By Ray Pride
Among Chicago’s many, many film and video festivals small or large, three claim the greatest longevity. At Lake FX Summit and Expo last month, a “Festival of Chicago Film Fests” event welcomed programmers of more than thirty independent festivals to make a case for their mission. Of the three longest-running on display, Chicago International, in its fifty-second year, claims the title of “the longest-running international competitive film festival in North America.” Reeling, now in its thirty-fourth year, is the second oldest gay film festival in the world. And then there’s Chicago Underground, at twenty-three, the oldest underground film festival on the planet. (I’ve been an observer of the festival since its start and also present the annual “Bar Talks” series where extended conversations between filmmakers and audiences are encouraged daily.) I caught up with Underground co-founder, artistic director and programmer Bryan Wendorf after the schedule was completed in May. We talk about what “underground” means in this century, honoree Tony Conrad, special guest (and underground expert) Jack Sargeant, as well as highlights from the features and shorts programs.
Tell me a story from early on when you realized the festival would go on, if not on and on, and on and on and on.
When Jay Bliznick first approached me about being a part of the original team that organized the first festival, I put him off for several months. Deep down, I knew that if I committed to being a part of this, I would be in it for the long haul and be involved with it for years. Then as we were planning that first event in 1993, it became clear that one member of that team wasn’t pulling their weight and was avoiding calls from the other organizers. We met together in my dining room and basically fired that person. That was a huge step, because it was someone we were all friends with, but as a working relationship it was a disaster. Making that difficult decision was the biggest step in realizing that we were serious. The other big step that pointed toward the festival surviving for the long haul was in our third year, when we shifted our model away from the film-fan convention model that had inspired Jay, and more closely resembled other film festivals. We also managed to get Roger Ebert to write a substantial piece for the Sun-Times, which raised both our profile and attendance. That gave us the drive to continue. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
We met up at the Music Box Lounge on a sunny afternoon after a day of slush with the amiable if weary quartet behind CIMMfest, the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, the behemoth festival, now in its eighth year, that sprawls across Chicago with “99+ Films! 99+ Bands!,” as their promos banner. [The downloadable fifty-six-page program is here.]
Executive director Dave Moore, forty-eight, has been with CIMMfest for four years, and was not only a fan from the start, but was also the fest’s first passholder. Co-founder and artistic director Josh Chicoine, forty-two, and director at large Carmine Cervi, forty-eight, have been with the fest from the get-go. Creative and marketing director Gary Kuzminski, forty-eight, has been under the big tent for five years. (In addition to CIMMfest, Cervi has the production company BulletProof Film and Kuzminski teaches interactive advertising at Columbia.) We talked about their blend of programming, as well as the logistics of the epic endeavor at thirty venues across four days.
Opening night is five days away. Does time get away from you?
Josh: So many details.
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Werner Herzog’s “Lo & Behold”
By Ray Pride
After two years of Docs at the Box, a spring showcase of new nonfiction at the Music Box, programmed by journalist-programmer Anthony Kaufman, a larger event, expanding the work of the nonprofit Chicago Media Project, will take its place. The quartet behind the long weekend, which will augment Chicago debut attractions with post-screening discussions, interactive events and panels, are Kaufman, CMP co-founder and board chair Steve Cohen, CMP co-founder and executive director Paula Froehle and festival coordinator Sarah Nobles.
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Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier”
By Ray Pride
“Taken all together, the festival represents a panoramic view of filmmaking across Europe, from West to East,” Siskel Film Center director of programming Barbara Scharres tells me about the nineteenth edition of the indispensable, jam-packed, month-of-March-long Chicago European Union Film Festival.
“As with every year, it’s a view [of European cinema] that’s incredibly diverse and ever-changing, and yet represents pronounced themes, trends and affinities from one year to the next.” But the EU Fest is not designed, like some standalone film festivals, as a platform to launch an upcoming art-house release. “Some films are special advance screenings of titles already acquired by U.S. distributors, and many are films that may not ever make it beyond Europe’s borders again. If you can view the festival as a kind of laboratory, it’s an intersection in a neutral space of films that [can be] enjoyed purely on the basis of their artistic merit. There aren’t so many opportunities for the filmgoing public to choose outside the commercial realm, and we believe the festival offers that experience on a significant scale.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
We caught up with Josh B. Mabe, Onion City Film Festival director and programmer (and also program director of Chicago Filmmakers) about the institution’s goals at this point in the twenty-first century, in mid-February just as programming for the 2016 edition was nearly done.
A native of South Carolina, Mabe, thirty-five, moved to Chicago in 2007, co-founded the Nightingale with Christy LeMaster and co-programmed the Chicago Underground Film Festival one year with Bryan Wendorf. The Experimental Film Coalition handed the reins of Onion City to Chicago Filmmakers in 2001, headed until 2003 by Rebecca Meyers and until 2015 by the highly regarded, exacting programmer Patrick Friel. “So,” Mabe says, “this is my first year in charge. In many ways Onion City operates a lot like the Reeling LGBTQ+ Festival, which Chicago Filmmakers also runs, but at a smaller scale.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Brian Hieggelke
I met Chicago filmmaker Patrick Thomas Underwood in the spring of 2014, shortly after he’d wrapped production on his first feature, which he’d shot nearby in Michigan. I remember being struck by the middle period of his “education,” when, after graduating from the University of Chicago in cinema and media studies, he’d headed off to Venice, Italy, for eight years of operatic training before returning to the U.S. to pursue film, gaining an MFA from the American Film Institute. That first feature, “The Middle Distance,” is one of only two American films in the New Directors Competition at Chicago International Film Festival and the only Chicago entry. It’s a work showing a patience and maturity beyond its writer-director’s experience and has nothing to do with Italy or opera. Instead, it concerns the universal coming-of-middle-age ritual of dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a parent. Neil, an L.A. consultant-douchebag, returns to New Buffalo, Michigan, to join the younger brother who never left, James, and James’ fiancée Rebecca in finishing up the disposal of their father’s cottage. I checked in with Underwood via email to ask a few questions.
The themes in the film are drawn from life experiences that almost everyone experiences: the death of a parent, sibling relationships and the pain and pleasure of “going home.” How much of this film is drawn from autobiographical elements?
My family had a summer home in Grand Beach, which is just outside of New Buffalo. I grew up spending nearly every summer weekend there. That’s the biggest overtly autobiographical element (aside from some of Neil’s less savory habits, but we can save that discussion for another time). My only sibling is a younger sister, and I’m pleased to say that my father is alive and well.
I suppose the film is more spiritually autobiographical than anything. I’ve always had a powerful sense of nostalgia, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that my experience of it has changed. I don’t yearn for a particular time or person or place. I long for a feeling—one which, over the years, I have slowly lost the ability to feel. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
There’s no official number of how many film festivals there are in Chicago, or even a readily agreed-upon definition of how many films and events constitute a true “festival,” but in its thirty-third year, Reeling, the Chicago “LGBTQ+” International Film Festival, is definitely one of the most resilient (and the nation’s second oldest, after San Francisco’s Frameline).
“Film festivals not only continue to be relevant, despite the onslaught of choices for entertainment,” founder and executive director Brenda Webb tells me. “In some ways, they are more relevant than ever because of their curatorial role and promotional functions.”
An example of that is how small films that debut on Netflix (not heavily advertised and hyped series) never gain social traction, there’s little conversation in the larger culture, only cold, cryptic algorithms guessing what will satisfy every given view. Webb agrees. “There may be many more choices of films to see online and on television than ever before, but given the noise of overwhelming choices, audiences need to tune into which films to spend their time seeing.” Read the rest of this entry »
IFP/Chicago, one of the city’s oldest organizations to support independent filmmakers, has kept a low profile for several years, but is about to launch an ambitious roster of programs, inspired in part by the success of May’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, presently one of the Independent Filmmaker Project’s most prominent enterprises. Other support programs and networking events have grown up around the city since their founding, such as the long-running first-Tuesdays Midwest Film Festival and more recently, the new sip-and-grip comradeship CCCP, the Chicago Creatives Cocktail Party, which IFP co-sponsors.
After three years or so of dormancy, Nicole Bernardi-Reis, an independent producer and president of the board of directors (and 2014 Film 50 subject) sees now as a time for IFP to bloom. “The community changed a lot during that time, as did the resources available to filmmakers,” she says. “Currently, the film and television industry is seeing an influx of productions and revenue due to the Illinois Film Tax Credit. Hollywood is back in Chicago. Business is booming, again. Outside productions have always been an important part of sustaining the film community in the Midwest, but they are just a part.”
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The Russian Woodpecker
By Ray Pride
While it’s never been a more fertile time to produce innovative, powerful, even poetic documentaries, the marketplace is another matter. Even a movie that cost a few thousand dollars has to find a way into the distribution pipeline, gain a little awareness, to get the attention of just a few more eyeballs at a time, maybe recoup a fraction of its cash outlay. Netflix, HBO, fantastic festivals around the world: but what about on the big screen at a theater near you? Several distributors, notably Magnolia (“Life Itself,” “Iris,” “Muscle Shoals”) and Radius (“Citizenfour,” “The Great Invisible”) are combining theatrical and video-on-demand releases for their films, but there’s so much more for audiences to explore, with only a fraction of the nonfiction getting farther than the spreadsheets of programmers and the notebooks of festival critics.
Longtime film journalist (including a stint as founding film editor at Time Out Chicago) and Chicago International Film Festival programmer Anthony Kaufman returns to the Music Box with his curatorial fervor for a second round of “Docs at the Box” in June, presenting five films that represent “the full spectrum of current nonfiction filmmaking, from archival-driven and vérité to avant-garde” each Tuesday night. Read the rest of this entry »
“L For Leisure”
As moderator of the festival’s fourth edition of “Bar Talks,” I can’t formally review what’s in store in the five days of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, but I’d like to indicate the goals of the annual “Bar Talks,” four extended filmmaker/audience conversations, especially in light of the notably consistent focus on atmosphere, mood and elusive narratives in the feature and shorts programming at the twenty-second edition of CUFF, the world’s longest-running underground film festival. The “bar talks,” taking place in the Logan Lounge at the Logan Theatre, are informal gatherings of local and guest filmmakers, with conversation the intention without the ping-pong of panel-like proclaiming. The talks may run an hour, or even an hour-and-a-half, depending on how much everyone has on their mind. Read the rest of this entry »