Back to the Future

in 40th Chicago International Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

Every rule has its exception, they say. As editor-in-chief of this website, I urge my colleagues who will publish reports on the festivals they attend to focus on the films or the retrospectives of the festival, and to avoid any comment on the festival’s organization, the atmosphere or the jury work. I should probably keep setting example, but for this time only, I’m not in the mood for it. I’m actually not in the mood for much, since I returned from Chicago. Because you see, Chicago 2004 was not just any festival for me and the friends that shared an exciting ten days reunion, four years after we met at the 36th edition of this same festival, in October 2000. Inspired by the warmhearted lines written by Klaus Eder when announcing the jury composition for this year’s edition, Belinda van de Graaf, Diego Lerer, Necati Sönmez and myself headed to Chicago with mixed feelings of great expectations and fear of disappointment, as we had agreed to participate as a jury together. It turned out to be all the same again – and all very different.

It all began at the airport. For any non-American entering the USA, the immigration desk is the first obstacle to pass. I remember that the first time I landed in Chicago, a bald, skinny guy holding a stick in his hand was yelling : « One line ! I want to see one line ! Everybody move back ! Move back ! » After ten seconds in a horrible waiting room, I had a headache and wanted to return to France. But the worse was still to come : as I presented my passport to the immigration officer, he asked me, in the most unfriendly way : «Why do you come here?». «For the Chicago Film Festival», I answered. «What’s that?», he questioned. My typical French-ironic answer («Which word didn’t you understand? Chicago, film or festival?») got me to spend another 10 minutes with the guy. Of course, after 9/11 and with all the anti-French resentment in the current administration, I would not have dared repeating such a provocative answer this year. But I wouldn’t have had to, as the officer who welcomed me this time, a certain Carlos, was extremely friendly. He actually talked to me in Spanish, and when I answered him in Spanish that I was French he just said : «See ? I was sure we could talk in Spanish» and wished me a nice stay.

What had changed in Chicago so much that I could be sure, right after this first impression, that the city would be even more beautiful, the Chicagoans even more friendly, and our experience as festival guests even greater ? As I was heading to the luggage belt, I recognized the bald, skinny officer I had seen four years earlier : he was busy rearranging the plastic guidelines, looked ten years older and was not talking to anyone. I supposed he had been downgraded to a position in which he would avoid yelling at travelers who just landed, and found out when I took my first walk in the city that this change matched perfectly the improvements wished by the mayor of Chicago, Richard Dailey. It’s incredible how Michigan avenue changed with those flowers and those (French-designed) bus stop shelters. It’s amazing how the East of downtown can welcome even more building constructions, and all perpetuating the innovations of Chicago’s architectural tradition. It’s amazing how the whole city actually looks better, as if it had been entirely washed over the night. All this seemed to me as a perfect setting for a festival celebrating its 40th anniversary : everything that had made Chicago the magnificent city it is had been preserved (I remember seeing a few damaged buildings four years ago that have been perfectly restored) while a few details had been added to enhance its charm.

Would it be the same for the festival ? Would we find that, firmly installed on solid foundations, the oldest competitive North American festival had eliminated what could be perceived as imperfections, and added, in its organization and programming, new elements that would make our jury experience more enriching ? I was so glad to see that the answer to this question was yes. Four years ago, I had written for the previous edition of this same website a rather polemical article (« The thirteen minutes prediction ») where I lamented that the films screened in the New Directors competition (made of first and second features) were so predictable, so déjà-vu, when the best first and second features of the fest were screened in the main competition, and therefore not eligible for our prize. The new rule set this year (the FIPRESCI jury considered all first and second features in the two programs) avoided that our award would concern a second choice. But most important, we were impressed by the quality of the programming. Of course, most of the films screened in Chicago have been previously seen at other festivals, and those we eventually considered in our deliberation (Buffalo Boy by Mua Len Trau, In the Battlefields by Maarek Hob, and our winner Campfire by Joseph Cedar) had respectly showed at Locarno, Cannes and Berlin. Still, the average quality of the films was satisfactory, and we were far from the predictable melodramas and feelgood comedies we had seen in 2000. Buffalo Boy is a Vietnamese film about an apprentice farmer hired to help convoying bulls from flooded regions to a safe place. It has the subject of a western, the flavor of a western (including night shots of intimate sequences alternating with action sequences taking place in grandiose landscapes)… but it is an ‘eastern’ ! The social implications of the story are expressed through the opposition of the characters, and as the convoy moves towards the East, it is not new land and territories they find, but traditions and changing civilization. In the Battlefields, like Campfire, is set in the 80s. Both films take place in a climate of war : the first one is a reflection on the deliquescence of an upper-class family of Beyrouth, while the second explores the motivations of families wishing to establish the first settlements in occupied territories. But both films avoid confronting the historical events to better focus on the psychology of the characters : they show how a climate of war affects the everyday life of people who would just like to live in peace.

These three films actually give new perspectives on subjects that have been treated before – and this, again, matched perfectly one of the novelties we discovered in the Chicago landscape : the Millennium Park, boarding Michigan avenue South of the river. Among the innovative monuments that compose the park’s landscape, two works by Frank Gehry are outstanding : a steel bridge that joins Grant Park on the lakeshore, and a mirror free-shaped metal piece in which the skyscrapers of the avenue are reflected horizontally. Gehry managed to reinvent the usual forms of Chicago’s architecture, tending to verticality (the Sears tower is still one of the world’s tallest buildings), and to include them in a futuristic atmosphere made of horinzontality, which gives the buildings a more accessible, human-scale aspect. Just as the reunion of the 2000 FIPRESCI jury in Chicago created perspectives within a pre-existing frame. When we met, it was for each of us the first or second jury experience. Nevertheless, we instantly felt part of the FIPRESCI family and started to debate how the federation could evolve in the future, and what was the role of film criticism today. These considerations have led us to take responsibilities (Diego is now the secretary of the Argentinean branch, while Belinda is one of our vice-presidents) and this reunion was also a way to keep exchanging ideas and projects that could be proposed to our colleagues in the near future. As for the role of film criticism, our participation in the panel organized by the festival, «Film criticism and globalization» showed we all had different approaches to our function, but were more than ever, at the age of globalization and confronted to the power of Hollywood marketing, very passionate about our activity.

What made this event so special for us was not just that we enjoy discussing films with one another (and going out at night). Each dimension in it (the subject of the films, the organization of the fest, the fact that we knew each other so well, the transformations of the city, the friendship of its inhabitants) was so intimately intricate that we almost lived a fictitious life for ten days : that of a bunch of friends living in Chicago ; that of a gang who know their way around the city, and know the guys who know the weirdest places (yes, Gabe, that’s you !) ; that of film critics who share a view of cinema, and have the means to defend it ; that of foreigners in the middle of the US political campaign, commenting on the partisan signs they saw around… This life was also marked by intensive partygoing, but that’s another story. Although it is certainly one of the questions that some of our colleagues throughout the world must formulate sometimes : should we feel guilty when, after taking care of our tasks, we have a great time and enjoy our stay, or should we thank the organizers who remember that the etymology of the word festival is the Latin word festivus, which means «related to a day of feast»? This article is dedicated to those who gave us an opportunity to have a clear answer to this delicate question. They know who they are.

Grégory Valens