Autumn is my favorite season. I love it for many of the same reasons that others do, the burst of color that appears on the trees, the crisp cool days and the bright blue sky, and the food that accompanies the season, especially apple cider donuts.
But there is another reason. It starts in September with the arrival of the schedule for the Chicago International Film Festival. I look forward to this piece of mail all year. For me, this is the adult version of the Sears Christmas Catalog we got when we were kids. When it comes, I pore over it for days, circling at least twenty movies that I want to see. Then reality sets in and that number is whittled down to anywhere between 3 and 14. I then rally my JD and other cinephile friends to start scheduling movie dates. Negotiations last for several weeks until we have a workable Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) schedule. Some years the schedule doesn’t work, some years it works like a charm.
To get the most out of these couple of weeks, I see no more than three films per day. After three, my mind becomes numb. Those days when I see three are pure bliss, I wake up bursting with excitement knowing what’s in store, anticipating the moment when the lights go down and I get to spend the day at the movies.
CIFF was founded in 1964 and is the longest running competitive film festival in North America. It started as a new directors festival as a way to counter the more commercial films that were coming out of Hollywood. It is now a festival that screens over 120 films from over 30 countries spanning 14 magnificent days. This year it ran October 14 – 27, 2016.
The tagline on one of the pamphlets says, “Come see the world”. In many ways, I feel like CIFF has helped me do that. There is no accounting for another country’s sense of humor, storytelling style or what is considered a “good ending”. These differences give me a glimpse into that culture for the short time I’m in the theater. When a director is in attendance, I get to know them and their film a bit better.
I have seen films that run the gamut from absolutely impeccable (A Thousand Times Goodnight, Norway), to films that outright mocked me with their lack of payoff (Stray Dogs, Taiwan) to films that kept me wondering, until the last five minutes, why I was there (Free Fall, Hungary).
Of the dozens that I have seen over the last 15 or so years, Free Fall was one of the most memorable. It was a series of surreal vignettes that kept us talking for days. I left the theater scratching my head and wondering. My JD didn’t like it at all. However, the more we talked about it, the more he liked it. A quick Internet search revealed a Variety article which told us that the film was a huge hit in that country and that Hungarian surrealism was really “in” at that moment.
I have had a few brushes with fame. In 2007 Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, premiered at the Music Box Theater with both Ben and his brother Casey, the film’s star appearing for a Q&A session. I was lucky enough to go. The following year, they screened Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle showed up unexpectedly; taking questions about the movie and about filming in India. Two years ago, at the closing reception, I met festival founder, Michael Kutza. Seconds earlier, there were so many things running through my head. I wanted to tell him how much the festival meant to me, but at the moment of meeting, words failed me. I was so in awe of this person who started what I have become so passionate about that all I could say was, “Nice to meet you.”
This year, I saw three documentaries. Two of the three reminded me of something that CIFF is really good at, emphasizing its connection to the city of Chicago. The winning Documentary Short was Home of the Brave. This tells of the preparations that the home village, in Sweden, of Chicago Blackhawks player Niklas Hjalmarsson made to welcome the Stanley Cup for a one-hour visit. It was a lovely, funny film, worthy of the award. Sweetest was the conversation overheard between two boys wondering if they too, would get to drink from the Cup, and if Niklas would “kiss the Cup like he kisses a girl”. They decided “hopefully” on the first and probably not on the second.
Strike a Pose tells what happened to the backup dancers on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, who shot to fame, almost literally overnight. Before the lights go down, the emcee surprised us by announcing that one of the dancers, Carlton Wilborn, was in the audience. This brought clapping and squeals of delight. After the film, Wilborn told us that he got his start at Hubbard Street Dance Theater here in Chicago. He went on to tell us that even though he has lived in Los Angeles, for 27 years, he said he still tells people that he’s from Chicago, because this is where he learned to face life. More clapping. Because I couldn’t get any good pictures, I asked him to sign my program.
If you find yourself in Chicago in the second and third weeks in October, check out the film festival, you never know what will be playing or who you might run into and you are guaranteed to have a good time.