Wednesday 2 November 2011


Chicago International Film Festival is the longest running competitive international film festival in North America. For four decades the mission of the festival has been to present films of the highest quality and recognize those who contribute to their success.
For this they appoint a distinguished jury where names like Christopher Lee, Istvan Szabo, Jacqueline Bisset, Diana Bracho and Satyajit Ray have been a part of the panel in the past.
For The 47 Chicago International Film Festival this year, I was privileged to serve on the jury with four international members.

Now I write my impressions on the films watched during the week long festival and my experience of interacting with members from different countries.

Day1- After14 hour long flight on CIFFs official airline American Airlines from Delhi to Chicago, I arrive with my luggage trolley to Vestibule 5D and recognize the car clearly marked with the festival logo sent to fetch me. It is five in the morning and we drive to 151 West Adams Street where I’m assisted into checking at J W Marriott official hotel sponsor for the festival.

After a few hours of disturbed sleep I meet Jury Coordinator Katie Bormaster in the hotel lobby and learn that this is Boramaster’s fourth year as a coordinator. It is evident that she is well acquainted with the profile of the festival and the jury members. She explains her role is of a facilitator and will be there to resolve all queries related to the screenings.

Over brunch I meet Programme Head Mimi Plauche who introduces me to the other jury members- Hungarian filmmaker Nirmod Antal’s Kontroll won the 2004 Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. His other features include Vacancy (2007), Armored (2009) and Predators (2010). Film critic and author Leonardo García Tsao writes extensively for Mexico City dailies and has published several books on superstars like Orson Welles and François Truffaut.

Claudia Landsberger co-founder of European Film Promotion (EFP), heads Holland Film, the marketing and promotion agency for Dutch films worldwide and EYE International and Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz, winner of the Silver Award in the Ojo de Iberoamérica Festival in Argentina. His first feature film Lovesickness co-directed by Mariem Pérez Riera won Audience Choice at 2007 CIFF, Best Film & Script at Cartagena Film Festival and Best First Film at Huelva Film Festival.

We are five different people from five different regions united in our love for cinema.  Over coffee and croissants we discuss changing trends in world cinema and a little hesitantly, some details about ourselves. Our screenings begin tomorrow but we have the Red Carpet at Harris Theatre in the evening. The opening film is Last Rites of Joe May, an engaging dramatic film but unfortunately not part of the Competition Section.

The Cultural Centre is hosting a post event party where we meet Founder & Artistic Director of CIFF Michael Kutza. The mood is upbeat and the ambience eclectic at the cocktail party but I’m too sleepy to concentrate on the sea of faces introduced to me and excuse myself to return to the hotel.

Day 2- Jury Coordinator is up and ready to take us through our schedule for the next few days. We are expected to watch approximately 16 films in a week and for those of us who arrive late or have to leave early they have installed a DVD player in the room so that we catch up on the missed screenings.

Two out of the seven days are preserved for the jury deliberations: The first meeting where we ideate, the second where we arrive at a consensus. Programme Head joins the meeting and explains that CIFF has no voice in the jury decisions except for laying the ground rules.

AMC Theatre on River East 21 is the venue for the festival and the jury watches most of the screenings with the audience. As we drive to the location our driver Jim suggests we stop over to check the much talked about Marilyn Monroe statue installed a few blocks away from the theatre. We do. It is awesome!

Our first screening of the festival Giants from Belgium is about two abandoned teenagers left to fend for themselves at their late grand father’s home. A Mark Twain kind of adventure that takes a dark turn expertly captured by director Bouli Lanners. During tea break we discuss the three children and a jury member points out that it’s not fair that we applaud children when credit ought to be go to the director for extracting work out of them. I agree and recall filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur and Aamir Khan from India who ought to have got more credit for Masoom and Taare Zameen Par than they did.

Goodbye First Love dwells on the wedge between parted lovers, a tale of pathos and passion but leaves the audience and the jury unmoved.

Day 3 –It is Saturday and the streets look empty but the theatre is buzzing with excitement. School children escorted in special buses rush inside the theatre to catch a Children’s film in Non Competition Section while youngsters and frail seniors head in the opposite direction. There is a long queue outside Albanian film Forgiveness of Blood a family story of drama and revenge. It’s interesting how the audience invariably make the right choices in film viewing and good for them because the tickets are priced between 10-13 dollars.

After a quick brunch at Hub 51 we head back to AMC to watch two films back to back. Oslo August 31 a homage to the French New Wave on the loneliness and redemption in Norway while Woman in the Fifth is a lose adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel. The problem with unfaithful adaptations is that it falls between two stools and it gets difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Director Pawel Pawlikowski tries hard but fails to make a mark.

It has been a hard day and we drop our guards to have some fun over champagne and dinner at Twin Anchors Restaurant & Taverm which serves mouth watering delicacies.

Day 4 –The jet lag is taking its toll and I try to fight it by being over productive but it does not help. I decide to sleep a few hours longer and skip breakfast and it is a good decision because I feel infinitely better.

AMC appears deserted today and it is because the screening is exclusively for the jury. We relish the luxury and stretch our legs on the front seats and pass comments. Nobody Else But You is an intriguing story about a small time model whose life holds an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe and more important her obsession to live the fantasy. Shot in a remote Alps village it’s a thriller combining murder and politics.

A chain of Chicago’s leading restaurants have come together to host luncheons and dinner for festival guests and a nightly lounge Lucky Strike Lanes in the Bowling Alley of AMC building is a permanent meeting spot for delegates and jury to exchange ideas and bond over drinks.

Sometimes we bump into anxious strangers eager to discuss a film they have just watched. Today we meet debutante director Prashant Bhargava from India who is here to screen his film Patang about the kite festival in Ahamdabad, Gujarat.

It is a glorious day and friends tell us that we are lucky because sunshine is unusual for Chicago in the month of October. We have time before the next screening and request Jim to drive us to a spot where we can stroll and soak in the sun. It is a breezy day and every one is in good spirit!

Spiral queue outside screen 2 showing Arabic film Cairo 678- perhaps yet another indicator of the audience choice or maybe they are guided by the synopsis in the festival brochure. The film tells about three Egyptian women from different social backgrounds that fight against their country’s tolerance towards sexual harassment. A brave film where for a change the woman is projected as an oppressor rather than a victim! The story resonates with both genders across social divides and occupies major part of the conversation over dinner at La Scarola.

Day 5- One thought America  and the rest of the world was done with drugs and violence but physical and sexual abuse is a recurrent in all the films showcased in this year’s films  and after a point it becomes overbearing.

Mexican film Miss Bala is a tale of drug trafficking in Baja California inspired by a true story, a yet another tragedy about how once you are in the mafia trade there is no way to get out of it except death!

Director Aki Kaurismaki’s French film Le Havre tells of an ageing shoeshine man Marcel and a young African refugee Idrissa who lands at Marcel’s doorstep in the French port city of Le Havre. It is a story of their bonding but what makes the film interesting is Marcel’s quiet and unexpressed relationship with his ailing wife Kitty. It is a very unusual story with haunting divine moments.

Tyrannosaur is award winning director Paddy Considine’s first feature that follows an unlikely relationship between a violent man and a Christian Goodwill store worker. The film is an eye opener on different kinds of abuse and would have been more appreciated if it was not as violent.

On our way to dinner everybody is all smiles and it is easy to tell which way the jury choices are heading. Our coordinator Katie has by now got used to our mercurial moods, myriad accents and diametrically different sense of humour. Driver Jim is familiar with our favourite seats and opens the right door to help us into the waiting Lincoln, festival’s official car for transportation.

It is a happy evening at Roka Ador and jury members share cheerful anecdotes from their lives. Everybody complains that they are eating too much but when the wine and the food come on the table, nobody is in a mood for restraint. This happens day after day and meal after meal.

Day 6- Japanese film Chronicle of my Mother is about an ageing matriarch in a large, joint family interwoven with complex relationships and unresolved conflicts. The film travels many generations and seasons with sensitive dialogues and seductive cinematography. India has a similar culture to Japan and so I identified with the message while other jury members hated it unanimously. I guess there’s no escaping root...

Iranian films have altered the language of cinema and Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye lives up to the expectations. This one portrays the Iranian world where citizens are made to feel like foreigners in their motherland. Evocatively shot in duo tones of Blues & Blacks Goodbye is achingly invasive and reflects the bleak, hopeless times of oppressive rage but again all members didn’t think the same way.

I’m curious about how the jury will resolve their cultural and aesthetic divides to arrive at a joint decision. There is a possibility that we may disagree and there is also a possibility that we may agree without heart breaks. I look forward to the deliberations and the count down has begun…

Day 7 – Polish film The Mole is about a father and son who make a living out of importing second hand clothes. They have a great equation until an old scandal involving the father errupts their life. The story reflects the turbulent times in Poland when the most conscientious had to make compromises for survival.  

There is a nip in the air today; a sudden chilliness grips us as we wait for the car to drive in. Mimi Plauche had warned us about the infamous wind of Chicago and we finally get to experience it. Blame it on the gloomy clouds but the jury suddenly appears withdrawn... Perhaps everybody is introspecting, mentally making notes of their favourite films. I guess the anxiety of the D day drawing closer.

USA film Joint Body and Uk film Wild Bill reflect contemporary times in their countries but offer no new insights.

Day 8 –The jury has more or less decided on the winners but we still have to go through the last film in the Competition list- Romanian film Best Intentions about an over concerned son obsessed with his mother’s illness. Based on a real life incident in director Adrian Sitaru’s life Best Intentions could have been a path breaking film had it gone beyond personal experience to expose the medical world. It does not and that’s what is disappointing.

After the screening we head directly to CIFF office on 30 E Adams Street and for the first time get a glimpse of the machinery that makes a festival of such magnitude possible. Mimi Plauche goes about her work quietly and efficiently taking care to not invade our creative space. She has cordoned a special room for us to work without interruptions and we are happy to be left alone...

Over steaming cups of fragrant tea we recall films we have watched over the week, express, discuss, ideate. There is room for different perspectives, disagreements, theories, prejudices, defenses and lots of laughter.

Two hours later we are ready to announce our endorsements and invite Michael Kutza into the room. The list is as follows:
The Golden Hugo for Best Film to Le Havre for its simplicity and earnestness in story telling.
The Silver Hugo-Special Jury Prize to Cairo 678 for its social message and presenting of the female gaze. 
The Silver Hugo - Best Actor to Mageed El Kedwayin in Cairo 678 for his sparkling performance of a police inspector devoid of clichés associated with the character.
The Silver Hugo - Best Actress to Livia Olivia in Le Havre for making an impact in a brief almost silent role with her effective presence and expert timing.

Deliberations over, we look forward to our first free day in Chicago. After being captive at the AMC theatre for innumerable hours we look forward to having some fun. We make passionate plans to visit the museum and relish the boat ride touring the city when the clouds turn ominous and the showers ruin our plans

Day 9 – While screenings will continue for the audience at the AMC Theatre till 18 October the closing ceremony today is the finale for the jury.

As we sit together in the auditorium and watch the winners take away their trophies my mind winds back to our first meeting in the hotel lobby. We were all awkward, unsure of how the coming days would go but looking back, we have managed exceedingly well. I suggest to a director member that maybe he should consider making a film on a festival backdrop where jury is a major player in the story. He says he is already working on it and will submit it to the next year festival. 

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