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Film Mon Oct 03 2011

Interview: Mimi Plauché, Chicago International Film Festival Programming Director

ciff.jpgThe 47th Chicago International Film Festival begins this Thursday, Oct. 6 with the Chicago premiere of the locally produced The Last Rites of Joe May, starring the city's own Dennis Farina and directed by local boy Joe Maggio. It's a small, independently produced work that feature a fantastic, low-key performance by Farina as a former low-level thug who has just gotten out from an extended stay in the hospital to find that things have changed a great deal and that whatever juice he might have had before his ailment is now gone. The movie is a Steppenwolf Films production, was shot locally, and features a cast of Steppenwolf ensemble members (including Gary Cole) and a few other Chicago actors you might recognize.

It's actually a rarity that CIFF opens its festivities with a local production, but this year's festival is going out of its way to highlight any and all Chicago connections some of its selections and festival guests have. For example, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, the festival hosts a Conversation with John C. Reilly, whose critically acclaimed film We Need To Talk About Kevin is playing. The festival is also have similar conversation with the likes of visual artist Braden King (whose film Here is in the fest), voice-over and jazz legend Ken Nordine, mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg, and master cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

I had a chance recently to sit down with Mimi Plauché, the festival's exceedingly busy programming director since 2006, to talk about the highlights of this year's event, and to discuss what kind of film festival CIFF is and isn't. You'll see what I mean. It was a truly revealing and delightful conversation, and Plauche even gives us a handful of her personal recommendations. And I'll have a handful of recommendations for CIFF's first week in this week's Steve at the Movies column as well. Enjoy.

Let's talk first about the opening night choice, because that night is always unpredictable. And trust me, I've tried to predict it for many, many years and I don't think I've ever gotten it right. So you went with something you actually haven't done in a while, a completely local film with actors and a filmmaker from Chicago.

Right, and that was definitely the appeal behind it. It was not only shot in Chicago, which of course there are a number of films every year that are shot in Chicago, but there were so many local ties from the director to the cast and the connection with Steppenwolf.

Did you try for other, higher-profile films, or did you set your mind early on on presenting something local this year?

Yeah, we talked about a lot of different options always, and there's always the choice about whether we go for the bigger Hollywood angle, or some years we even went with the foreign film angle, since we are an international film festival. But this year, it just seemed to be like a really good fit for opening night.

Well, I'm excited to meet Dennis Farina.

Yeah, it's funny, because so many people have mentioned about how he's been on their list of people to meet, but he's here. He's a Chicagoan.

I've been in the same room with him, but I've never met the man. The timing of the festival, in terms of the timeline of festivals in a given year, Chicago is kind of toward the end of the cycle that begins at Sundance.

Right. Well that's with the calendar year. There are other ways of conceiving the cycle of festivals.

That's true, especially with a lot of the international films, which don't see the light of day in this country until well into next year. But in terms of the North American festival circuit, CIFF kind of comes toward the end of the calendar year. Do you program differently, because of what has come before at Sundance, Toronto, New York?

I don't know that we are necessarily positioning ourselves in relationship to other American festivals necessarily. I mean certainly with Toronto, we do share a number of films with them, whether it's stuff that we are both showcasing that's been at Berlin and Cannes before the festivals, or if it's brand new films that no one has seen yet. So sometimes I will be aware that we have programmed something that is going to Toronto or Venice — which is also at the same time as Toronto — and sometimes we'll be sent stuff and look at it and decide to program it, and then I will find out later that it is also going to Toronto or also going to Venice.

Does that make a difference to you?

It actually doesn't in terms of the way that we approach programming.

OK, so there's not an "We want it first" mentality? Well, I can't imagine that you could, because so much of the English-language selections have been at other festivals.

Right. That's not to say that we don't have world premieres; we do. But the focus of the festival has always been to bring the best film that we can to Chicago. So at the very least, it's a Chicago premiere, but this year in the New Director's Competition, in order to really highlight the work of the up-and-coming directors, the first and second time directors, we have actually changed the premiere requirement to U.S. premiere, and that's to really showcase those films and give those films a better platform, a better spotlight to get attention, because they are in the New Director's Competition.

Do you tend to play up a Midwest premiere angle, if that's appropriate?

I don't know that we even play that up in terms of how we emphasize, but again at the very least it has to be a Chicago premiere. But for a large number of films, we do end up with the U.S., and this year we have a number of world premieres as well.

How many?

[laughs] I don't actually have an actual number. I should. But bringing it back to Chicago, we actually do have a world premiere of a Chicago film, The Return of Joe Rich, which is also directed by a native Chicagoan [Joe Auster] and has a cast that's predominantly from the Chicago area.

I love the fact that you are turning your After Dark genre films into a competition this year. That's a big deal to me.

We have always shown the so-called cult or late night films, and the section has been called various things, but we felt that there was an opportunity to showcase more genre films, and one way to do that and to go after really good genre films is to create a competition. So it would be more appealing to get the better films, and it was also an incentive for us to really make sure that that program was really strong and hopefully also bring in new audiences to the festival through that.

Something like Fantastic Fest [the Austin, Texas-based festival, which just wrapped up last week] has proven that you can build a whole festival around genre films.

Right, and they definitely showcase some of the best stuff, but I've also noticed that they have actually gone a little bit more non-genre as well in terms of the films that they are playing with "regular" films and dramas.

I know most of the programmers, and they have one criteria, which is that a film has to just make them go "Oh my God" to get into the festival. If it doesn't, then they don't book it, and they've turned down some pretty big things that get sent their way because it doesn't wow them. But in theory, those kind of films would bring in a younger demographic to the festival.

Yeah, I would say our demographic is quite broad, and we've actually I think since I've been here the last six years it's gotten younger. There are so many film schools around here, and we get a lot of the students, but yeah we're quite broad in terms of age, but again we do want to keep appealing to young people and to bring new audiences in. I think one of the things that triggered it for me last year was we showed the Japanese film Big Tits Zombie as part of our late night programming, and it was one of the first films to sell out, and I think the title was the big hook with that one. But I think it reminded us that there's definitely a bigger place for genre films at the festival.

In terms of different categories of films, what changes have you made this year?

The new addition this year is that we have a three-year grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and each year we are highlighting the cinema from a different region of the world, and these are regions that are cinematically important and also growing in importance. You may have a country or two in these regions that has made an impact internationally, but there's also film cultures in over countries that are still emerging. So this year, we are focusing on, we are doing a spotlight on South Asia, and India has one of the biggest film industries in the world. But I think one of the things that's interesting that's happening there is you have a growing independent film scene. There's always been of course Bollywood as such a major player, but there's a lot of interesting things happening in independent filmmaking and regional filmmaking.

And you're doing a big Bollywood event.

We are doing a big Bollywood kickoff, of course. I mean how could you showcase South Asia and not do Bollywood? As part of that program, we have a Bollywood choreographer coming in to give free master classes, and then we'll be doing a meet-the-filmmakers panel. Like I said, it's mostly the independent filmmakers that will be participating in that, talking about the changing landscape of filmmaking in their countries. So this year, it's that, next year we are doing a focus on the Middle East, and there's so much happening right now there in terms of film production and a lot of new funding going into production there. Then the year after that, it will be African cinema.

I've always been a fan of the documentary selections for this festival. I don't think I go through a year without seeing just about every single one of them. What is the criteria in terms of selection beyond the film just being good? I've got to imagine doc submissions might be one of the biggest ones that you get.

Definitely narrative features are the largest. Well no. Short films, whether it's experimental or narrative or a documentary shorts, is by far the largest submission.

And doc festivals are popping up everywhere now, because I get invited to a lot of them, and they all sound great, but what is the criteria there to narrow it down to just that handful?

It's difficult, because broadly we're looking for the best documentaries that will fit well into the program, so we're also looking for a fairly broad representation of subject and a theme and looking also for combinations of films that will really challenge audiences, that are a little bit more, I guess, art house or experimental. We have a fantastic Swiss documentary this year called Day Is Done that's almost a two-hour film that's all footage shot, I think it's over a 16-year period, from the director's studio, and it's just this amazing assemblage of images. It's gorgeous and mesmerizing, but the soundtrack that is laid on top of it is all messages left on the director's answering machine over the years.

And so as you are looking at these images which are very rhythmical in the sense of the passage of time. It's definitely non-linear, because they are all so assembled sometimes thematically, but you get a very interesting picture of the artist that's not always favorable to him, but he's very aware of what he is doing, but it's really, really fascinating.

We also have a couple of really great local documentaries like the Andrew Bird film that not only has local appeal, because of the subject matter and it's a Chicago film, but it's also a great documentary.

I have a feeling that will sell out pretty fast. We were talking before about Dennis Farina appearing at Opening Night. How much, if at all, does being able to bring a filmmaker in or an actor in influence the film selections that you make?

It doesn't, because the danger with doing that is that people's schedules change all of the time. Sometimes that gets talked about in advance, but it's never a deciding factor. Really what we are looking at, first and foremost, are the films, and then when we are able to bring guests in with them, it's a bonus I think, because I think that's one of the things that makes the festival experience so unique and watching a film at the festival different than just any Friday or Saturday night at the movies.

Yeah, having that access is important.

Right, so it's access to the filmmakers and then also access to a huge group of films that you may never have the opportunity to see again.

But having someone like John C. Reilly come in makes a difference in terms of just attendance, especially with a film like he's promoting, which most of these people probably will not go see otherwise.

I think [writer-director] Lynne Ramsay has a big enough of a following.

And the movie has certainly been talked about quite a bit.

Exactly, so I'd say the films without talent have to stand alone to be programmed. Again, there may be films that might be a little more challenging, but I think our audience — having moderated or sat through many Q&As — is fairly sophisticated and are willing to take a chance on something.

Do you find that you do get a fairly sizable portion of people that just show up on a given day with no film in mind and and just pick a film at random that isn't sold out? I'm talking about people who don't build a schedule.

Yeah, I mean I think that there are some people that will say, "Maybe I'll just go to the festival and see what's playing." And then on the opposite extreme are the people that are here today, the first day we're selling tickets.

Oh yeah, many years ago that was me.

So yeah. If you just look at ticketing lines like for day of sales, you do see that where people are looking at the schedule, looking at the board of what's sold out and what's still available and making their decisions there.

Speaking of Reilly, he's part of the Chicago Connection program. Where did that idea come from? Because you haven't really done anything like that before.

No, and it's something we have bandied about for a couple of years. We always talk about it amongst ourselves and with other people and we do get people coming back from LA and wanting to do more production in Chicago. There's this wealth of talent that grew up in Chicago, whether actually growing up here or this is where they honed their skills and then they left. So we thought you know what a great way to highlight that and, again, there's a big push in filmmaking in the city that is rising, so really to showcase the talent that is from Chicago, it's something that we have talked about, and this seemed like the year to do it.

It's a great list of talent too.

This year, we have five people, but you could easily do five people for the next 10 years and not come close to running out of people to showcase.

That's true. Yeah, the theater actors alone that went into movies could fill your showcase for many years to come.

The one thing I do like about that program is that everybody that is participating in it is quite different with their talents and their filmmaking style and their experience.

Are you having them come in just to talk, or is this all in connection with a film for each that you're showing?

It's different for each person.

OK. For somebody like Joe Swanberg, I don't think you have one of his films programmed.

No, not this year, but he is here, and the other funny thing about this is two of the five this year actually used to work for the film festival.

Who is the second person, other than Joe?

Braden King is the other one. He does a lot of video installation as well, and the MOMA in New York has done an instillation that was connected to the film itself. And so I think he's going to be talking about that and also about music.

OK. I feel like, and maybe my view is slightly askew, that the short films right now are actually things that people are watching again. I certainly have watched more just on my own in recent years.

I think a lot of that has to do with accessibility, and whether people are posting stuff. I think the online accessibility is important.. Film festivals become the showcases for them, and they're pre-curated for a viewer, but for so long people weren't used to watching short films, and it had a niche appeal before. We always talk about "How do we train people to watch shorts?" and you could say for years film festivals would run a short before a feature.

I think that works to varying degrees at different festivals. Berlin is a festival that still does it, but intermittently, it's not with every film. Sometimes they'll pair a short with a feature, but audiences aren't necessarily used to seeing films that way, but I wonder if that will change now that people being reintroduced to shorts. I don't know. The last couple of years, we've had great response. There has been an increase in attendance at our short programs.

It feels like if a new director emerges with his or her first feature, and people start hearing about these shorts that they did before the feature, then everyone goes and looks for them. And very often you can find them on YouTube.

And for us over the years one of the things that's always been exciting is when you have a short filmmaker who returns with a feature. For example, we showed back in the '90s a [director] Joe Wright [Atonement] short film, and he attended the festival, and then a lot of the short filmmakers go on to become major directors. That said, I think short films have to work as short films.

Now I'm going to put you on the spot here. Give me five titles that I you're afraid will get overlooked that people absolutely need to see.

Let's see.

How many of what's in this schedule have you seen personally?

Almost all of them.

OK, and this is culled from how many that you watched in total?

You know, I never track it. I always wonder if I should, or if it would just be like too depressing. [laughs] I actually don't have an answer for that, it's a lot, because we're watching films at other festivals. But I think we had, in terms of stuff we had in the office was over 900, and there's a team of four of us here that really do the programming, but also work with committees that are watching films and recommending films, people in different parts of the world,. So it's culled down from a huge number. There are times where there's a handful of films that Michael [Kutza, CIFF founder and director] saw at a festival that I didn't see or that one of the other programmers and Michael watched.

I was kind of wondering, percentage-wise like how many films are ones that you see at a festival and then pursue versus ones that are submitted cold, and you just pop it in and watch?

I don't know, but I feel like since I've been here, we've moved more toward higher percentage of films that are submissions and programmed.

Alright, so give me your list of much more than five then.

[Laughs] Well I guess I just have to decide which ones to talk about. So I'll begin with a U.S. indie film called A Little Closer by the director Matt Petock. It's a quiet but really beautiful and moving film that explores both the family unit and life in a small town as well as sexual identity. It's more like a sexual awakening or exploration. You have a single mother raising two kids on her own, and the film takes place over a summer, so the kids are out of school, and one is working a part-time job. Both are either awakening to themselves as sexual beings or starting to explore a little more, all the while their mother is looking to get lucky and love. It's just a really compelling family portrait that I think for every programmer that watched it, there was something that rang true.

Volcano is an Icelandic-Danish co-production, and we've called it an "unconventional coming-of-age story."

Anything from Iceland is unconventional.

In the best possible way.

Yeah, I love them. I don't think there are enough of them making it over here.

What I mean by an "unconventional coming-of-age story" is not the dark comedy that you necessarily expect coming out of Iceland. The film begins as a man is retiring, and a series of events soon after his retirement force him to re-evaluate his life, and it's probably one of the most moving films I've seen in a couple of years.

Does the title Volcano refer to recent events in Iceland?

Right? That's the question, because obviously the volcano has been erupting in Iceland, but it's also metaphorical in many ways, and there are great comic moments in it as well as you would expect from an Icelandic film.

There is this world premiere that we have in our South Asian section is called Kshay, or the English title is Corrode, and it's black and white, and we actually have an unusually large number of black-and-white films this year. It's a world premiere film from India, an independent film about a woman who is devoted to the goddess, Lakshmi, and she becomes obsessed with this statue of the goddess. And so she's no longer able to have children and decides that being able to purchase the statue and have it in her possession is the one thing that's going to save her. I think it's a story of obsession. It's a story of mourning and the connection between the two. It's super intense, but I think it's really well done.

There's a film from Egypt — one of the better films I've seen from Egypt in years — called Cairo 678, and this is in the main competition, and it's by a male director, but it explores the subject of sexual harassment in Egypt and how it's part of contemporary society, and it looks at it from the stories of three different women who have experienced sexual harassment and how they have dealt with it or not dealt with it. [Laughs] I feel like we have a series of some really serious here.

But those are exactly the films people are scared of sometimes, so that's fine.

Machete Language is a film from Mexico, and it's about two youths who are dissatisfied with contemporary life in Mexico. They're in their 20s, and the young woman finds an outlet through her music. She's actually a real musician in Mexico, and I think what they're doing is looking at what does it mean to rebel? What does it mean to stand up for what you believe in? How do you take a stand? Could it be through music? Is it through protest? Is it through violence? And so they cycle through those and are looking for a way to give expression to their dissatisfaction or their frustrations with explosive ends.

Corpo Celeste is a beautiful Italian film by a first-time director. This is a more conventional coming-of-age story, but it looks at this one family, and again it's a single mother with two daughters who returns to her hometown in rural Italy, and the younger daughter is going through her confirmation. As she's being educated or trained in the church, she's also questioning, what does what she's learning in confirmation class have to do with what she's experiencing as a teenager in her life.

I do have a question about one specific film. I've got to know. This might be most controversial question I ask you, but how did The Three Musketeers get put into this program? I haven't seen it, so I'm not making any judgments.

I think there are a couple reason. One thing that we have always wanted to do is keep up with what's happening as well, and I think there's a strong appeal. It's a familiar story, but also that it's shot in 3D, and every year we try to also make sure that we have films that are fun, whether it's a 3D film or something like that. So yeah, I think that'll be a fun addition to the program.

Have you seen it?

Michael saw it.

Well, there are period costumes, so that fits into some of what you're doing.

[Laughs] We don't have that many costume dramas this year.

So was there anything else you wanted to throw on your list?

I don't think it will get overlooked, but Juan of the Dead. There's also the Pakistani film, Bol, which has been a huge hit in Pakistan and India, and it's interesting, because it kind of straight-on tackles the issues of kind of women's place in society and, like I said, it's been a major hit in Pakistan, one of the biggest hits in years.

I am curious about the film about the girls basketball team in Iran?

Oh, Salaam Dunk? It's about a women's basketball team at the American University in Northern Iraq, and it's not only a great not underdog sports documentary, but it also has real insight into the lives of the girls on the team, and there are great feel good moments and there are rough moments where you get I think true insight into their lives. For cinephiles, Claude Lelouch is coming in.

And he has two films. I think the cinephiles are going to come out in droves for Haskell Wexler.

Yeah, Haskell for sure. Turn Me On, Dammit! is really fun. You know, when I start talking about them I feel like we have a lot of films that deal with issues of sexuality. I don't think that's probably uncommon. We do have a whole shorts program called "Sex" [Laughs]

I did notice that, yeah. That's new, right?

Yeah, I think the person who heads up shorts programming was coming across so many good films that dealt with sexual themes, and it just felt right to bring them together and showcase them, because the other choice is to intersperse them in the different programs. We have increased the number of short film programs this year.

Usually it was just like four.

Yeah, for a long time it was four, and then the last couple of years, we have also done separate ones, like we've done the best of the American Black Film Festival short program, and last year we started off doing our After Dark shorts program, which we are continuing this year. And again, that arose out of just the high volume of great short films that could be considered genre films or late night films. We really thought it would be a great way to showcase them.

Well, thank you so much.

Great, thanks.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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