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Chicago International Film Festival: Serving Up Great Movies for 50 Years

The Chicago International Film Festival quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, touting its role as the longest running competitive film festival in North America. CIFF even has a separate component of industrial, instructional and educational films and inspired the Children’s International Film Festival. As with many aspects of Chicago culture, CIFF gets far less fanfare than the much newer (and more exclusive) Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Still the festival’s selection of over 100 films in categories ranging from Reel Women to Cinema of the Americas delivers a first-rate cultural experience to America’s second city.

Director Taylor Hackford’s two films from the ’80s, White Nights (1985) and Idolmaker (1980), set a distinctly low bar as my first introductions to the festival. Both films made their premieres at the festival and played a large part in launching Hackford’s career as a profitable, albeit artistically stagnant, director of music films. At over two hours long with rambling plots and misogyny abound, these two films are fairly representative of Hackford’s career of Hollywood success with his most famous hit being An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). There were strong points, as mentioned in my review of the films, but my interview with Hackford largely colored my negative opinion of him as representative of the recalcitrant Baby Boomer establishment who continue to ignore the impact of web-based cultures on filmmaking.

Luckily, the subsequent contemporary films all came from different countries and employed vastly different visual styles, making for a great series of cinema. The Golden Hugo award-winner for Best Picture this year, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, gave a great post-Arab Spring look at a deposed dictator trying to engage with his people as one of them – with no idea what that even means. The Iranian director has had a long history of filmmaking with over twenty films under his belt, and incorporates his unique views as an Iranian expat in Europe with this dark satire on the real meaning of revolution.

Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night offers a counterpoint to the stark, and often disturbing, realism of Makhmalbaf’s film. This surrealist adaption of a 1981 young adult novel captures quite well the hormonal confusion of being a 14-year-old boy. The black and white coloring along with the soft visuals and sharp lighting moderate some of the film’s most challenging moments, adding a poetic touch to this coming-of-age film.

The final film I had the privilege to see was multimedia artist Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s documentary A Dream of Iron on South Korea’s Miracle on the Han River, a colloquial term for the country’s unprecedented economic growth after the Korean War. Park’s role as a multimedia artist skewed the film much more into art film territory than traditional documentary. Large expanses of time pass sometimes with only shots of beautifully framed factories set to ambient music. This first-time director really stands in contrast to the aforementioned films by exploring some interesting visual and storytelling techniques that make it one of the most intriguing films I have seen this year.

In addition to these films, I also attended Awards Night with Kathleen Turner heading up the main competition jury. Martin Scorsese sent in a video honoring famed Chicagoan Roger Ebert whose inaugural award was introduced by his stepdaughter at the festival. Another high profile director Joe Swanberg, probably most well known from the Chicago-based Drinking Buddies, sent in a video congratulating the film festival on 50 years. Sadly very few award winners made the effort to come to Chicago so there were a lot of video acceptance speeches, but nonetheless the diverse group of winners, from animated shorts to documentary, seemed genuinely happy to have won.

There were panels, collections of shorts, master classes and more that I just didn’t have time to attend. CIFF’s International Connections Program, started in 2003 to encourage awareness of diverse cultures, is starting to pay real dividends with a huge selection of minority-focused films. So if you’re ever in the Chicagoland area during October and want a huge selection of independent films at reasonable prices, I would recommend taking a trip to the Chicago International Film Festival.