53rd Chicago International Film Festival: Report

53rd ciff

The 53rd Annual Chicago Film Festival boasted a variety of films that were bound to please filmgoers of all persuasions. Across its two weeks came obvious Oscar contenders, new films from old cinema legends, and overlooked international treasures. To discuss all the films that played in the festival would be an impossible task, but here’s a glimpse into some of what CIFF had to offer.

The biggest highlight of the festival came from a Sensory Ethnography Lab-associated film entitled El mar la mar. The film, directed by J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta, is an experimental documentary film that aims to capture the experience of being within the Sonoran Desert on the border between Mexico and the United States. What Sniadecki and Bonnetta accomplish so effortlessly is an understanding of the wide expanse of the desert, the unspoken deaths that have occurred, and the pure sensorial experience of one’s surroundings. Most interesting is how there’s more weight placed on the images themselves in transferring any sort of emotional depth and narrative: an understanding that words are often not enough to describe the painful experience of those crossing the border.

Along with El mar la mar, the other big documentary film of the festival was Agnes Varda’s Faces Places. The film found the director collaborating with photographer and muralist JR, essentially taking us along for the ride on an undeniably pleasant journey through France. The film depicts numerous scenes in which JR creates his massive murals, and the result is always one of delight. The primary point of concern, however, is whether or not JR’s murals are worthy of such lengthy runtime. Frankly, his murals lack the depth and nuance that one may associate with the films of Varda, but they do align with her rather amicable nature. The film’s final sequence provides a bit of tension—something best left unspoiled for new viewers—but it isn’t quite enough to warrant the film’s existence. Is it fun to watch? Surely. Is it as forward-thinking and innovative as some of Varda’s previous work? Sadly not.

While Faces Places may be of little note in the scope of Varda’s filmography, it was a breath of fresh air for its lightness in tone. While many films throughout the fest were about serious matters, two documentaries stood out for their depiction of today’s depraved world: Pre-Crime (Matthias Heeder, Monika Hielscher) and 12 Days (Raymond Depardon). The former film takes its title from Philip K. Dick and details the sort of data-driven surveillance monitoring that occurs throughout the United States. The film becomes a sort of treatise on the system itself and how its inherent biases tend to discriminate more readily against people of color. While a serious matter and interesting subject matter, the directors are unable to convince viewers of its tedious presentation. While talking heads-style interviews are fine, the talk of a corrupt surveillance system and its horrific consequences has one wishing the material could be presented in a more daring manner. If anything, much of the material that is explained in the documentary could have been succinctly written in a piece for a newspaper. As such, Pre-Crime is a classic case of a documentary that doesn’t justify its existence through the medium of film.

12 Days, on the other hand, doesn’t aim for standard documentary presentation. Instead, it presents an intentionally repetitive process of court hearings that depict the bureaucratic nightmare that is France’s laws regarding psychiatric care. In the country, psychiatric hospitals are allotted twelve days before a judge decides whether patients must stay or leave. Depardon more or less shows exactly what we’d expect without any sort of veneer to cover up the reality of these situations. But as with life, not all cases are as thrilling to watch as others, and the different people we see onscreen may provoke emotion or nothing at all. While certainly worth a watch, 12 Days feels more important as an illuminating document of a legal process than any sort of entertainment, intellectual or otherwise.

The most heart-wrenching documentary of the entire festival, though, was The Work. Filmed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous over a course of four days at Folsom Prison, The Work finds us in the middle of an emotional, all-men group rehabilitation. There’s tension throughout the entire film that exists between the inmates and those wanting to experience the exercise. More dramatic, however, is the depiction of these men in the most vulnerable and intimate of states. Much has been discussed regarding the stereotypes and expectations that are placed upon men and how they should behave in society, and The Work only illuminates how strong these ideologies have shaped us. Of all the films at CIFF, this may be the most powerful.

Despite the numerous documentaries that were shown at CIFF, much is to be said of the realistic fiction films that depicted life in the most realistic of manners. This statement can be said of two coming of age stories: Princess Cyd and Lady Bird. The former was directed by Stephen Cone, and follows his previous coming-of-age stories that focused on a particular brand of Bible Belt Christian. Princess Cyd does touch on moments of spirituality, but its primary focus is that on the titular character’s growing comfort in being a lesbian. While a rather honest portrayal of such teenage struggles and anxieties, the mention and disappearance of sexual assault does leave one a bit blindsided—how are we to react to this event? In the context of Cone’s filmography, Princess Cyd feels slightly more ambitious in scope but less successful in providing a novel story. In essence, the Christian and gay coming-of-age experience found in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party was invigorating because it pinpointed something so specific. Here, the appeal is broad, but the effect is less potent.

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s debut film and it’s destined to be one of the most beloved films of the year. Featuring a stunning performance from Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird portrays the angst and turmoil of teenaged living. In particular, the film explores the awkwardness of love and sex, the desire to be free from one’s suffocating smalltown life, and the desire to follow one’s pursuits passionately.

Another depiction of teenage life except through an unrealistic lens was Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds. The film tells the story of two teenage girls who become closer through a concerted effort to murder one of the girl’s father-in-law-to-be. How it unfolds is not to be spoiled, but it is important to mention just how crucial the score is for this film to its enjoyment. The film’s rhythm and pacing is directed by the clattering cacophony of the instrumentation and one is constantly left waiting for the next scene. For a debut film, Thoroughbreds is riveting; Finley is one to keep an eye on.

One of the festival’s most surprising films was Custody. Directed by Xavier Legrand, the high-tension drama details the life of a boy and her mother as they deal with a father’s anger about child custody. One of the film’s most successful attributes is how it subtly showcases all the warning signs of the abhorrent father. This eventually escalates into what is arguably the most horrific scene one will witness throughout all of CIFF. There were various horror films I saw at CIFF—Creep 2, mon mon mon MONSTERS, The Endless—but none were as successful as instilling a deep fear as what was contained in Custody. Surprises like these are what makes CIFF such an endless delight. One never knows what film will capture one’s attention, and just how it accomplishes such a task. The programming at CIFF is to be applauded, and I’m even more eager to see what next year has to bring.