggles and strife link to the restraint
from those earlier scenes. The film floored me: Exarchopoulos is the
front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

With these three varied film selections—Heli, The Missing Picture,
Blue Is The Warmest Color—the theme
of the self-projected artifice rose to new challenging heights. Maybe by
looking through the eyes of our fellow foreign artists, we are able to peel
back some of our own layers of artifice (at least in what we produce in
American cinema) and see some fundamental similarities in our ways of handling
those scenarios, fiction or non-fiction. And as the 49th Chicago
International Film Festival drew to a close, I thought back to the groan from
that early press screening. If it did signify a sentiment towards a festival
that vehemently sought out challenging and polarizing titles from world cinema,
then I hope to hear the same groan next year.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter
here.

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