The biggest changes afoot in this year's Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), the 48th edition, are on the screen, yet they're not part of the programming. As the worldwide cinema industries push actual film — meaning celluloid — into the past or off to the hardy margins of cinephilia, digital projection has become dominant. Filmmakers and audiences can debate the aesthetics and the creative implications of such a shift.
But it happened. And quickly.
"Two years ago," says festival programming head Mimi Plauche, "we had one full-time digital auditorium at the AMC River East." This year's festival continues to use the downtown multiplex as its home base. "Last year, it was roughly 50-50 digital and film. And this year, only one of the seven houses we're using is equipped for 35 millimeter. There's not a single American-origin film on 35 this year. So it's been a complete shift in a very short amount of time."
Other aspects of the CIFF haven't changed. Under the stewardship of founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, who cooked up North America's longest-running juried film festival back in 1964 and opened it a year later, it continues to showcase a broad mixture of international cinema and a smattering of glam-centric Hollywood titles traveling the festival circuit this year. (A late addition to CIFF: David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," a big success last month at the Toronto festival.)
Kutza, Plauche and the festival's affiliated programmers pulled together this year's lineup the way they usually do: through a mixture of firsthand scouting at other festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Guadalajara), tips from CIFF's longtime scouts around the world and submissions sent via DVD screener or Vimeo link to the Chicago office.
This year, Plauche says "we have a nice selection of films that just came to us over the transom." In that category she's particularly excited about "The Cleaner," from a first-time Peruvian director. CIFF secured it before it had played anywhere, Plauche says, and the film's intimate vision of a dystopian near-future impressed the Chicago team. "It's one of the hidden treasures this year," she says.
CIFF's Vivian Teng is midway through her seventh Chicago festival and her fourth as managing director. She, Kutza and Plauche constitute half the full-time staff of CIFF's nonprofit umbrella organization, Cinema/Chicago. Seventy seasonal hires are made during the chaotic festival cycle; some 200 volunteers complete the roster.
"It gets a little bit easier every year," Teng says. "And with Michael and Mimi at the helm, the programming is strong." Teng acknowledges that, to her taste, film's acquiescence to digital projection means an image loss of "depth and warmth." But the future is here, and for a festival intent on presenting work from dozens of countries and, in all, more than 100 features, that future does not easily accommodate the glorious fwip-fwip-fwip sound a projector makes once a film reel has been rewound.
Last year's CIFF operating budget was $1.73 million (a fraction of the New York Film Festival or North America's biggest, the Toronto International Film Festival). This year looks to be "about the same," Teng says. The city of Chicago has kicked in this year what it did last year: $2,250. The Illinois Film Office: $5,000. So, a smidge more than 1 percent of the CIFF budget comes from city and state funding. (The rest comes from corporate, private, philanthropic and in-kind donations.) As a matter of context, this is not how things work in other, less broke or more cinema-supportive North American or European or Latin American festival cities.
But CIFF is here, and it's 48. And with the return of native Chicago filmmakers Robert Zemeckis (introducing the closing night film, "Flight") and Philip Kaufman (introducing "The White Dawn") and Steppenwolf Theatre Company alum Joan Allen, born in Rochelle, Ill. (whom I'll have the pleasure of interviewing onstage), we'll likely hear some stories of what Chicago meant to them. And does still.
Five to see
"Beyond the Hills," directed by Cristian Mungiu. From the director of "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" comes this eerie, calmly imposing fact-based tale of a cloistered love affair and, within the confines of a remote cultlike monastery, one of the least successful exorcisms on record. In Romanian with English subtitles.
"Holy Motors," directed by Leos Carax. Overlooked at Cannes (though it was one of a handful of competition titles I couldn't wait to see a second time), Carax's audacious consideration of role-playing, cinematic history and other themes stars Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, a godlike actor-for-hire, changing personas with ease as he's taken from job to job by his chauffeur. A tour de force for both Lavant and Carax. In French with English subtitles.
"Post Tenebras Lux," directed by Carlos Reygadas. From the maker of "Silent Light," this is a far freer, more experimental work, taking familiar themes (marital discord, class resentments) and treating them to a bracing mixture of documentary realism and outlandish surrealism. In Spanish with English subtitles.
"Reality," directed by Matteo Garrone. The Italian director, fresh off the superb crime saga "Gomorrah," turns his camera to a potentially exhausted topic: the insidious allure of reality TV. But Garrone's story of a fishmonger who really, really wants a shot on the Italian "Big Brother" is unexpectedly fluid as cinema. In Italian with English subtitles.
"An Evening With Joan Allen." On Oct. 14, the woman who shone in so many Steppenwolf and New York stage productions, and who spit out "Bourne" exposition on screen like nobody's business, returns to Chicago for a tribute, a Silver Hugo award and an onstage talk with yours truly. In English with absolutely no need for English subtitles.
Five more, hear they're good:
"Caesar Must Die," directed by Paolo and Vittorio Tavianni. Prisoners of Rome's Rebibbia facility bring frightening dimension to an amateur staging of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in this docudrama. It took top prize at the Berlin festival this year. In Italian with English subtitles.
"Gimme the Loot," directed by Adam Leon. This buzz-generator on the festival circuit deals with a couple of Bronx graffiti artists out to avenge the destruction of their latest and greatest work.
"As Goes Janesville," directed by Brad Lichtenstein. The closing of the GM plant in the title southern Wisconsin town has been batted around this election season by both Republicans and Democrats, for different reasons. This documentary reportedly puts a human face on the aftermath.
"The Cleaner," directed by Adrian Saba. In an epidemic-ravaged Lima, Peru, a cleanup specialist finds an 8-year-old boy surviving amid the horror. Festival programming head Mimi Plauche singles out this feature debut as a serious find. In Spanish with English subtitles.
"Room 237," directed by Rodney Ascher. Who knows what evil, and secret messaging, lurks in the heart of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"? A favorite all along the festival circuit, this documentary gives full, proud voice to a host of conspiracy theorists and "Shining" obsessives.
The 48th Chicago International Film Festival
When: Oct. 11-25
Where: AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.; see website for other events and locations
Tickets: Festival hotline, 312-332-3456; for other ticket options and complete schedule, go to chicagofilmfestival.com