Curating for the Chicago International Film Fest

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Curator? "Nah. I never use that word," says a smiling Chicago International Film Festival founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, now in his 49th year of running the show. The show, as he sees it, used to be a one-man show; now it's a team effort. Anyway: "The word 'curator' is too highfalutin' for me."

In the world of film programming, the noun thrown around most freely, besides "movie," is, in fact, "programmer." And the programmer's job can mean one thing at one festival but translate to a radically different thing at another.

It is a taste-based profession, springing from a single, simple idea: This movie I've seen, new or old, radical or classical, is something you should see, too. A given festival's focus and ambitions inform how much of a programmer's aesthetic personality will come into play each year.

This year's Chicago festival, based once again at the downtown AMC River East 21 multiplex, runs Oct. 10-24. Talking to its key programmers one afternoon last week, at the Cinema/Chicago offices near Adams and Wabash in the Loop, a picture of a curatorially democratic and determinedly audience-minded selection process emerges.

"We program collaboratively here," says Mimi Plauche. As the festival's programming director, her chief responsibilities are to the main competition slate and the new directors' competition. While there may be "a certain imprint I have on the festival, every film is watched by multiple programmers, and we're deciding together. So it's not just Michael's festival, or mine. Some of us are more interested in narrative than in style, or substance over form. We have all sorts of discussion about aesthetics and programming goals."

For example: Make 'em laugh! In response to festival audience surveys crying out for lighter fare, the (flatly labeled) Comedy Focus will showcase comedies dark and light from around the world. This must be the year for it: The new edition of the New York Film Festival has likewise amped up its comic quotient, in what appears to be an intuitive global course correction after 9/11, the Iraq invasion and its desperate geopolitical aftermath.

"There's a tendency for film festivals to shy away from comedies, but there's always the question of comedies traveling well, because they're culturally specific," says Plauche. "We're aware that the overriding themes at a festival tend to be political issues, social issues, economic issues, darker stories. But there's more to the human condition than that."

Vivian Teng, the festival's managing director, puts it more bluntly: "When our audiences say they want some lighter films, we want to make sure we're delivering on what they crave."

So where do the films come from, and how do the festival programmers find them in the first place? Several answers to those questions. The chief programmers screen and trade opinions on hundreds of open submissions, via online link or DVD screener. They attend festivals on the world circuit, from Berlin (a huge public festival in the spirit of Toronto's) to Cannes (the world's most prestigious private festival, meaning Jane and John Doe cannot buy tickets at a box office for any of the attractions) to niche festivals such as the True/False documentary festival held each year in Columbia, Mo.

That last one, True/False, is where Chicago festival programmer Alex Kopecky, the competitions coordinator and overseer of the Docufest sidebar, traveled recently. He also went to Toronto's Hot Docs competition in April, and two films he caught there — "Trucker and the Fox" from Iran and "The Exhibition" from Canada — will receive their U.S. premieres in the Chicago festival.

Kopecky and company shoot for 20 documentaries per festival. That's 10 U.S. premieres in search of distributors, and 10 titles making the rounds on the international festival circuit, most with distribution in place.

"I have my own taste," Kopecky says, "which of course I prefer, but we're trying to do programming with as much range and diversity as possible. So when we succeed, we're not just pleasing a single audience, but pleasing a lot of different audiences, with a lot of different expectations."

Unlike her full-time festival colleagues, programmer Penny Bartlett, born in Edinburgh to a Scottish father and an American mother, is a five-month seasonal Chicago employee, running the festival's short film slate and the horror-intensive After Dark sidebar. The rest of the year, Bartlett programs shorts for the Palm Springs film festival and New York's Tribeca festival. If she had her druthers, Bartlett says, cautiously, "I might push the late-night selection to include more experimental fare." But the beauty of programming several different evenings of short films, she says, is ability to mix it up. Don't like the abstract, non-narrative dreamscape? No worries: It's 11 minutes along, and there's a totally different film coming right behind it.

This year the festival appears to be enjoying an uptick in overall quality, mixing hot titles from Cannes (including the Palme d'Or winner, "Blue is the Warmest Color") with Toronto winner "12 Years a Slave" (a few days in advance of its commerical run), plus all the movies most people haven't yet come to know. The festival begins this year with "The Immigrant," an artful, atmospheric period melodrama from writer-director James Gray. In some recent editions of the festival, the opening night formula appeared to be: lousy, borderline-unreleasable movie, but with a familiar movie star attached. (To wit: "Motherhood," starring Uma Thurman, or "Stand Up Guys" with Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken.) "The Immigrant" is different. It competed for this year's Palme in Cannes, and although none of the movie's stars (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) will be coming to Chicago on its behalf, Gray will be hitting the red carpet.

"We're an audience festival and a directors' festival," says Kutza. "And that's why we're always going to have more directors than stars." Depending on the conversation, Kutza will tell you that, or he'll characterize Chicago's festival as "the best of the big international festivals plus a sprinkling of Hollywood." Whatever it is, however it's described, he believes "this is one of our strongest lineups ever, and I'm not even giving you the hype." And the process of curating 135 features and 55 shorts has long ceased to be a solo act.

Go to chicagofilmfestival.com for more information on the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, or call 312-222-FILM. The festival's home base, the AMC River East 21, is located at 322 E. Illinois St.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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