By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I started thinking about what I would say to wrap up this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I knew it would not be the usual gathering of impressions, recaps, acknowledgments, and griping about being tired. I got a thorn stuck in my craw after reading an interview with Gabe Klinger about the festival. There was much Gabe said that I agreed with, particularly about the need for more outreach and new blood, which I believe an endeavor of any kind needs perhaps as often as every five years. But I also felt a stale wind blow regarding taste and who sets it and, of course, the age-old question of show vs. business and the uneasy alliance that has existed since the dawn of cinema between those with the money and those with the vision. I had to ask myself some hard questions about how I see my role, not only in covering this festival, but also as a film blogger. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading some intelligent and cogent articles, blog posts, and comments on these and related subjects, including the contentious and enlightening post and comments on Girish Shambu’s site just prior to the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival and a look at film journalism by Chris Fujiwara.
In the spirit of the debate about Toronto, I want to say a few words about the festival I just finished covering. CIFF is not a destination film festival for making deals and apparently has no plans to become one. Nor is it one that wishes to explore cinema at the edge or educate audiences; while I liked, even loved, a lot of the films I saw, I can’t call most of them cutting edge or revelatory of new possibilities in cinema. CIFF is what its founder and staff do for a living and to give themselves the perks of hobnobbing and travel, and like most long-time employees, they do what they know how to do year after year.
The festival is a very American affair, with honorees in most years comprising American directors and actors and marquee films opening and closing the festival comprising mainstream American product. The audience for the films they program are largely middle-brow Midwesterners looking for something to do, cinephiles from small towns near Chicago who are hungry for something other than multiplex fare, or immigrants who want to see films with scenes from their old country in their native language. It offers audiences a veneer of sophistication by bringing the “big” cinephile films from Cannes in—and this festival is nothing if not Francophile, reflected enduring ties from its founding during the rise of the French New Wave. But if CIFF had not offered Uncle Boonmee, that film certainly would have shown up (and will show up again) in one of the venues around Chicago, which has a very vibrant cinematic community offering experimental, foreign, revival, and video presentations every day and more specialized film festivals and retrospectives than I can shake a stick at. CIFF doesn’t have to be more than it is—audiences won’t demand it because there’s something for everyone outside of the festival—but I never hear the end of hardcore cinephiles saying they hate CIFF.
From my reading about other festivals, it seems the conditions that persist at CIFF are not unusual. Is that really what film festivals are these days—a race to the middle? Strip malls? The hardcore cinephiles in Chicago know they’re being ignored by the “premier” cinematic event of the year. But are they snobs who can’t find value in anything that isn’t difficult or trendy? Sadly, encountering the snobs is a very distasteful part of my cinematic experience. It’s not hard to see great value in many films that offer other kinds of challenges and delights, particularly the chance to see and understand life in other parts of the world. These types of films have comprised the bulk of my viewing at the 2010 CIFF. What comprises an “important” film or national cinema is debatable, but for me, it involves finding the universal in the particular and activating archetypes that are the road to personal and global transformation. That’s why a film like Uncle Boonmee, which I can’t say I enjoyed in the usual sense, has so much power and so deserved to win at Cannes. Yet, I can imagine the snobs touting it without understanding it in the least—and CIFF did nothing to make the film accessible to casual or serious filmgoers besides show it.
My role isn’t terribly complicated, but I also feel that CIFF doesn’t “get” me either. As someone with a “general” press pass, I am able to see films for free in exchange for publicizing them through my blog, hopefully in advance of screenings to drive ticket sales. I am not considered by CIFF a top-tier member of the press and therefore am not invited to stand on the red carpet (unless they can’t fill it), attend the awards ceremony, or take screeners home to view because CIFF does not consider my audience significant enough to court—they have never asked for my “distribution” statistics, therefore they must not care how many or where my readers are located. In this stance, CIFF further reveals its isolation from the international film community that it advertises in its very name. Reporters from Chicago-centric publications like our daily and weekly newspapers and the Chicagoist website do belong to this privileged caste, reflecting the desire of organizers to promote ticket sales among locals and the assumption that these outlets are still where their audience get their film information.
Even as I see the limitations of this festival, I understand that I myself am in a privileged position. A large number of my readers and even my blog partner will never get the chance to see most or all of the films I do. I recently got into a heated debate with someone over a favorite directors list that comprised nothing but majority men we’d recognize as more-or-less the usual canon. As I told him, “Movies tell us about ourselves, but you can take for granted that you’ll have your stories told (certainly your favorite directors reflect your satisfaction with the stories they tell to some extent) whereas I cannot.” With more distribution channels opening on the Internet and in other home-viewing formats, I can only hope that my shout-outs can give some of these films a chance to deliver their ideas to more people so the universe of ideas can expand beyond the usual suspects. Although I acknowledge it as a deficit, I am not primarily a champion of the aesthetics of film; I am an activist interested in communication through word, image, and emotion of the experience of being alive. That’s what it is my responsibility to promote, and as long as I write, I’ll take it seriously. l
Previous CIFF coverage
Problema: A meeting of 112 thinkers and doers who give their answers to 100 pressing problems of our day forms the core of this open-source documentary that will be available for recutting and showing to anyone anywhere in the world. (Germany)
The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)