CIFF: Programmers, critics and volunteers talk about films, navigate the festival and more


When it comes to recognizable film festivals, Chicago isn’t always the first city that comes to mind. Although it is (stupidly) neglected in favor of bigger names like TIFF, Cannes or Sundance, the city of Chicago has long since made its place in the landscape of film festivals. Celebrating its 58th year, the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival – which runs October 12-23 – brings together 90 feature films and 60 short films from around the world, giving Chicagoans a chance to expand their cinematic horizons without leaving the comfort of the Windy City.

Yet, despite there being a world-class international film festival in our backyard, many first-time festival-goers may find the prospect of navigating a festival the scale of CIFF daunting. With such a variety of offers, where do you start?

According to Sophie Gordon, one of the festival’s programmers, variety is the key to building a great festival.

“Something that I think is a good rule of thumb when entering is to seek some sort of balance between the larger events,” Gordon said. “Things like tributes, opening/closing party centerpieces, things that have trendy titles and funny guests, but mixing that in with movies you might not have heard of talk or who might surprise you.”

Luckily for Gordon, it’s easy to create a diverse program with plenty of variety when the Chicago International Film Festival offers 14 unique programs, all structured around a common trait. Eye-catching programs at this year’s festival include OutLook, dedicated to showcasing the works of LGBTQ+ filmmakers After Dark, the festival’s late-night horror titles; Women in Cinema; and City & State, which is “Competiting for the Chicago Award – a showcase of the year’s best stories and the brightest talent from our own backyard,” according to the festival screening guide.

It’s not often that a film festival schedules a category specifically to highlight films coming out of its home city or state.

“I think the film and movie community in Chicago is a community that continues to grow, but has a long history here,” Gordon said. “It has a really unique quality because Chicago is one of the biggest cities in the United States and yet has a very different feel in terms of film and TV being made here.”

Marya E. Gates, a recent Chicago transplant from California and a new member of the Chicago Film Critics Associationhighlighted the scrappiness and individuality of the Chicago film scene:

“It’s really less about the industry, less about the awards and more about the pure love of filmmaking,” Gates said. “I think you see that in the festival lineup. No one here is making a movie to audition to make an upcoming Marvel movie. It might be a kind of Midwestern spirit, but they’re proud of their culture and not New York. They don’t try to make films to go somewhere else. They try to make films about Chicago, because it’s Chicago.

In addition to a unique and thriving local film scene highlighted by the “City & State” program, the Chicago International Film Festival also reserves a significant portion of its programming space for international titles, which Gordon says is a key part of what helps the festival thrive.

“I mainly work on international feature films and on the international program,” Gordon said. “There are so many beautiful gems in there that are first-time filmmakers or new voices coming to us in Chicago from around the world, and so that’s what I really encourage audiences to explore the most. “

Gates also stressed the importance of exploring and supporting international features while they are at the festival. For many smaller, independent films, a spot at the Chicago Film Festival is one of the few chances to be theatrically screened in the United States.

“‘The Whale’ is going to be released,” Gates said. “You will have another chance to see this. But some of those other titles, especially the international titles, and especially the international women-led titles, that might be your only chance.

When it comes to independent films and international releases (which tend to make up the vast majority of film festival programming), a theatrical or North American release is never a guarantee. For many viewers, the Chicago International Film Festival is the only chance to catch smaller (but no less interesting) titles in a real theater.

“Films made by women, even American films, are less likely to be distributed. International films directed by women are much less likely to break out. The chances of you seeing him in a theater are diminishing, so that’s a category I think you should take advantage of while he’s here. These films deserve to be seen on the big screen.

Beyond catchy titles and specifically programmed highlights, much of a film’s success around a festival relies on the power of word-of-mouth. It is therefore crucial to obtain the opinion of participants, especially beginners.

Gillian Hadding, a DePaul student and first-time festival attendee/volunteer, highlighted a title she’s most looking forward to.

‘I have a bunch of vouchers that I’m happy to redeem, and after hearing the reviews from a bunch of other people, I see’Runner‘ tomorrow,” Hadding said. “I really like that it’s part of Women in Cinema, I wanted to support that program. But it also seemed interesting to me; I love movies in the coming-of-age genre.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a movie recommendation from a programmer with Gordon’s knowledge of the festival is an equally useful tool for navigating the festival. When asked for specific title recommendations, Gordon highlighted a Mexican/Peruvian female-directed horror film”Huesera.”

“This is from early feature director Michelle Garcia Severa,” Gordon said. “The film follows Valeria, who after many years of trying is finally pregnant…The film is a remarkably effective and unsettling horror film in its own right, but it is particularly compelling in its honesty and intimacy in portraying of this woman’s struggle with society, the societal pressures around pregnancy and motherhood.

Despite all the good word-of-mouth in the world, Gates made sure to stress the importance and surprising beauty of being willing to attempt the unknown.

“You just have to randomly show up to a movie,” Gates said. “I’ve done this randomly before. Sometimes I don’t recognize any title, but here I go. Best movie I’ve ever seen at a film festival, I found that.

For more information on the Chicago International Film Festival and to obtain tickets, moviegoers can visit the festival website.


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