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Film Thu Oct 15 2015

Chatting with Mimi Plauché About the 51st Chicago International Film Festival

North America's longest-running competitive film festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, begins tonight, Oct. 15 with the Chicago premiere of Mia Madre, the latest film from Italian director Nanni Moretti (Caro Diario, The Son's Room, We Have a Pope), which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival and stars John Turturro as an obnoxious American actor starring in an Italian drama. The screening marks the first time the CIFF has held an opening night event at The Auditorium Theatre; all other festival screenings will be held at AMC River East theaters.

After last year's more festive leanings, with CIFF celebrating its 50th anniversary with the help of returning favorites (film and directors), festival organizers were more interested in seeing this year's 51st proceedings as a way to reboot the franchise, as it were. With everything from a worldwide contest to design the 2015 poster to a shift in some programming features, Programming Director Mimi Plauché, founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza, and their team set a mission to not only distinguish themselves from other festivals around the world but also from their own history. It remains a festival that focuses on new and established directors — the number of filmmakers coming in from around the world is impressive.

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 architecture in the Architecture+Space+Design section, which is a partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial; Taste of Cinema, which will highlight a series of food-themed films, some of which are paired with culinary experiences throughout the city; and Industry Days, a first for the festival (at this scale, at least), created to pair up-and-coming filmmakers with industry professionals in the hopes of trading and honing ideas and getting that first film made.

As I do every year, I sat down with Plauché, who has been working for CIFF since 2006, to talk about the highlights and special events of this year's event, which continues through October 29. As always, Plauché is a great guide through the more than 150 films from more than 50 countries. Take notes, and don't be afraid to see something you aren't familiar with — that's the point of a film festival, right?

The first thing I wanted to ask you about is this critics panel ["Friend or Foe: How Do Film Critics and Filmmakers Get Along?" on October 21, 4pm]. Where did that idea come from?

I think a lot of it is one Anthony [Kaufman, CIFF programmer]'s working with us now, and he comes from that background. He's not really writing as a critic anymore, but he's still doing some journalism. One of the critics that's on it is actually an Argentine critic who used to write for the largest paper in Buenos Aires. He was the editor and did that for 20 years. He's now moved into programing and also has a website. He still writes, but I had talked to him about this before. He's very tight, especially with the Argentine and Latin American industry, and he programs Latin American cinema. So we were talking about how complicated that relationship could be.

Then someone like Roger Ebert was such a champion of so many filmmakers, and he made so many of their careers. I don't know if this happened in Roger's case, but we were thinking about the closeness of those relationships. Like last year when Michael Moore came, and Chaz [Ebert] happened to be on the red carpet at the exact same time because we were showing Life Itself, we just started thinking about what those relationships between critics and filmmakers are, and how that can be both so beneficial for filmmakers, but also complicated in some ways.

Looking back, with the 50th anniversary year behind you, was it everything you guys were hoping it would be, in terms of both a sort of celebratory year, but also not abandoning your usual programing style?

I think it was. One of the really big things from last year was having so many filmmakers return. Both big names like Oliver Stone — and it was interesting to see the selection of films they wanted to talk about at the festival. And then opening with Liv Ullman's film [Miss Julie], and having Liv here. We premiered all of her films at the festival. Just having a number of people back, a significant number that have been friends of the festival for so long as filmmakers, as actors. Like having Kathleen Turner come back and be president of the jury. Margarethe von Trotta was on the jury as well. And having it be both major U.S. directors coming back as well as international guests returning, and that added to the celebratory aspect.

We had to keep moving forward, of course. We think of ourselves — and one of our main angles is — we're about discovery and new directors and new talents and bringing all of those guests in, as well. I think we had a record number of guests in last year, in part because of the 50th Anniversary. We talked a little bit last year about thinking about the future, and I think we really put more of that in place this year, because last year we were so focused on that year and the past.

Rather than looking at last year as the end of something...

That was something to celebrate and to get through. It's so big. But I think there has never been the sense that "Now we're just going to go back to business as usual." I think having a couple of new people on the programing team, who were with us in some capacity in the past, but being new in their roles as programers has allowed us to expand our ideas for the festival.

Like Industry Days — it's brand new. It's something that I feel like we've slowly been building toward, and it's something I've been talking about wanting to do for a long time, but really having the right person on staff to head it up was key. So over the past 6-7 years, we've really built up the panels that were dispersed throughout the festival, thinking about How do we make sure the panels are serving the local filmmaking community? Sometimes there'll be spotlight panels and some more thematic ones, but we're also thinking about how we can best take advantage of the guests that we're already bringing into town to really create panels that are interesting both to local filmmakers, to student filmmakers, to visiting filmmakers.

So it's really making sure that when the distributors are here, we're doing distribution panels that are not just about "Meet the Distributors," but that are talking about something that's useful for those attending, because meeting them is useful. It's proven useful. Distribution deals have come out of it. It becomes about How do we connect better to what's happening in Chicago besides just presenting local filmmakers' films in our City & State program?

Which seems really amped up this year, bigger than I've ever seen it.

Oh, it's at least twice as big. One of the other things I think was key was concentrating it over a four-day period and having everybody in town all around the same time. We're going to have some people with distribution companies in different parts of the festival as well, but really bringing a big group of influential industry people to Chicago at the same time, and then inviting the Chicago community to help us put it together. [The Independent Filmmaker Project is] presenting one of the panels; we're doing a pitch session with IFP. Also working with Studio 18 — it's over in Cinespace [Chicago Film Studios], and they're really about servicing the local industry and doing a lot of advising and helping with pre- and post-production.

There's always been such an interesting independent community here, but we know so many filmmakers who started out here, but there's just not enough industry here for them to stay if they want to move on. There are some, of course, who have stayed, like [Joe and Kris Swanberg].[Director] Stephen Cone is here still and has been making stuff consistently, and so many others have too, but a lot of people have left. Now with so much television production, it means that when filmmakers aren't making their films, they can get work. I think it's really boosting local film production as well.

So you used the 50th year as a reason to — I wouldn't go so far as to say reinvent the festival, but I'm noticing more differences this year than I think I ever have from one year to the next.

Industry Days is the big thing. The intention, even before we hired Anthony or the other programers, was that 51 has to be about something new, without abandoning who we are. Let's keep the good things in place, but what can we build on that we think is important as a festival and being located particularly in Chicago? What can we strengthen, or build on, or do that's new that will be meaningful, and not just doing something new to do it?

So the second big thing this year was the spotlight. For the last four years, the spotlights have been on regions. At the end of the festival last year, we were approached immediately by the [Chicago Architecture] Biennial about being the film partner, and it's another funny thing where we've always talked about: "One year, it would be really interesting to do something around architecture, because Chicago is such a great architecture city." And this was obviously the year to do it because of the Biennial. It was the excuse to do something we've been talking about for a while now.

And then the other thing we've been talking about for a while — and [in] the history of the festival I've done like three other times but never consistently — and things just fell into place this year is what we're calling Taste of Cinema, and part of that is just that there's three Chicago feature-length films that all deal with some aspect of food and films — For Grace, Breakfast at Ina's and Open Tables are all food themed. And then we saw really early on Birth of Saké, which is such a beautiful film. We saw other tie-ins as well and thought, especially with the three Chicago films, it's a really great year to do a food and film tie-in.

51st Chicago International Film Festival poster 2015You've got the poster contest, and submitted trailers that you're playing before each program, those are also new elements you've added.

Again, that was something we've slowly been building to, and this year seemed like something new we wanted to do. So as Michael [Kutza, CIFF founder] said, for him, part of it was him saying, "I have do let go a little bit of control, particularly around the poster." People like Saul Bass did some of the posters [in the past], and other graphic designers have done posters over the years, but we had never done a contest before. You're always a little worried about "What are we committing to, and what's the quality of the posters that we're going to get?" We went out internationally to all of our contacts for film, and the word got out. I think there were 10 that we would have been happy to use. A committee decided the finalists and then which one was eventually chosen. It was beyond our expectations, both the response in terms of numbers as well as the breadth of countries that we received them from, and then the quality was great. The winner is really fun.

CIFF inadvertently got on to the festival-circuit news recently with the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace pulling out of other festivals, but it sounds like Michael said that Chicago withdrew the film from its lineup rather than get an injunction served.

We have two lawyers on our board, and they do the pro bono work for us. One's an entertainment attorney and we said, "This is what's happening. what do you think we should do?" And upon their advice, it was decided that's what was best for the festival.

It's also less of a headache for you because you don't have to scramble to fill a slot during the festival or right before it or after your program has been published.

Exactly. And I mean just in terms of fairness and selling tickets to the general public, acting as if we were moving forward when there was probably a chance of it dropping out.

I'm always fascinated by some of the archival prints that you play, and you've got this Sherlock Holmes thing, which I think was supposed to be part of something earlier this year in Chicago, and it got botched somehow?

Yeah, and I don't know exactly what happened with that.

I know that Michael Phillips wrote an article about it, but I don't think I understood exactly what happened.

Yeah, so it was an Essanay Studios [based in Chicago] production, and they were going to present it up there but as a benefit for the college.

The ticket prices were really steep, I remember that.

We had first heard about it from David Robinson — you may have met over beers, and he had seen it. He runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, so he's on top of all the new archival stuff that's being discovered. And then they had originally booked it for that benefit. I don't know exactly what happened with that either, myself. We had been in touch with the company in LA, and when that fell through, they reached out to us. So we decided that we'd like to move forward.

I think it deserves a higher-profile debut in the city.

Yeah, and we're thrilled to present it. It's really fun and exciting.

You're also screening Hugo. Are you doing it in 3-D?

We are. And that's in conjunction with [composer] Howard Shore [who is being honored this year at CIFF]. We asked Howard if there was a film or short list of films that we could screening in conjunction with the tribute. I think Hugo was one of three films that he had selected, because of the festival's connection with Martin Scorsese, and Michael's deep love of 3-D, and the desire to have some more family-friendly programing. Hugo seemed like the easy choice for us, and again, it was one of his top three as well.

It's also a movie that celebrates movies.

Exactly.

I literally just a little while ago got the email that you've added Spotlight to the lineup, which also features a Howard Shore score. Talk about the thought process behind bringing him in, and what the tribute will be.

Over the years, we've done tributes to people who were not directors or actors. We've done costume designers; we've done cinematographers. We had been thinking about that more recently, and then one of our staff had been out at an event in LA and he said, "I heard Howard speak, and he's amazing. It would be fun to bring him to Chicago." That's how we connected to him. It's really fun to do something that's a little bit different and to tap into possibly new audiences. He's doing a master class at Columbia College. Then we're showing Hugo, and Doug Adams, who wrote a book, is going to be doing Q&A with him after, then we're going to be doing the one-on-one conversation. We didn't do it as a single-ticket event. Hugo is really long, and we don't want people to have to commit to both. If people would like to go to both, it's a nice afternoon. But also, we thought that maybe some families and children would come to Hugo, because it's a chance to see it in 3-D on the big screen, and then maybe there would be a different audience that would come to the tribute.

Then you're also doing something with Charles Burnett, which is an inspired choice, and I'm happy you're playing To Sleep with Anger.

We're thrilled about that too. His Killer of Sheep we had shown I wanna say like six or seven years ago, then we were in touch with Sony repertory about their new titles that they had just restored, and this was on their list, and we wanted to honor Charles for so long. So with the restoration of To Sleep with Anger and Charles available to come, it really just fell into place beautifully. It's an amazing tribute.

Let's talk about your opening night selection, Mia Madre, which I just saw yesterday. How did everyone decide on this kicking things off?

Last year we did Liv [Ullman]'s film. Every year we always wonder, should we do a foreign film? We're so international in scope and focus. If you reach back into the '80s and '90s, we would open with an Italian film or a French film. So it was something that's come up again over the years, and for me personally, it was one of my favorite films out of Cannes. With opening night, it's about finding a film that we love and would be great for like an opening night audience. With John Turturro in it, there's some English in it, so it's a combination of English language and Italian as well. Just in terms of it being a great film, we've showed so many of Moretti's films over the years, and also just us loving the film, we decided to go with it.

Maybe it's just my perception of it, but since you gave out your program, every day I'm getting emails about some bigger, new film that you've added to the lineup.

We're adding more, so you should wait.

Was that by design, or did these opportunities present themselves more recently? Did you leave room in the schedule for these?

We did. We had been talking with Michael Moore and his producers about Where To Invade Next for a while. They were in talks with distribution, so it was always on the table, and we were always planning on scheduling it, but that had to wait for everything to be in place. That's the case with everything. From our prospective, it's also fun to have new announcements as well and to keep the excitement going and keep the audiences excited. So it's a combination of planned and also figuring out when the best time to announce.

And Charlie Kaufman's film Anomalisa, which I was really hoping you were going to add. One thing you're doing differently this year is you don't have a Closing Night film. At least not yet. But you're doing something.

Well, again, you'll get an announcement very shortly. [It turns out that the Tom McCarthy-directed Spotlight is the Closing Night screening.]

Even with that, you have a schedule on the last day that is different than what you usually do.

It is. We were waiting for final confirmation on this really fantastic film for closing night. But at the same time, this is going back to a really old model that we've had that we wanted to try. We've always done Best of the Fest screenings, but our closing night used to be "Come see the top-three films that have won." So we decided to do "Let's go ahead and announce that we're doing on closing night the winning films from the two narrative feature competitions, and then we'll announce the big title after." I think it's kind of fun.

Certainly on the industry side, people are really tuned into the fact that we are a competitive film festival, but I would say a lot of our audiences aren't necessarily as tuned into that. I think this is a way, because we are a competitive film festival, to really highlight some of the winners. We always do have people that are waiting for us to announce Best of the Fest, but this is a way to highlight some of the winners.

I know there can be festival fatigue, but one of the things about Chicago's audiences is that a lot of our local audience works and then comes after work. I think that allows us to continue into the end of that second week, because people are still coming out after work for films because maybe they're not able to come to a lot of daytime screenings. We are showing some new stuff and have a number of new guests in town at the end of the festival.

[What] we've tried to do is spread screenings out throughout the day a little bit more, so starting a little bit earlier, because there's people that have children that want to go while their kids are in school, and there are people [for whom] it just works better for them for daytime. Instead of keeping those all in the mid- to late afternoons, we're trying to start a little bit early and spread them a little bit more though the afternoon. So let's say you wanted to see a film at noon and then again at two, you could do that.

Somebody made a joke about it at the press breakfast, it might have been you, that one of the themes this year is underground mining. I watched In the Underground [a documentary about a Chinese underground mine] the other day, and that is a horrifying documentary.

[laughs] Have you seen The 33 yet?

No, they haven't shown it. We're seeing it soon, because there's a bunch of people coming in for it now. But no, I'm just saying I can't imagine that The 33 is going to feel like that.

For me, watching The 33... it's like a well known story. It was in the news for so long, and we know what the outcome is. It's amazing when a documentary can bring you into that feeling, especially with the budget of that type of film. But with The 33, you not only have to recreate those mining scenes, but it's also a story that you already know the ending to. It's a two-hour film, and to maintain the tension and your interest, both in terms of the sense of dread and hopelessness that was felt, is impressive. It's character driven as well, which I think was a really intelligent decision.

Have you seen In the Underground?

I have, yeah. [laughs]

Oh, man. All I can think the whole time is, "This filmmaker wants to die."

"What are you doing? This can't end well."

Alright, time for the moment of truth. What are some of your favorite, off-the-beaten-path titles that people should take a chance on during the festival this year?

There's a Chinese film called Underground Fragrance that's not in the mine, but it's set in the bowels of this building where people live in these sub-sub-basements, where you can never fully stand up in your living space. The film is told through the characters who inhabit that space. It's about both literally and figuratively trying to move up in the world.

In the Underground, Anthony saw that and was in touch with the filmmaker because he had been sent a screener. He wanted it and chased it down, chased it down, and finally when he got it, it's one of his favorite docs. Definitely a victory.

Schneider vs. Bax is so much fun. Are you a Van Warmerdam fan? He did Borgman most recently, and then we've shown almost all of his work. The Waiter he did. Maybe my second or third year at the festival, we had The Last Days of Emma Blank. For this film, a hit man is hired for a job on his birthday, and he goes to do the job, and — I don't think this is too much of a spoiler — he finds out that that guy has actually also been hired to kill him. So it's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. Really well done.

Another great doc, which I love, is called Time Suspended. It is by a Mexican director, but it's about her Argentine grandmother. It's both about memory and history. Two or three of her children were "disappeared" in Argentina, and her grandmother dedicated the rest of her life to keeping the memory of her children alive and fighting for the disappeared. The documentary is about her grandmother at this moment in her life where she is developing dementia. So someone who has devoted her life to remembering can no longer remember. It's really well done.

I think very interesting is Neon Ball, which won an award in Venice. Last year we showed the director's film The Winds of August. It's a Brazilian film. It's a really interesting look at cowboy culture in rural Brazil. It's a different take on machismo. I think we have a great Latin American line up this year. We have two films that have the actor — and he's coming in — the Mexican actor Damián Alcázar. He's in a Peruvian film called Magallanes, which is dealing with Latin America's complicated past and the military's relationship to the people. It's about a taxi driver, and one of his fares is a woman that he recognizes, and what he recognizes is that she's a girl that his commanding officer had kidnapped and kept as a prisoner. There are a lot about questions of redemption and revenge, and can you ever make the past right? Alcazar is amazing in it. He's also in a Mexican comedy called The Thin Yellow Line...

That's the one that Guillermo del Toro produced, right?

Yeah. It's a great comedic drama. There's the Uruguayan film Clever. Again, another really interesting look at masculine tropes in Latin America. It's about a very quirky martial arts instructor whose son is named Bruce Lee [laughs] but who become obsessed with having flames painted on his car. He sees a car that's painted and he wants a car just like it, but has to go to rural Uruguay to find the artist behind it. It's about his journey. Music Box has a great film called The Club. That's Pablo Larraín who did No. Did you ever see Tony Manero, his first film?

I don't think so. I've seen No though.

I don't think it's just my interest in Japan. Part of the food section is The Birth of Saké, which follows for one year in this Northern Japanese saké brewery, the traditional way of making saké and the men who devote a year of their lives to doing it. It's just so beautifully shot. It's both a process doc and there's a human element to it. So you don't have to love saké to love the film.

I've watched plenty of docs about making expensive wine. So yeah, I can definitely get into this.

What makes it so successful is both amazing cinematography and the storytelling in it. So much in Japan is measured by time and the seasons, and certainly this process is, and this film really taps into that in a way that's really interesting and meaningful.

Another one which I love — it won an award in Cannes, and it won one of the awards in Directors' Fortnight. And it's France's entry to the Oscars, which I think is such an interesting choice. It's such an amazing film, and it's in Turkish. It's called Mustang, and it's set in Turkey, and it has a little bit in terms of story but also in sensibility of Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. It's about five sisters who are being raised by their grandmother and their uncle. The grandmother, by local standards, hasn't kept good enough control of them, so they're basically put under lockdown. It follows, mostly through the eyes of the youngest sister, the sisters' journey beyond that point and the different choices they make to gain freedom in different ways.

Another one that I was so thrilled about — it just had its world premiere at San Sebastian — is Sparrows. We have three great Icelandic films this year, actually, and this is one of them. Did you see Volcano? It's Rúnar Rúnarsson. It was one of my favorite films that year, so it's his next film. It's a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who gets dropped in small town Iceland. It's the town that he was born in, but his parents divorced, and he's been subsequently living in Reykjavík and is forced to go back and live with his father in this town where he no longer has a place. So it's about him figuring out how to assert who he is and find his place. It's beautifully told.

Rams is amazing, too. It's another Icelandic film about two brothers who haven't spoken to each other in years. There's this dog that passes notes between them. They're neighbors and they're forced to deal with each other when the equivalent of foot and mouth disease takes over the herds. Homecoming is a great Scandinavian dark comedy about hidden pasts and family ties. And then going on that, we had the Scandinavian spotlight last year, so there's this really, really great Swedish film called The Hereafter. A lot of youth films.

Two world premiers that I'm excited about, including A Very Ordinary Citizen.

I just saw it today.

Did you like it?

I did like it.

One of the things I love about it is, I feel like there's so many layers to it. When we went to go write the description of it, it felt like I uncovered more as I continued to think about it. I like that it's not what you think it is.

I'm still not sure I know what it is exactly, but, for all the right reasons. There are a lot of unexplained details, details that we're not ever going to know. That almost makes it worse because you try and fill in the blanks, as our minds always do.

Anthony and I talked about it. I feel like it's one of those films that, in conversation, there are certain things that one of us had picked up on that the other hadn't. So through conversation, I felt like we were uncovering more about the film, which I love. We're showing for the press A Childhood, the Philippe Claudel film, which I think is incredibly strong. I'm excited about that. That's the North American premiere.

Part of our architecture section is Greater Things. It's by a first-time director. It's shot on 16mm. It's just beautiful. For us, one of the challenges with the architecture spotlight was — we have some great films that are about buildings or about architects, to expand that and find narrative films that deal with space or architecture or the built environment in an interesting way. Just the way this is shot as well as the buildings in it, and the way that the characters relate to these spaces is minimalist in many ways, but multilayered. It's one of those films where like the images contribute so much to the story.

And how could I forget Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows? It's one of those films where you don't have to love music. If you love the music, all the better, but Syl Johnson is such a fascinating character and someone you feel like you should have known about. I didn't know anything about him. And then when you know his story, it's like it's all right there and you didn't know it, especially since he's a Chicagoan. He lived in Chicago, not his whole life, but most of his life.

Thank you very much once again for taking the time out to point us in the right direction.

 
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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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