Losing Cubs, Winning Cinema: Chicago Showcases a World Series of Film; Audience Gives Victories to "Pieces of April" and "My Architect"
by Anthony Kaufman
Suspense. Comedy. Tragedy. Heartbreak. Do these qualities describe the films at the 39th Chicago International Film Festival (which ran October 2-16)? Maybe. But the emotional roller coaster was moreover felt during the Chicago Cubs' National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. One couldn't walk a single block in the unseasonably warm autumnal days of the festival without hearing someone whispering, fretting, or clamoring about the Cubs' attempts to end their 58-year World Series shutout. Even local hero Gary Sinise showed up at the opening night premiere of festival honoree Robert Benton's misguided "The Human Stain" wearing a much-applauded Cubs cap. "I know it's a sports town," admitted Festival Founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza during the week, "but we want to make it a film town."
Despite the festival's best attempts, the Cubs games overshadowed the festival's local presence, mostly affecting ticket sales at the famed 74-year-old movie palace The Music Box, a stone's throw from Wrigley Field. However, festival organizers estimate only an 8% dip in sales over all, and continued to tout their victories: 3,000-attendees strong for opening night during a Cubs/Brave match-up and a nearly sold out house for the Indian epic melodrama "Chokher Bali: A Passion Play" opposite Game 3 with the Marlins.
Cubs fever notwithstanding, the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) -- North America's oldest competitive film event -- showcased a distinguished lineup of 94 international and domestic feature films, mostly assembled from the Berlin and Cannes programs (with distributor offerings, such as Paramount Classics' "The Singing Detective," Fox Searchlight's "In America" and Lions Gate's closer "Shattered Glass"). However, the CIFF has a miraculous knack for bringing to the fore films overlooked at such past fests, thereby showcasing an eclectic selection that feels surprisingly fresh.
Palm Pictures' Ryan Werner, Wellspring Media's Marie-Therese Guirgis and New Yorker Films' Rebeca Conget all flew into Chicago for the festival's final weekend to catch-up on under-the-radar films, check out the response to some of their own acquisitions, and scoop up numerous awards on behalf of their filmmakers. (Werner took home a best cinematography prize for Christopher Boe's stylish "Reconstruction"; Guirgis brought back a Golden Hugo for Jafar Panahi's hard-hitting "Crimson Gold" -- a double-hitter for Wellspring, after their top win last year here with "Madame Sata" -- and Conget carried home two awards, the Silver Hugo for Nuri Bilge Ceylan's masterful ode to male loneliness "Distant," and best documentary for Nathaniel Kahn's probing portrait of his estranged father, "My Architect.")
"My Architect" was also the runner-up winner for the Audience Award. First prize went to Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April," which also received a Special Mention in the New Directors Competition. Rounding out the list of the audience's top ten favorite films were (in order of crowd-pleasing preference): "The Triplets of Belleville," "The Barbarian Invasions," "Callas Forever," "The Agronomist," "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," "The Station Agent," "People Say I'm Crazy," and "Monsieur Ibrahim."
All three micro-distribs were on hand for the festival's most precious find, French filmmaker Jerome Bonnell's "Olga's Chignon" (which had its international premiere at Rotterdam 2003). Winner of the CIFF's New Directors Competition, "Olga's Chignon" is the affectionate story of a provincial French family reeling from the loss of a loved one. Never morose or dreary, however, the film captures the family's confusion with genuine humanity and comic subtlety. While Bonnell's gentle touch has been compared to Eric Rohmer's, the movie makes clear its alliance with another famed artist, Charlie Chaplin. One hilarious moment, shaded with slapstick brilliance, shows the films' central character (played by adorable newcomer Hubert Benhamdine) as his scheme to pick up a girl (the titular Olga) haplessly falls apart; in another scene, family and friends gather for dinner "en plein air" for jokes, laughter and chocolate cake -- it's all so wonderfully appetizing.
Having premiered over a year ago at the Dutch Film Days festival in the Netherlands, "Moonlight," the new film from Dutch filmmaker Paula Van Der Ouest (who made the Academy nominated "Zus & Zo") hasn't stirred much buzz at prior showings. But seen in Chicago with little expectations, this sinister little fairytale emerged as a personal highlight. Equal parts girl's coming-of-age story, survivalist thriller and l'amour fou drama, the film has a rich, menacing mood, a fiery performance from young actress Laurien Van den Broeck and some scenes of striking visual flair (the last shot is a breathtaking, whirl of a conclusion).
Chicago's programmers didn't shy from such dark, moody subject matter. And the city's filmgoers followed suit. "Today and Tomorrow," an edgy, relentless "Rosetta"-style Argentine movie about a down-and-out actress in Buenos Aires who resorts to prostitution to pay her rent, sold out during its second showing. Likewise, "Maria" -- the assured Romanian melodrama and Locarno winner, which features a similar narrative of desperation and exploitation (alongside some Balkan black comedy) -- also yielded a rapt audience and applause (at the same time as the Cubs were trounced in Game 6). The Chicago Reader singled out both films, which may have helped account for the high turnouts. Because, lest we forget, Chicago hosts some of the country's most influential critics. In addition to the Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Chicago Sun Times' Roger Ebert and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington also made their presence known with their annual Critic's Choice screenings.
This year's CIFF also proved that in addition to critics, Chicago has some important emerging filmmakers. After going to Berlin 2003's Forum section, filmmaker Amie Siegel returned to her hometown with "Empathy," a wry, intelligent examination of psychoanalysts (the old, white and male variety) and the ways in which analyst and patient perform for one another. Siegel blends (and mocks) the documentary and fiction forms, and interrupts her story with a witty cultural history of the leather Eames chair. Sure to delight intellectuals (and anyone in therapy), the film's avant-garde modes could have felt pretentious in lesser hands, but Siegel's goading of the analysts with questions like, "How is therapy different from prostitution?" and "Is analysis voyeuristic?" provides a steady stream of humorous and illuminating insights into issues of gender and power, filmmaker and subject. ("Empathy" will screen at New York's Film Forum in January.)
Another local groundbreaker, Hakim Belabbes showed his "Threads," hot on the heels of screenings at the 3rd Marrakech International Film Festival. A premiere in Venice's 2003 New Territories section, "Threads" follows the cycle of departures and returns in a small Moroccan town. With a profound sense of place and ritual (an excruciating circumcision scene is particularly memorable), Belabbes's non-traditional narrative follows in the grand tradition of Third Cinema poetic filmmaking.
At last year's CIFF, I had my own poetic epiphany when I caught up with "Unknown Pleasures," a wonderfully subversive pop teenage-angst film from Jia Zhang-ke, a Chinese director whose previously hailed works ("Xiao Wu," "Platform") left me somewhat cold. This year, I had no less an exultant experience witnessing Tsai Ming-liang's latest "Goodbye Dragon Inn" (winner of a special jury award for its "highly distinctive vision"). While I found previous Tsai works "The River" and "The Hole" beautiful but taxing (and I admittedly -- now regretfully -- skipped "What Time is It There?"), the latest film from the Taiwanese filmmaker is a gorgeous, rain-drenched, deadpan meditation on longing, set fittingly in a movie theater -- what better place to illustrate people's desperate need for connections?
Tsai came to Chicago, and warned the sold-out house about the film's long-take style. "If you're not used to this kind of movie, you can leave," he said, "but please be quiet." After the screening (only about four people left), Tsai told the crowd during the Q & A -- and I paraphrase -- "Movies like this are important. A slow pace gives you perspective in a world that moves fast." This sentiment aptly describes visits to the Chicago International festival, as well, where audiences, critics and the occasional industryites can catch the year's best in world cinema (and local talents) in an environment that is less frenetic than in Toronto, Cannes or Berlin. And as for the Cubs, patience, too, is required.
[Anthony Kaufman, a former indieWIRE editor, is a writer and instructor based in Chicago and New York.]