Film festivals are a lot like travel, in that they can greatly enhance our sense of the world as a diverse yet interactive community in a relatively short time. But I've just returned from a spate of actual travel (some of it film-related, some of it not) during which it became more apparent to me than ever that this community is livid about the direction Bush's so-called war on terrorism is taking--and this is already starting to have an impact on the important cultural exchanges that the festivals foster.
In New York, where I was attending a conference on Iranian cinema at Lincoln Center, word came through that Abbas Kiarostami would not be able to attend the New York Film Festival, which is running concurrently with Chicago's: he had been told in Paris that because he's from an Islamic country, under new U.S. security measures a three-month background check would be required before his visa could be approved. While I was in London, an estimated third of a million people--about as many as read this paper--turned out to demonstrate against a U.S. invasion of Iraq. And then, on a brief vacation in Paris, I ran into my old friend Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film critic and programmer, who told me that Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki had just refused to attend the New York festival himself as a gesture of solidarity with Kiarostami. Later that day at a cybercafe I discovered that Kaurismaki's clever and noble move had finally goaded the New York Times into reporting on Kiarostami's hassles--which had made the front page of Le Monde 11 days earlier.
Treating the best-known and most respected living artist in the Middle East--an artist who's been to the States seven times--as a potential terrorist is an implicit insult to the entire region; sadly, the Bush administration's lack of concern about this is consistent with its indifference to the world's opinions in general (including those of many appalled American citizens). On the bright side, we still have the freedom in this country to see films from anywhere we like--at least until someone decides this freedom might interfere with the war effort.
In week two of the Chicago International Film Festival, we'll have access to good and great films from around the globe. Among my favorites are the American Depression-era musical Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (my own critic's choice), Cuckoo (Russia), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia), Unknown Pleasures (China), the first two episodes of the triptych Personal Velocity (U.S.), and Divine Intervention, by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman--a film I caught up with in Paris and recommend as much for its unsettling climactic revenge fantasy as for its bemused humor. Among the entries most recommended to me by colleagues I often agree with (whose opinions may or may not be shared by the critics who've reviewed them below) are El bonaerense (Argentina), Hukkle (Hungary), Madame Sata (Brazil), Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past, Morvern Callar (UK), Monday Morning (France), and Springtime in a Small Town (China). Such a selection late in the lineup isn't something one can take for granted: in years past the festival has had a tendency to blow its wad early, screening most of its major selections in the first week or even over opening weekend. That's not a Chicago problem exclusively; it often happens at Cannes too. (In Toronto last month producers and distributors made particularly spectacular efforts to get their films shown over the first six days--prior to September 11.)
Screenings this year are being held through October 17 at Landmark's Century Centre (2828 N. Clark) and the Music Box (3733 N. Southport); there will also be two special screenings of Speedy at the Gateway (5216 W. Lawrence) on October 18. Single-ticket prices are $6 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM); $7 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 5 PM); $10 for all shows after 5 PM ($8 for Cinema/Chicago members). Special presentations, including the critic's choice programs, cost $15 ($13 for Cinema/Chicago members). Passes good for anything except closing night, awards night, and special presentations cost $50 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/Chicago members), $110 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $250 (50 tickets); pass holders may use one or two tickets per screening. Tickets can be purchased at Cinema/Chicago's office (address below); at theater box offices (cash only), open an hour before the first screening; or at the Borders Books & Music stores at 2817 N. Clark and 830 N. Michigan. They can also be ordered by mail (from Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (at 312-425-0944), by phone (at 312-332-3456 or through Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500), or on-line (www.ticketmaster.com/venue/57437). For more information call 312-332-3456.