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Film Wed Oct 08 2014

Chicago International Film Festival's Mimi Plauché Talks About CIFF's 50th Anniversary & This Year's Films

Chicago International Film Festival 50th anniversaryNorth America's longest-running competitive film festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, begins Thursday, Oct. 9 with the Chicago premiere of Miss Julie, the latest film from actor-turned-director Liv Ullman (and based on the play by August Strindberg), who has had all of her last three features as a director screen at CIFF and will be in attendance at the opening night at the Chicago Theater (all other festival screenings will be held at AMC River East theaters). Her appearance in the Chicago is only fitting since CIFF will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and has a great number of special events, screenings and appearances to mark the occasion, which means even more work and coordinating for Programming Director Mimi Plauché, founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, and their team.

More than 20 films have been selected as part of a retrospective of highlights from CIFF's 50-year existence, including 1971 Silver Hugo winner Family Life, to be presented by the director, acclaimed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi; Lars von Trier's Academy Award-nominated Breaking the Waves; Roger and Me (with director Michael Moore in attendance); and three films which received their world premiere at past festivals: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), The Idolmaker (1980) and White Nights (1985) — the latter two directed by Taylor Hackford, who will appear at both screenings. Several longtime festival friends will present special editions of their favorite films, including director, writer and producer Oliver Stone, showing the Director's Cut of Natural Born Killers and the recently released to Blu-ray Ultimate Cut of Alexander. Other retrospect films will include 101 Reykjavik, Fanny and Alexander, Here's Your Life, a restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, George Cukor's version of A Star Is Born, and a restored version of the silent film classic Why Be Good?, featuring the final on-screen performance of CIFF cofounder Colleen Moore.

I'll have a full-fledged CIFF preview piece this Friday in my Steve at the Movies column, but a couple of interesting programming notes I wanted to highlight include a spotlight on Scandinavian films, that includes 20 feature works and a program of eight shorts from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The festival is also honoring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert by screening four of her recent great films at the Music Box Theatre, three of which will be shown as 35mm prints.

I had a chance recently to sit down with Plauché, who has been working for CIFF since 2006, to talk about the highlights and special events of this year's event. As always, Plauché is a great guide though the nearly 200 films from more than 50 countries. Take notes, and don't be afraid to see something to haven't heard of — that's the point of a film festival, isn't it? Enjoy.

So I know when we've talked before you said, even though it's a year-long process of programming, really it's that six months leading up to opening night that most of the work and scheduling gets done. I've got to imagine though, for the 50th anniversary, that the process really did take up most of the last year.

It did. I think there are certain people that we started talking to a lot earlier in terms of some of the retrospective stuff that we're doing. Certainly I know we started talking with Krzysztof Zanussi really early, because we knew he had a new film coming out and wanted to pair with his Family Life. I think Michael always wanted to do Family Life, and then we found out not only that he had a new film in the works, which I knew about because I'd read about it being in production last year, but that he had something that should be ready for the fall. We got in touch with him, and Michael said he has always loved Family Life, and basically Zanussi said, "That's great because we've just restored it and it's on DCP," so that was fortuitous. But certain things we started working on a lot earlier.

That being said, we did a lot of extra and different programming this year with the year-round stuff. I don't know if you know we did that series with WTTW [a classic film series, honoring the festival's 50th anniversary]. What's always fun and the trick is that most years the festival is really focused on contemporary cinema, and we have a limited amount of restored or retrospective or repertory programming. So, there's a different type of work that goes into securing older films, and certainly for television, working with WTTW with the television rights. So finding stuff that was important to the festival, was representative of the festival, was important to Michael, and then working with WTTW to make sure that it's appropriate programing for PBS, and also working with them to be in touch with the rights holders to make sure that they could get the television rights.

But that was actually a lot of fun, and one of the great things that's come out of that is — we've worked with WTTW in the past, but I think this has really solidified the partnership, and we'll continue to work together with them. But part of putting that together was thinking about, "What are we going to do during the year so that we can also think about what we want to do during the festival?" And then for our summer screenings program, we usually work with the consulates to program more contemporary — last three years films — and what we decided to do was award winners from the past. That was really fun to do, but at the same time, we're looking at stuff where DVDs don't exist, and certainly it hasn't been made into a Blu-ray. So we figured out, let's get some really good, older, award-winning stuff, but also balance that with what's available. But I think that became a really, really interesting program in a different way than it is from year to year.

For the actual festival, when you're looking for directors and people whose work you want to profile who've been here before and won awards, where do you even begin?

We talked about a lot of different approaches to it, and I think ultimately a lot of it came down to talking to Michael about who's been really important in the history of the festival.

I was going to say, it seems like that would be something that he would be uniquely qualified to really contribute to.

Absolutely. Both to him and to the history of the festival, which is why having someone like Taylor Hackford is so great, because we world premiered both The Idolmaker and White Nights, and they were both opening night of the festival. So clearly he and his work are so important to the history of the festival, and he's remained a faithful friend. Especially with Michael being the founder and still the artistic director, it has a more personal touch. I think it's more than just thinking about the pure retrospective of award winners, which we've also done in other programs throughout the year, but a lot of stuff that we're doing during the festival has to do with films and people that are also personal as well as historically significant for the festival.

During the festival kick-off press conference, someone said that in many cases, you let the directors pick the films of theirs they want played.

Well, with Taylor, it was pretty clear those were the two films we should do. For a while, we were trying to decide whether we do one. And he was like, "Let's do both." One of the things that is a hallmark of the festival over the years is showing the first work of directors, and The Idolmaker is Taylor's first film, and we premiered it, so at first we were just thinking let's just do The Idolmaker. But the more we talked about it, and again, because we did premiere at White Nights as well, we decided that it would be great to do both. In the case of Oliver Stone, we gave Oliver an award, but I think with him, at first we approached him with showing his student film that we showed. And he said, "You know, what I'd like to do is show two films that are still important to me that I'd like to talk about." So, yeah.

Nothing else would explain those choices. They're inspired, but they would only come from him.

And I think that's going to make for a great conversation with him, which is also ultimately what's going to be interesting about having him back as part of the 50th.

This year in particular just looking over the schedule, especially with the Chaplin celebration, playing Why Be Good?, Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, the Orson Welles doc, it seems like you're gearing the retrospective programming toward people in love with film history, even beyond your 50 years.

Yeah, and the other nice thing about each of those is we've been able to tie them in some way to the festival and the history. So David Robinson, who's giving the Chaplin presentation, is the premiere Chaplin expert in the world. We've had him at the festival before, and he actually is a programming advisor to us, and goes to festivals and watches films for us and with us, but also runs the most respected silent film festival in the world in Pordenone. It's nice that it's our 50th and it's the 100th anniversary of the Little Tramp costume, and it's all being presented by David who's important to the history of the festival and has had a hand for years on the programming side of things as well.

With Hitchcock, that's a new restoration, and Cohen Media Group is doing more and more restoration of classic Hollywood stuff. That was obviously made in the UK, but also they're doing a lot with older French films. They came to us, and we said that's great because again like John Russell Taylor, who's been a friend of the festival for a long time, another well-known British critic. He wrote the only authorized biography of Hitchcock and was personal friends with him; he's going to be doing the kind of talkback afterwards. He also was good friends with George Cukor, so he's going to be involved with the A Star Is Born screening. Michael said that Colleen always said that that was part of her life. And so there's that connection with Colleen Moore, but also having John here to kind of talk about it, being a Cukor expert.

Even your opening night film harkens back to the festival's history. I'm 99 percent sure that I've seen all of Liv Ullmann's films at the festival. I know they were all premiered in the U.S. here.

They did. We started talking to Liv back again in February about it. We hadn't seen anything back then with it, but not only have we premiered all of her films, but she's been here many times. I think it's just great timing that she had this film coming out. For Michael, it's coming full circle, to be able to open the 50th anniversary with her film and with her here.

I have to imagine that was a short conversation."Yes please." From a programming standpoint, when you have a slightly elevated number of retrospective films, do you have to be a little more selective with your newer films as a result?

The last three years we've done those Sunday screenings as part of the spotlight program, we did neighborhood screenings. We were at the Logan and the Harper and the New 400 — various locations over the last three years. We have a slightly lower number of newer stuff. It's not that significant really, because most of the older stuff that we're showing are one-offs. But it was all of a sudden like, "How many films are we showing?" [laughs]

Building up to this particular festival, has there been a different vibe around the office — that you have to nail it because it's so important?

I do think there's a certain amount of extra pressure, extra work, but also extra excitement that's matched it. It's a one-time only thing. There will be other anniversaries, but the next really big one is not until the 75th in terms of how people think of anniversaries. Of course, 60 will be a milestone, as it should be. But I think there's both additional anticipation as well as pressure.

Back to the 50th anniversary films — the ones that are not being accompanied by the director. How did you select those?

Well we're doing this Spotlight Scandinavia, and we always knew that Von Trier wouldn't be here with Breaking the Waves. But because we're working with different film institutes from those countries, I wanted to match up films that were importan in the festival's history or were award winners or is the first film by a director that then went on to international renown, win Academy Awards and so on. So yeah, the Jan Troell film [Here's Your Life] — we were talking about bringing him in. He was just here two years ago, he's in his 80s now, but he's actually working on his next film. Jan is a figure who, I think he's been to the festival four different times, and in the first five years, two of his films won the Gold Hugo. Whether he could be here or not, it was important to us, especially with the Scandinavian spotlight. And one of the reasons we decided to do the Scandinavian spotlight this year is because, between Liv Ullman and Jan Troell and many others, it's had such a lasting presence over the lasting 50 years of the festival, but then also since I've been at the festival. I think it's a combination both of what's happening in the industries in those countries and their reach in the world, as well as personal preference. They've had a much larger presence at the festival the last several years.

Certainly countries like Denmark and Sweden have never been underrepresented at this festival. I'm always looking for those.

True. But three years ago, two Finnish films won the top two prizes in the new directors competition and the main competition. La Havre, which is the Aki Kaurismäki film, won the Gold Hugo that year. And The Good Son, by a young Finnish director, female director, won the Gold Hugo in the new directors competition, and who would have thought the two Finnish films would take the two top prizes. And then I think that year the Silver Hugo and the new directors competition went to an Icelandic film, which is one of my favorite films of the year called Volcano.

Beyond some of the nations that have higher-profile film scenes, where do you sort of draw from to flesh out some of the newer films in that spotlight?

The interesting thing I've always thought is, since I've been here, we've shown between one and three Icelandic films a year, and they're always really well attended. I don't know why in Chicago they play so well, but I think maybe people go to see one Icelandic film, and then they get hooked. We have returning audiences for our Icelandic films.

I think ever since the two Finnish films won the prizes, there's always interesting work going on there, but it's less high profile. So the two features that we have this year from Finland are completely different, but both are very interesting. And honestly, Norway I feel has just really exploded. I was so thrilled when we confirmed Bent Hamer's 1001 Grams because I'm a big fan of his work and I think it's another really strong film from him. Last year, I think we had two Norwegian films in the main competition.

And then the other thing I really love is, we traditionally don't have a whole lot of family friendly films at the festival, but it was fun to program Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder, which is interesting because the series of children's books are written by Jo Nest, who is known for incredibly dark crime novels.

I was at Fantasia in Montreal a couple of months ago, and that played there.

Oh, it did? I didn't know that.

Yeah. I saw it in the program and didn't know what it was, but obviously the name jumps out at you. People were talking about it the whole time I was there. Can you just talk about the significance of Why Be Good? and about getting that?

David Robinson, who's doing the Chaplin presentation, he knew that it had been found again and that they were working on the restoration. So it had was on his and our radar, and we found out that they were world premiering at Bologna, which is the other big classic silent film festival. So David started working on his side, and we had started talking to Warner Bros. Classics about some other films we have programed, and they knew the story. Again it was so fortuitous in terms of the timing. Plus, we always knew we wanted to do something around Colleen Moore for the 50th, and just that that worked out in this way.

Can you explain what her role in the festival's creation?

My understanding, because this is Michael's story, is that when he first told someone he wanted to start the film festival here in Chicago, someone said, "Oh my gosh, you have to meet Colleen Moore." Colleen was living in Chicago, and of course wasn't acting anymore. I think Why Be Good? was her last film, so that would have been 1929, and that would have been probably 1963-64. And she and Michael met, they hit it off, she believed in what Michael was doing and was the perfect person because she was both Chicago high society and knew the people in Chicago that could help to launch the festival and get behind it.

But she also still had all of her Hollywood connections, and so we were able to bring in King Vidor the first year of the festival through her introduction. So they remained incredibly close. Colleen was involved with the festival for a long time, and I think she was like a mother figure to Michael, but also was his main backer and supporter and really helped launch the festival.

You're doing this Isabelle Huppert tribute, which is kind of incredible because they're fairly recent films.

Well we had been trying to work on Violette [1978], which was the early Chabrol film, because we had shown it at the festival in the '70s. It was a question of finding a print that was showable. You go back long enough and if something hasn't been preserved, or there are very few copies of it left, it's much more difficult. So what we did was we took a selection of films that we've shown at the festival and presented those to her as options and then also said, "Are there others that you are interested in?" So we haven't shown the Claire Denis film at the festival, White Material. I think it's such a strong film and, we wanted to work with her again in finding films that she wanted us to show as well. And the other thing that's nice about this selection of films is it really just shows her breadth as an actress from comedy to serious drama to something as intense as The Piano Teacher.

Did I hear they're all going to be 35 prints?

A number of them are 35mm. I want to say three of the four are.

And you're returning to the Music Box, which is a huge deal.

Yeah, we've been talking with the Music Box again for a lot of the year about doing something back there, and I think the question is always, what was the right thing to put there? One of the great things about the Music Box is not only is it a Chicago institution and great, great venue, but they also show 35mm. But we do have a long history with them over the years, and so it's nice to go back there. And between the theater and Music Box Films, we have a nice relationship with them.

It's in my neighborhood, which is a big reason I love that you're showing things there. I remember years ago when CIFF used to be there as a regular part of the festival, and people would complain that it was too far away from downtown. Now it's become a destination. Tourists come to town and seek it out.

It's an experience that you can't really have anymore at many places.

Kathleen Turner will be here as well.

She's the president of the jury, yes. Michael saw her last year in Montreal, and I think they had a good time catching up, and we did something like this with her in the early '90s, and they thought it would be fun to re-create that. She was game.

It looks like with the shorts programs that you've got more than ever — nine of them.

Definitely. We did, a couple of years ago, increase the number because we have so many great submissions that when we only had five shorts programs, it was pretty limited with what we could program. So we had gone up to seven the last couple of years, and one of the things I know that's been fun for Penny [Bartlett, shorts programmer] is that it's really allowed her and us to present more different types of short films. We've done the After Dark Shorts program, which was a new addition, and a whole program of documentary shorts. So there are certain ones that we've always done like the City/State and the animation, which are beloved.

Now you do a shorts program on whatever your regional spotlight is on as well.

Which I think has been an amazing addition to the spotlight programs. We didn't do it the first year with South Asia, but started doing it for the Middle Eastern and the African programs; the short films were really fantastic. I think both with both of those spotlights, we knew it would be easy for her to program short films from Scandinavia, but one of the things that was so great about both the Middle Eastern and the African shorts programs is that it allowed us to showcase a lot of different countries, but also there are just certain countries that don't have the larger established industries, but there are a lot of young film makers that are going though different film programs.

Like in East Africa, Mira Nair has a program that she's behind called Maisha Film Labs, where she trains young filmmakers, and they basically are making short films coming from all of the East African countries. So we had a couple filmmakers that had come out of that program whether their film was made for it, or they were doing work since then. Also in the Middle East, some of the countries that we were able to showcase through the short film program don't have a whole lot of feature production, but there's a lot of really interesting work happening on the short film side.

Obviously the overall goal of any festival is to program the best films you can find. But always in the back of your mind, I have to imagine, especially this year, you are also thinking, "What can we build into this programming that will bring people in who maybe don't go to festivals that often?"

Right. It'll be interesting to see how things change with, like you said, doing more of the classics screenings.

There seems to be a renewed interest in people going to the movies to see older films again.

I think that'll be really, really interesting, and for us, it's a nice year to do it because it is the 50th anniversary. We've always talked internally about thematically this year is about looking back and then also looking forward. This is where we've come from, but what's next? I don't know that there's any one particular hook in terms of getting that crowd in, but I do think that sometimes when you show films that are familiar in some way, whether it's because they're the big buzz films of the season, which are more high profile slots — whether it's like THE IMITATION GAME or WILD or BIRDMAN — those are fantastic films and going to be Oscar contenders, and that's exciting because there's already all this buzz around them. Then also showing some more repertory stuff will maybe bring in people.

One of the positive effects that can come from all of that is that maybe, they're like, "I'm a really a huge fan of Judy Garland. I want to see A Star Is Born on the big screen." And they come, and they look at the guide, and there's other stuff that then piques their interest, and they get introduced to something that they've never known or thought about.

One of the things that I like about programming the festival that is true to the original ongoing mission is the idea of discovery and bringing not just new films, but new filmmakers and their work to the city and showcasing them. People ask, "What should I go see?" And I always say, "Go see something where the filmmaker's going to be there, but take a chance on something that you don't know who the filmmaker is. Read the descriptions and see what appeals to you that way, but just because you've never heard of that person or you've never seen a film from that country doesn't mean you won't like it."

Which leads into my next question: other than some of the higher-profile films, are there a few off-the-beaten-path titles that you want to call attention to?

Yeah. I mean, to kind of go back to the Scandinavian focus, and I already mentioned this, the Bent Hamer's 1001 Grams. There's a Russian film called The Fool by Yuriy Bykov. We had his film last year, The Major. I think this is even stronger. It's about one man who's trying to do the right thing in the face of both obscene corruption and ignorance. The way that it's scripted is brilliant. I wouldn't call it a political thriller, but there's definitely elements of the thriller in there.

This might appeal to your crowd; it's called El Cordero, which is a Chilean film. Essentially it's the story of a man who is a conservative practicing Catholic, and — slight spoiler alert, but it doesn't give too much away because it's toward the beginning of the film — he accidentally kills somebody. What troubles him the most is not that he has killed somebody, it's that he doesn't feel any sense of guilt or regret about it. And so he goes on a bit of a spree to try to figure out like what will it take for him to feel regret?

That's more like it.

It's pretty dark and bloody. But again by a first-time filmmaker, and it's a great debut feature. The Evolution of Bert is a very interesting film. It's by a filmmaker who teaches at Michigan State University. I really love Dear White People [which is also playing at CIFF] as well, but Bert is an interesting counterbalance to that. It's about Bert, who is graduating university and is at a cross roads in his life as a young African-American male, wondering what's next. How do I make choices in my life? If I make the choice to go down the corporate path, am I selling out? But the milieu of the film is this artsy college setting. I think it's really well done. It's also his second feature, but I think his first feature was done in the early 1990s. You saw Taxidermia, right?


So Free Fall is by the same filmmaker. It's structured almost as a series of vignettes that are all united because they're all taking place on different floors of the same apartment building. It's about this older woman who falls from the top of the building and as she drags herself back up to the top, she gets a glimpse into all of the strangeness that is happening in every apartment. It's very creative. Fort Tilden was a Grand Jury prize winner at SXSW, very self aware, funny. Gett, which Music Box Films has, is one of my favorite out of Cannes. It was in Directors' Fortnight, and it's set in a courtroom that's about the size of this room. It's about a woman who's in a rabbinical court. She's trying to divorce her husband. It takes place over a five-year period where they keep returning because she can't legally divorce him until he grants her the divorce. It's an incredibly well scripted and acted chamber piece that is an interesting character study, but also with all of the the cultural and religious background.

Force Majeure is great. Human Capital is a tripartite film where there's a crime that's committed, and with each telling, the story's told gets a different insight in who's involved and what really happened. Of the great docs, The Iron Ministry is definitely a must-see. It's shot over three years on different trains all over China, and it's a great snapshot of not just train culture in China but of life. It's fascinating.

Something a little bit lighter is Maestro. It's based on a true encounter between a young actor and Eric Rohmer on his last film. It's the story of this young actor who wants nothing more than to star in the next Fast and Furious film, and he is attracted to this girl who is going to be in this old French master's film, and so he ends up managing to get himself a part in it to chase this girl, but then is introduced to the art of cinema and develops this great relationship with the director. So it's touching and funny. It's lighter. Going back to Iceland, this is our new directors' competition, Paris of the North.

I know one of Michael's personal favorites is The Owners. It's also in competition. We have a great selection of films from Russia and the former Soviet republics. We have a great and very interesting Azerbaijani film called Nabat. It's a story of an older woman, and the village that she lives in is basically being overrun. They live in a conflict zone. The military comes in and warns everybody that they should leave because they can't protect them anymore. And she decides to stay against the odds. It's just gorgeously shot with long takes. But it's just really the story of this one woman's perseverance.

The President. It's a Mohsen Makhmalbaf film, set in Georgia. It's such a great satire, really. The story is there's a president, who is a dictator, and it starts off with him showing his grandson what it means to have power, and of course like within a day, there's like a major coup, and he is unable to escape. The rest of the family gets out, but he and his grandson are stuck and have to try and get out of the country. But in the meantime, they are thrown in the middle of all of these people who are enduring suffering that he has caused. Really smart. Red Rose I really like as well. It's a really interesting combination of street-level footage of the Green Revolution in Tehran, juxtaposed with this love story that is set in this apartment with a young woman who is a demonstrator and a middle-aged man who has a former life as an activist.

Speed Walkingis by the director of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That's a very different film. It's a coming-of-age story set in the '70s. A great indie, low-budget Chicago film called This Afternoon. The setup is there's a young man who goes to a meeting not realizing that it's a meeting for sex addicts, but he has his own issues with intimacy, which is why whatever the meeting is called he thinks it's actually for people like him, and he begins a friendship with a woman who is at the meeting for the right reasons. But it's essentially an extended conversation between the two of them about where they are in life, and how they feel about God and sex and intimacy and family. The way that it unfolds is really nice.

Timbuktu is fantastic. The director is one of the great African contemporary filmmakers, and it's set in Timbuktu in Mali. He didn't shoot there; he couldn't, because at the time, the radical extremists took over. It shows the bigger picture but also tells the intimate story of this one family that gets trapped with what's happening. Titli is set in the slums of India about this one guy who is part of this crime family. His brothers are thugs. All he wants to do is get out, but gets trapped in this family.

Words with Godswas conceived by Guillermo Arriaga, who produced it and then directed one of the segments. It's looking at the place of God with the big "G" or gods with the small "g" in many different societies and different interpretations of it. Some are more overtly dealing with the question of religion. [The image in the guide] is from the Mira Nair segment. But there's a piece by Bahman Ghobadi that is brilliant about conjoined twins. One is quite pious and the other is quite lustful. It's kind of like the two sides of ourselves in a religious context.

Honestly, almost every film festival is structured in this way, where you have more high-profile, award-contending films with the star power attached to them that brings publicity. And of course they're all films that deserve to be seen in their own right, and the festival context is the right place for them, and what that helps to do is again put a spotlight on the other films and filmmakers in the festival.

There's a difference between high profile and award contenders sometimes, but it's great to see that you've got a healthy combination of both in a lot of key slots,. As always, thank you very much for your time and wisdom.


The Chicago International Film Festival runs Oct. 9-23 at the AMC River East, 200 E. Illinois St., and other theaters. See the full schedule for details. Tickets for individual screenings range from $7 to $20, and multi-film festival passes are also available.

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A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
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Editor: Nancy Bishop,
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