FESTIVALS: Chicago Hope; 36th Fest's Equal Dose of Art and Stars
by Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE/11.2.00) --On the way into the Chicago International Film Festival from O'Hare, staffers point out the Division Street Projects -- many now abandoned as the city reclaims the real estate --separated from $600,000 homes by a mini-mall anchored with a Dominick's supermarket and, of course, a Starbucks. It's a division reflected in the festival as a whole, between the Richard Gere-frenzied, glitzy first half of America's oldest competitive film festival and its solidly foreign arthouse second half. The 36th Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 5 - 19) offered few surprises in its programming, but delivered a splendid selection of international cinema faves from the big fests to the mid-West. And where else could you follow a mean steak with a midnight stroll alongside Hungarian avant-garde director Bela Tarr?
The festival's opening night film, Robert Altman's "Dr. T. and the Women," provided the opportunity to present a Career Achievement Award to Richard Gere, the film's star, while other festival honorees included Lord Richard Attenborough, Chicago native Harold Ramis ("Bedazzled" director), and Laurence Fishburne, whose ambitious but seriously flawed directorial debut "Once in the Life" made its North American premiere.
Just in time to scare up some Halloween spirit, the festival also paid tribute to American director Joe Dante ("Piranha," "The Howling," "Gremlins"). And while the frenzy over Richard Gere's appearance ("They nearly tore the ropes down!" said festival publicist Lewis Tice of the screaming crowds of mid-Western women), and a sudden power outage made for an exciting kickoff, the windy city was surprisingly warm and decidedly calm when indieWIRE arrived on the scene. And it's a good thing, because with over 80 features and more than 60 documentaries and shorts, the Festival offered a dense schedule that left die-hard cineastes and press members frantically commuting between three spread-out venues.
The Golden Hugo winner "Amores Perros" ("Love's a Bitch") lead CIFF's strong representation of Latin American films, which included a Mexican Cinema Celebration, featuring "Cronica de un Desayuno" ("A Breakfast Chronicle"), "Entre la Tarde y la Noche" ("Minerva's Quest"), and "De ida y Vuelta" ("To and Fro"), in addition to two Argentinean films, and one each from Peru and Brazil. The frenetic "Amores Perros," which tells three different stories backwards from their point of intersection in a violent car crash, was a huge hit in its native Mexico and if all goes well for its U.S. Spring 2001 release by Lions Gate, acquisitions execs may be heading for the border more often.
Argentinean journalist Diego Lerer, and juror for the sidebar competition New Directors, was "amazed by ["Amores Perros'"] narrative rhythm," he told indieWIRE. "I used to joke with my friends that it's a Tarantino-like story, with a kind of Wong Kar-wai cinematography as directed by David Fincher's brother." And following America's recent interest in all things Cuban, Chicago offered seven films spanning from 1976 to today representing the island, like Humberto Solãs' "Un Hombre de Exito" ("A Successful Man") and "Fresa y Chocolate" ("Strawberry and Chocolate").
Another festival sidebar at Chicago made use of the city's notable critics in a "Critic's Choice" series: Roger Ebert introduced his Cannes favorite, the Australian film "Innocence" by Paul Cox, and indieWIRE contributor and New City editor Ray Pride also chose from the land down under with Bill Bennett's "Backlash." In his prefacing remarks, Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune called Liv Ullman's "Faithless" "a film about guilt, shame, redemption, and coming to terms with the things that haunt you most in life." At the Q & A following the screening, the ever-elegant Ms. Ullman, who directed the Bergman script that borrowed unsparingly from his own life, called "Faithless" her "love letter to Bergman." IDP/Samuel Goldwyn will release "Faithless" in early 2001.
Asian and Iranian cinema continued their illustrious year in the international festival spotlight: Bahman Ghobadi's "A Time for Drunken Horses" won the Special Jury Prize and Marzieyh Meshkiny's "The Day I Became a Woman" won a Gold Plaque for Best First Film. Japanese director Yoichiro Takahashi's "Sunday's Dream" shared the FIPRESCI Award with Cesc Gay's "Krampack" from Spain. (The festival also announced that "Krampack" had been picked up for U.S. release by Avatar Films, where it will be renamed "Nico and Dani" for American audiences.) The CIFF also celebrated Japanese auteur Sabu by showing all four films comprising the young director's filmography. Attendance was high at screenings of his absurdist crime comedies, and the director happily took a seat with his audiences to complete a long-standing ritual of getting his picture taken with audiences across the world. Sabu later impressed many locals and festivalgoers with his alley prowess at Marigold Bowl. The Shooting Gallery is releasing his first (and accordingly most amateurish) work, "Non-Stop," on November 10 as part of their film series. Rather, they should check out his latest, "Monday," a much more kinetic and polished film.
Kim Longinotto's and Jano Williams' brutal documentary "Gaea Girls" exposed a whole other planet in that strange universe of Japanese pop culture. With all the sound and fury of an arena tractor pull -- complete with smoke machines and lasers lights -- there is a world of pro-female wrestlers in Japan who will subvert and then reinforce every stereotype in that strictly gender-codified society. Centering around the story of Takeuchi, who is fighting the idea of being "soft" as she prepares to debut (her first professional fight in the ring), "Gaea Girls" shared the Silver Hugo for Best Documentary with Tod Lending's "Legacy." The Gold Hugo in documentary went to Agnes Varda's paean to trash and treasure, "Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse" ("The Gleaners and I"), which Zeitgeist will release next March.
It was the Eastern Europeans, however, who made for the most fun outside the theaters. After hours of back-to-back screenings and a late dinner at Chicago's Chip House, this critic was thrilled to walk the six blocks or so back to the hotel with Bela Tarr, Hungary's preeminent avant-garde, experimental filmmaker and continue the conversation over drinks at the Claridge Hotel Bar. "Some people just tap on the door lightly. Others just walk through. Never do both. It's got to be one or the other," Tarr insisted, when asked to give advice to young filmmakers. "I just knock the door down." His latest film, "Werckmeister Harmonies," is a biting fable of moral decay based on the novel "The Melancholy of Resistance," another slow, hypnotic work in the oeuvre of the Hungarian master -- not exactly blasting through the door, but certainly the standard conventions. Tarr's young compatriots, director Korn&etilde;l Mundruczõ, and producer Viktõria Petranyi, at 26 and 23 respectively, seem to have heeded this advice. Still students at the Hungarian film school, they nearly got kicked out for violating the "no-feature making" rule -- that is until administrators saw their film, the Sundance-hopeful "This I Wish and Nothing More." Chicago being their first American trip, they told indieWIRE it was "like walking in pictures."
Hannelore Elsner was also present to receive the Best Actress Award for her portrayal of a fading East German intellectual so trapped in her own ideology that the fall of the Berlin Wall incites her own demise in Oskar Roehler's "No Place to Go" (Germany's official entry for the foreign language Oscar). Haskell Wexler, Feature Jury President, called it a "touching and outstanding performance." Ms. Elsner later gave another outstanding performance on the dance floor at Pasha, at the post-awards bash.
As the dance floor began to empty that night, people started grouping together for cabs, grumbling about early morning flights, and exchanging emails. Don Hertzfeldt, the Santa Barbara-based animator just in town to accept the Golden Hugo for Short Animation for his hilarious "Rejected" said of the 36th Chicago International Film Festival: "They put me in a really posh hotel where everyone called me 'sir' and there was a snack machine inside of my room." Whether Hertzfeldt or Gere, the projects or the mini-mall, Chicago reconciles the divide.
[Erin Torneo is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT.]