Chicago International Turns 40; Stellar World Cinema and Oscar Contenders Strive to Lift Fest out of Regional Ghetto
by Anthony Kaufman
Chicago's most famous cineaste Roger Ebert opened the 40th anniversary edition of the Chicago International Film Festival, remembering a famous exchange between Orson Welles and longtime CIFF director Michael Kutza during the Cannes Film Festival back in the 1960s. "Why don't you have a film festival in Chicago?" Welles said. "I'll have one if you come," the young Kutza replied. And so the CIFF festival was launched -- but Welles never came.
Such ironies define the CIFF; on the one hand, the festival hosts one of the best programs of world cinema in North America; on the other, it is the perennial second fest to New York's fall showcase (often overlapping dates) and fails to stir the type of citywide audience frenzies that frequent Toronto. But Chicago's program is comparable to both fests, combining the high-art hauteur of the former with the widespread survey of foreign cinema and Oscar-contenders of the latter.
And yet, it is caught somewhere between international and regional events; FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics, always sends a jury; esteemed foreign filmmakers visit (among this year's unprecedented number of guests, Ousmene Sembene, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award); and the programming includes a panoply of worthy foreign works (such as special presentations like Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," and Fatih Akin's Berlinale winner "Head On," and a handful of newly submitted auteur films, such as Bahman Ghobadi's striking CIFF Special Jury Prize winner "Turtles Can Fly.")
But then there is the festival trailer: a reminder of the CIFF's provincialism and outmoded vibe. Every year, for the last 40 years, the trailer has been overseen by one man: Ken Nordine, the famous "word jazz" maestro and onetime spokesman for the Chicago Blackhawks: at first, the soothing, baritone voice of Nordine accompanied by hallucinogenic mutations of the festival logo -- the graphic of a human face on a film strip -- is somewhat funny in a retro-sort of way, but after four decades, it must be time for a change.
As the oldest competitive festival in the U.S., the CIFF certainly has a rich history. On opening night, when Bill Condon's "Kinsey" titillated an audience of hundreds at the famous downtown Chicago Theater, super-critic Ebert regaled the crowd with stories of yore: the arrival of silent screen legend Gloria Swanson to the fest's first edition; Kutza's discovery of the New German Cinema of the '70s "long before New York caught on"; and the festival director's financing of the fest with his own credit cards.
But what of the festival today? The 40th anniversary event drew the festival's first ever title sponsor, BankOne, with funding up from past years, according to CIFF Managing Director Sophia Wong Boccio. Ticket sales were roughly 2-3% higher, but overall attendance was roughly the same as in previous years, in light of the festival's two new venues. (Sadly, they have left the famed classic movie palace the Music Box behind in favor of an AMC multiplex).
The event scored a coup with its closing night finale, the special premiere of motion-capture kids pic "The Polar Express" tomorrow night with Tom Hanks, in person, paying tribute to director Robert Zemeckis. And the festival's glitzier specialty premieres served up some of the year's better studio pics: "Finding Neverland," "Sideways" and "Being Julia" (with stars Christopher Walken and Annette Bening in attendance).
Of the 109 feature films shown, however, it's the foreign discoveries that really make the CIFF worthwhile. But with the new AFI International Film Festival and market taking place in November, and Sundance ramping up its world cinema section in January, there's increased competition for Chicago's programmers. "I don't think it was as bad as we thought it would be," says Brigid Reagan, CIFF Programming Coordinator. "There were only one or two films that we wanted to get that went to AFI." According to Reagan, their main obstacle is sales companies that don't want to show their films in the U.S. until they've sold to distributors.
It's crazy logic, considering that a film can garner momentum out of a film fest like Chicago. While there are no distribution deals that come out of the CIFF (last year's French gem "Olga's Chignon," still remains in limbo), every year there's a handful of movies that deserve attention.
Two Danish DV films from fledgling directors played remarkably well in the Windy City. Simon Staho's "Day and Night," winner of a Silver Hugo award for "its perfectly balanced ensemble acting," features a cast of Scandinavian stalwarts (Lena Endre, Pernilla August, Erland Josephson) and is entirely set inside a car, with the camera restricted to two shots, one focusing on the driver seat and the other on the passenger side. To call it Ingmar Bergman meets Abbas Kiarostami may offer too much praise, but the story of a man saying goodbye to his friends, lovers, and family, in a series of cold and cruel conversations before committing suicide, is a compelling and cynical exercise in male angst -- a far more bitter "Taste of Cherry."
Far more crowd-pleasing, Oliver Ussing's debut "Rule #1" follows the exploits of Caroline, a young woman who has recently recovered from kidney failure, as she sets out on the dating scene. While some of the film's screwball antics recall TV sitcoms, there's enough surprises to keep the film fresh (as when Caroline volunteers as a bloody casualty in a war exercise to meet her man). And belying the sappy rom-com conventions is a more somber, involving story about Caroline's relationship with her party-girl sister, who failed her in a time of need.
In the festival's new USA Focus, Chicago-made films, such as "Outing Riley" and "Boricua" -- while not critics' favorites -- were also popular with the locals. The festival scored some surprise sleeper successes in a pair of poorly reviewed French flicks "Nelly" and "The Pleasure is All Mine," the Spanish gay comedy "Bear Cub," and recent Montreal and Locarno winner, "The Syrian Bride." In contrast to past fests, Chicago's Iranian audiences were more subdued in supporting Mohsen Amiryoussefi's debut "Bitter Dream." (Perhaps the Gene Siskel Film Center's concurrent 15th annual Festival of Films from Iran, running throughout the month, stole audiences away from the CIFF. Why the organizations don't work together during the CIFF is an internecine battle worth investigating another day.)
Global Film Initiative already had the U.S. rights to two of the fest's standouts, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's charming, deadpan "Whisky," winner of a Silver Hugo for its "confident pacing and ironic distance" and Vietnamese director Minh Nguyen-vo's "Buffalo Boy," which won the New Directors competition.
Other winners included Hungarian director Nimrod Antal's "Kontroll," the winner of the fest's top prize, the Golden Hugo, for "the vitality and flair with which it expresses the feelings of a disillusioned generation," Gold Plaques for Russian director Marina Razbezhkina's "The Harvest Time" for its "complex and poetic evocation of an ambiguous period in Soviet history" and Kore-Eda Hirokazu's "Nobody Knows" for its "meticulous recreation of the special world of children left to themselves." The FIPRESCI critics bestowed their prize on "Campfire," Israeli director Joseph Cedar's family drama.
The festival's documentary jury gave its top award to fest circuit favorite "Born into Brothels," Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's stirring chronicle of a unique group of photographers, the children of prostitutes in Calcutta's Red Light District.
The Silver Hugo for Best Documentary was awarded to Stephen Marshall's "Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge." Produced by the Guerilla News Network, Marshall's project is one of the few pieces of media to appear in the U.S. revealing the opinions of those on the ground in Iraq, from Iraqi citizens to American soldiers. What emerges is a complex, humanistic account of the conflict, revealing a fundamental disconnect between Iraqi citizens and their "American liberators," and a portrait of a people who suffered under Saddam Hussein and continue to suffer under U.S. Occupation. But the film's most powerful moments involve an Iraqi exile's return to see his family, free to visit his loved ones after years of fearing for their lives. For now, "Battleground" does not have a broadcast or distribution date; says Marshall, "No one wants to pick up an Iraq doc now."
Other doc winners included Raymond Depardon's "10th District Court," a far more complex and socially illuminating film than its simple series of court proceedings suggests, and Arash T. Riahi's "The Souvenirs of Mr. X," a look at the Viennese Club of Amateur Filmmakers.
For the last three years I've attended the CIFF, there's always one film that I've missed prior on the fest circuit that, in the calm and civility of the Chicago festival, is a revelation to behold. The first time out it was Jia Zhang-ke's "Unknown Pleasures"; last year it was Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye Dragon Inn" and this year, my own personal favorite was a last minute addition to the lineup, "Kings and Queen" by Arnaud Despleschin. More akin to his earlier "My Sex Life, Or How I Got Into an Argument" than his more recent mystifying cerebral experiments "Esther Kahn" and "In the Company of Men," "Kings and Queen," starring Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric (at their neurotic best), is a lively intellectual tour-de-force that exposes the ties that bind families. And when Amalric begins break-dancing during a mental hospital group therapy session for no reason, it's completely, absurdly, wonderful.