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The AMC River East isn't exactly Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Chicago International Film Festival isn't Cannes, but over a week and a half each October some of the better new films and many of the people who made them show up at this airport terminal-like multiplex a half mile short of Navy Pier on Illinois Street. When I pitched writing something about the festival this year, I envisioned wandering about and eavesdropping on the excited conversations of film lovers and putting together an impressionistic travelogue-type essay. But in the lobby of the theater on Friday, there were more young festival volunteers in blue t-shirts than anyone else. The line for Will Call was mostly empty and there was a lot more traffic flowing toward the bowling alley/sports bar and newfangled videogame arcade than the movie theater box office on the second floor. I wrote my editor to try to weasel out of my assignment. Then I saw the people in VR goggles.
In a makeshift roped-off area in front of the elevators, a couple of young volunteers were signing people up to try out the goggles. Beyond them, a middle-aged man was doing a sort of clumsy, slo-mo tai chi thing while holding black strap-like controls in each hand. The goggles covered up half his face and protruded several inches in front of his eyes. Two younger men next to him were doing their own version of the dance, each of them looking like a helpless sleepwalker or maybe somebody being controlled, mannequin-like, via invisible strings. And so they were. I don't know which game they were playing or what the goggles were showing them and took no steps to find out. The whole scene made me think very uncharitable thoughts about the human race in late 2018. If waving arms around feebly with a sensory-deprivation helmet is where we're at as a society, then maybe it's time to call it a wrap.
The movie I saw that afternoon went a little ways towards lightening my mood. Entrepreneur is a deep meditation on the profound changes going on in the global society but is told through the very specific personal experiences of just a few people. Set in Finland, it tells the contrasting stories of a family selling smoked meats out of a traveling truck and two young women who start a business selling an oat-based substitute to meat. It's about new and old economies and the way we used to live and the way we will live in the future. Its director, Virpi Suutari, answered questions afterward. She was as thoughtful and inquisitive as her film and I left the screening feeling better about the state of the world.
I returned to the festival Monday afternoon to watch Melissa Haizlip's documentary, Mr. Soul!, which tells the story of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, and the great African-American cultural showcase he created for public television in the late 60s and early 70s. Watching clips of Al Green singing, Nikki Giovanni reciting poems, James Baldwin telling it like it is was bittersweet: there's still no complete archive of this amazing TV show and, 50 years on, the issues with race in this country seem no closer to being resolved in any meaningful way.
During the Q and A afterwards, Haizlip talked a lot about the challenges of documentary filmmaking and, more specifically, the hurdles for a film like hers has to overcome in order to reach the mass audience that it richly deserves.
I had a ticket for a narrative film an hour later but walked out after about 15 minutes. This was no knock on the particular film but more a testament to the power of a good documentary to keep reverberating in the mind long after it's over. In comparison, watching a bunch of actors play make-believe seemed silly.
The three films I watched all the way through at CIFF this year were all documentaries. Entrepreneur and Mr. Soul! were both superlative in the ways in which they illuminated imported facets of the past and present. Mercifully, the VR zombies weren't in the River East lobby Monday. Perhaps they traded in their goggles in favor of using their own eyes, but that might be overly hopeful. I'm just glad that Virpi Suutari and Melissa Haizlip used their eyes and minds to make my life a little richer over the course of those few days.