Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Joy of Man's Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Director Denis Côté

JOY OF MAN’S DESIRING (Que ta joie demeure)       B-                
Canada  (70 mi)  2014  d:  Denis Côté       official facebook page

The work place is the place where those arriving cross paths with those who are leaving early.   —Georges Courteline, (June 25, 1858 – June 25, 1929)

Denis Côté remains something of a radical, underground Québécois filmmaker championing the unfamiliar, including small and unconventional films, where his most recent film Vic + Flo Saw a Bear  (2013) is perhaps his most accessible, through it remains provocatively disturbing, while this is closer to his earlier work Bestiaire (2012), a wordless and minimalist film essay shooting animals living in the closed quarters of an amusement park, observing human behavior through the unpretentious eyes of animals, and vice versa, both seemingly on equal footing.  Côté is himself a former film critic from Montreal, and what he brings to his films is a certain objective detachment, where the key is observing without judgment.  While this is a free associative and contemplative work that focuses upon the routine aspects of industrial work, accentuating machine operators in nine small factories in Montreal, he establishes a precise rhythm of noise and machine, where humans are simply intermediaries, but slowly introduces a fictional element that finalizes the film.  While it may be completely unpretentious, it is quite different from the meticulously austere group of Austrian documentarians, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, OUR DAILY BREAD (2005), Michael Glawogger, WORKINGMAN’S DEATH (2005), SLUMMING (2006), and Whore's Glory (2012), Ruth Mader, STRUGGLE (2003), and Hubert Sauper, DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (2004), which have a near mathematical precision to them.  Instead it remains open ended and ambiguous, where the director intentionally makes no social comment, but simply shows various stages of people at work, including moments of absurdity when a union official, from an apparent approved distance where he is allowed to stand, yells slogans at the workers while they are working. 

Initially viewers are greeted by the pounding rhythm of a machine press, including a montage of machines in close-up, while also subjected to a curious opening monologue asking for support, where the audience never sees who the comments are directed to, another worker or a machine (the director?).  This schism between man and machine has been the subject of much conjecture since the advent of the industrial age, where the interplay has not always been compatible.  As we hear the workers talk to one another, we discover one machine operates at a level of speed that most find dangerous, but that’s what attracts one particular worker to that machine, preferring it to all others, where he is able to utilize his own dexterity to achieve maximum results.  Another grows disillusioned with the job, losing interest altogether, where he’s sitting around in a state of depression when he’s approached by a person that could easily be a ghost of the worker’s past, where another worker claims they’re ready to take his place, asking if he’s ready to relinquish his job.  This visual sequence may simply be a passing thought in the course of the working day.  While workers are routinely seen at their work stations, the presence of the camera in such close proximity would seem to be a distraction and highly intrusive, perhaps dangerously so, due to the precise nature of this kind of skilled work where machines are manipulated into exact positions, where the degree for error is minimal.  Certainly one thought about what we see is that we never see the final result of their labor, but only the one piece of the puzzle that each worker is assigned to perform, creating a feeling of incompleteness, as while they are part of the whole, they never seem to be connected to the finished product. 

For the filmmaker, he entered into this project without any written script, becoming an improvisational journey that reveals itself over time, an experimental alternative where we are taken on an observational tour of various factory settings—metal working, carpentry, industrial laundry, a garment shop, mattress factory, and coffee roasting.  Alternating between people and machines as well as the raw materials that surround them, many toil in a kind of solitary silence, while others remain talkative and gregarious throughout with other staff.  Côté catches many of them during their idle rest periods having a quick smoke, but also having extended conversations about their jobs, providing shop talk, including an amusing parable about a crooked employer, or comments about work fulfillment, where one changed workplaces as she was barely noticed at her previous job and felt invisible, but remains just as invisible here as well, offering views of alienation and a sense of demoralization, as they spend half their lives in this claustrophobic environment, while others find a kind of mystical satisfaction in the constant repetitiveness of their actions, as if it offers the opportunity to cleanse the mind.  This kind of emptyheaded blankness balances with the focused concentration needed for the more intricate nature of some of the work performed, supplemented by an intriguing sound design by Frédéric Cloutier and Clovis Gouaillier.  By introducing fictional characters, some seen offering prayers to their machines, Côté accentuates the kinds of thoughts that might come into play, while also introducing other significant images, where a partially constructed wooden piano is seen at one point, which later introduces the titular Bach chorale Myra Hess plays Bach/Hess "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" YouTube (3:41) heard somewhere off in the distance to the worker’s contemplative thoughts, where this musical reverie is perhaps the idealized sound of their completed work, a kind of sacred musical construction of perfection.  What is perhaps missing is the feeling of any joy in the work, amusingly remedied in the final shot.  Despite the multiple layers in play, the narrow scope never becomes particularly revelatory, where it doesn’t impress as much as some of the other work by this director. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten)     B+           
Norway  Sweden  Denmark  (115 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Hans Petter Moland

I am just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization going through the wilderness.  
—Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård)

In what must be the funniest film of the year, Hans Petter Moland left his mark with A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN (2010), a droll Norwegian comedy starring Stellan Skarsgård as a low key ex-con that comes out of prison after serving a 12-year stint for murdering a man who was having an affair with his wife, where nearly every scene has absurd comic undertones.  Fighting to lead a normal life, which may as well be a Kaurismäki movie, he’s drawn into the role of protector where he discovers old habits are hard to break.  The film was such a success that the two teamed up again (actually their 4th time working together) for another dry Scandinavian comedy where Skarsgård offers another brilliant, off-kilter performance as Nils Dickman.  This time he’s a snowplow driver, a Swedish immigrant who’s the closest thing to being a real Norwegian who was just awarded “Citizen of the Year” for his dedication in clearing the snow off the extremely snowy rural highways in the remote outer reaches of Norway, always seen blasting his way through the lonely mountain roads as the snow goes flying down the steep hills.  His ordinary life takes a sharp turn for the worse when his son turns up dead from an overdose of drugs.  While the police have little incentive to investigate these kinds of cases as so many kids do this to themselves, but Nils is convinced his son wasn’t involved with drugs.  When he accidentally discovers his son’s friend that was involved with drug gangs, he begins his search for the men behind his son’s murder.  With a hilarious script by Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson, who also wrote A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, this is filmed very much like a Hollywood movie with established stars, only the arctic Scandinavian humor is much funnier, something along the lines of In Bruges (2008) which pokes fun of the morbid mood of professional hit men throughout, while some have hailed this film as “Norway’s response to Fargo (1996),” a bleak comedy the Coen brothers themselves describe as “Siberia with family restaurants.”  Absurdly accentuating an accumulating body count, where after each death their names are printed onscreen next to a cross, as the title suggests, a humorous device that works perfectly from the beginning until a masterful final shot.  Much like the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign on the popular David Lynch TV show Twin Peaks (1990 – 91), this sign says “Welcome to Tyos…” and the rest remains covered in snow.    

Dark, provocative, and utterly sublime, this is one of the more deliciously entertaining films of the year, a revenge saga that strikes a balance between an honest portrayal of criminal brutality while evoking a certain type of disturbing laughter in the wickedly absurd manner that so many characters meet their tragic end.  The sarcastic wit displayed throughout is impressive, especially Moland’s treatment of his own native Norwegians, showcasing petty prejudices and cultural presumptions alongside a litany of one-liners, while at the same time, cameraman Philip Øgaard’s outdoor landscape shots of the snowy mountainous peaks couldn’t be more impressive, where the crunch of the snow is a constant that is heard throughout, where snow is actually one of the most spectacular characters in the film, where the overwhelming presence of white is a stark contrast to such dark deeds taking place onscreen.  Actor Skarsgård claims that he hates cold weather, especially when called upon to perform in sub-zero temperatures when his face muscles are literally paralyzed.  However, no one can doubt the expressive quality that he brings to the film, always one of the more understated performers in the business.  When his son Ingvar is a sacrificial pawn to the drug war, Nils goes on the offensive in a killing spree, targeting several of the men working under The Count, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen from Kon-Tiki (2012), a particularly nasty piece of work living in a completely modernistic home surrounded by his henchmen, where his blatant offensiveness, not to mention pompous arrogance and often utter stupidity (yet always seen with a smile), is often contrasted against the cool and measured manner of his blond and beautiful ice-princess ex-wife Marit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen from Marie Krøyer (2012), who continually arrives unannounced reporting the latest court maneuver for child custody rights over their son, who’s unfortunately caught in the middle of an ugly marital squabble, each sharing custody  One of their funniest arguments is over her accusation that he’s a poor parent for feeding their son heavily sugared Fruit Loops cereal, which makes The Count go ballistic, claiming he’s a vegan.  However the beauty of the sequence is watching a Norwegian pronunciation dance around the words, “Fruit Loops,” which is musical comedy in itself, followed by the kid secretly being fed the dreaded cereal by one of the bodyguards, who are collectively helping to raise this kid that his father pays no attention to. 

At this point, the film seems to thrive on mistaken identity, as The Count is sure a rival gang is sending him a message, continually calling them “The Albanians,” though they are a rival Serbian gang led by Bruno Ganz (doing an always hoarse Vito Corleone) as their leader, affectionately known as “Papa,” seen bringing in a tray of take-out coffees for his men during a particularly brutal torture session.  Their home office is a warehouse filled with what appears to be stolen merchandise that collectively resembles a big box retail outlet.  Meanwhile, Nils loses his wife, who leaves a perfectly folded blank piece of paper stuffed in an envelope as her goodbye letter, which seems to jump start a new resolve in Nils to track down every man involved in his son’s murder.  As the two rival gangs blame and target each other, the amusing dialogue of the Serb thugs provides a stream of comical atmosphere throughout the film, suggesting there are no decent welfare systems in sunny cultures, that they only exist in cold Scandinavian climates, while also discussing the benevolence of the Norwegian prison system, where they serve warm food, there’s surprisingly no rapes, and the guards and other prisoners are actually friendly, while also commenting on the Norwegian practice of women picking up dog poo in little plastic bags, where one has to ask quizzically, “What does she do with it later?”  Western customs remain alien to these guys, whose counterparts drink freshly squeezed carrot juice when discussing plans to kill people and drive hybrid electric Fisker Karma cars.  The Count sends a message to the Serbs by killing the son of mob boss Papa, a move that backfires when they realize who the real killer is, which is revealed with such utter simplicity, when one of The Count’s gang states the obvious, “If it was Dickman who killed our people, then the Serbs must be pissed off about the guy we hung on the sign.”  Amidst a gang war set amidst ski resorts and hang-gliding, Nils kidnaps The Count’s son, who actually seems to prefer Nils as a father figure, asking him sheepishly, “Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?” before asking for a bedtime story, where Nils reads out of the catalogue for the latest model of snowblowers, holding the kid’s rapt attention throughout, seen later riding in the CHRISTINE (1983)-like cab with Nils during the final showdown, shown in a slow-motion choreography of blood and bullets, and just when we think it’s all over, hold on, as there’s still more.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Director Abderrahmane Sissako

TIMBUKTU        B+                                      
Mauritania  France  (97 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Abderrahmane Sissako

They’re singing praise to the Lord and his prophet; should I arrest them?
—young soldier radioing his superior

This film couldn’t be more timely, as it’s perhaps the only film that predicts the presence of a murderous rogue Islamic militant group like ISIL currently grabbing the headlines with beheadings and unparalleled violence, as it’s based upon real incidents that took place in Northern Mali in 2012 when Ansar Dine Islamic militants occupied Timbuktu, once the center of scholarly Islamic learning in Africa, burning down the only public library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, including 18,000 historical manuscripts in the process.  But in particular what captured the director’s attention was an event depicted in the film, the public stoning of a young unmarried couple in the northern town of Aguelhok, both buried up to their necks and stoned to death in front of hundreds of watchers, a horribly tragic incident precipitated by their view that the couple was committing a crime against divine law.  According to Sissako, “Aguelhok is neither Damascus nor Teheran, and in no way am I looking to over-emotionalize these events for the purposes of a moving film.  What I do want to do is bear witness as a filmmaker.  Because I will never be able to say I didn’t know.  And because of what I know now, I must tell this story — in the hope that no child may ever have to learn this same lesson in the future.  That their parents could die, simply because they love each other.”  Historically, different tribes controlled Timbuktu until the French colonized Mali in 1893, granting their independence in 1960, where it remains one of the poorest regions in the world.  At the request of the government, the French military was eventually called in to run the Tuareg rebels out of the region and re-establish order, where the country recently conducted democratic elections.  While the filmmaker was born in nearby Mauritania, where he was forced to shoot the film due to the actual turmoil taking place in Timbuktu, he completed his early childhood education in Mali before returning home.  He studied cinema in Moscow at the prestigious VGIK (Federal State Film Institute) and now lives in Paris, where he discovered most of the non-professional cast he used, as well as the cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who shot Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013).  Many of the lead roles are played by professional singers, the most prominent being Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara, seen here Fatoumata Diawara - Bissa (OFFICIAL VIDEO) - YouTube (3:24). 

Initially screened in competition at Cannes, the film reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation afterwards and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury honoring works inspired by “the spiritual dimension of our existence,” and also the François Chalais Prize recognizing “the values of journalism.”  What Sissako brings to the subject is pure cinematic poetry, a common thread throughout his films, including WAITING FOR HAPPINESS (2002), winner of the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes, while also awarded the French Culture Award as the Best Foreign Cineaste of the Year, and BAMAKO (2006), a thought provoking film that examines the effects of globalization in Africa, specifically Mali, where the first world G8 nations historically stole what they could from African nations through colonialist exploitation, only to be replaced today by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund financial systems that remain even more deeply entrenched through the huge debts these impoverished nations supposedly owe to these international institutions, ranging from 40 to 60% of the nation’s total income.  Perhaps even more prescient was the director’s humorous insertion of a film within a film, a fictitious, rather cartoonish American film playing in the region called DEATH IN TIMBUKTU starring Danny Glover in a Sergio Leone style Hollywood western depicting a small African village falling under a torrent of bullets to rebel outsiders, watched in a feverish trance by children, a rather unfathomable intersection of fiction and reality.  While most of the news reports focus upon the wanton jihadist destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites, outrageous acts that are themselves unconscionable, Sissako instead focuses upon the day to day effects it has on the local population, a tribal culture that has survived centuries in a brutally harsh sub-Sahara desert climate.  Opening in a stunning moment of lyrical beauty juxtaposed against the madness of ongoing violence, we see a truck of jihadists inexplicably firing machine guns at a deer/gazelle streaking through the desert, where the movement is captured as poetry in motion.  In the next shot, tribal carvings are destroyed by machine gun fire, where the centuries-old traditions of the past are wiped away in seconds.  The incomprehensible aspect is our entryway into understanding the presence of this occupied force, which goes against the laws of nature.  When they enter the mosque with their weapons, explaining they are practicing jihad, the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tells them he is practicing jihad as well, but in Timbuktu they use the mind instead of weapons, where bringing guns into the mosque is a disgrace to the piety of God.    

The film recalls the insidious terror expressed in Raoul Peck’s Haitian film The Man On the Shore (L’Homme sur les quais) (1993), shot during the reign of the Duvalier dictatorship and his armed militia, the Tontons Macoute, who similarly terrorized the population.  The villagers in Timbuktu are comprised of various ethnic groups speaking French, Bambara, Songhay, and Tamasheq living in harmony with the nomadic Tuareg people, while these militants bring with them Arabic and even English speaking jihadists from around the globe, where the irony is they have soldiers drive around the city in trucks with loud speakers warning residents of the new laws, where they are not allowed to sing, play music, or dance, while covered women must wear socks at all times and gloves on their hands, but they require multi-lingual interpreters to get their ultra orthodox message of forbidden activities across.  Easily the most absurd example is banning the game of soccer, with armed men with machine guns taking the ball away, leaving the fully dressed players in uniform to continue playing without the ball in a choreographed, ballet-like pantomime that expresses the joy and beauty of movement, where these guys revere the skill level of Lionel Messi and imitate his post goal scoring celebratory moves on the field.  Mali is also known around the world for their intricate music, where the names of Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré spring to mind, where the idea of soldiers silencing these voices is catastrophic, but real, as they go house to house hunting down the origins of musical sounds, arresting those responsible, including Fatoumata Diawara and others who are then given 40 lashes in public, where she breaks out in song midway through her punishment.  Anyone who has seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) will appreciate the profound difference in how this is visually expressed, losing the grotesque aspect of mutilated flesh, where the focus is on pain, and instead adds a poetic lyricism that highlights the injustice.  Inflicting punishment, like the public stoning, appears to be the goal of Ansar Dine rebels, where they round up villagers and subject them to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic sharia law, bringing the imam out of the temple to question where does God enter into these ungodly actions?  When a young girl is hauled out of her home and forced into marriage to one of the armed rebels against the protests of her family, the ruling court claims this is perfectly legal, as “We are the guardians of all deeds.”  Against this backdrop, another local family is destroyed, where Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, aka Pino) is a goat and cattle herder living in the freedom of a tent out in the desert with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), young daughter Toya, while also raising a young orphan Issan, who tends to the cattle every day.  When a local dispute over a dead cow results in an accidental death, Kidane is arrested and immediately sentenced to death, where the harsh and excessive punishment contrasts against the sight of rebels routinely violating their own rules, including one that lusts after Kidane’s wife, where the lingering question raised at the end is who will they be coming after next, as instead of a deer they are chasing down humans.    

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014 Chicago Film Festival Awards

Mohsen Mahkmalbaf, The President

Diego Lerman, Refugiado

Brent Hamer, 1001 Grams

In Competition Jury, from left to right: Ferzan Ozpetek, Margarethe von Trotta, Jury President Kathleen Turner, Parviz Shahbazi, and Giora Bejach


Films from Georgia, Argentina, Sweden, Mexico, Germany, Israel and the United States, among Other Countries, Receive the Gold and Silver Hugo in the Festival’s Competitions

Michael Keaton Receives the Founder’s Award for His Electrifying Performance in “Birdman”; Jorge Pérez Solano’s “La Tirisia” wins the Festival’s First Roger Ebert Award, CHICAGO, IL (October17, 2014)

Michael Kutza, Founder and Artistic Director, Mimi Plauché, Programming Director, and Programmers Penny Bartlett, Alex Kopecky and Evan Morehouse proudly announce the winners of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival Competitions. Hosted by Chicago Sun-Times columnist and Fox News Chicago entertainment reporter and film critic Bill Zwecker, the awards ceremony was held Friday, October 17 at 9 pm and hosted by The Sofitel Chicago Water Tower (20 E. Chestnut St.). Awards were presented in the following competitive categories: International Feature Film Competition, New Directors Competition, Roger Ebert Award, Chicago Award, Q-Hugo Award, DocuFest, and Shorts.

Award Nights was sponsored by Michigan Avenue Magazine and Wintrust Community Banks.

Filmmakers from around the world were on hand to receive the awards including Chicago producer Patricia Cox (“Rudderless”) and Israel writer and director Shlomi Elkabetz (“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”). Others, such as acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Mahkmalbaf whose film “The President” received the Gold Hugo for Best Film (the Festival’s highest honor) and legendary actress Geraldine Chaplin who won the Silver Hugo for Best Actress for “Sand Dollars,” accepted their awards with pre-recorded video messages from their home countries.

Past award winners have gone on to win Oscars® and Golden Globe® awards, among other notable recognitions. Awards Night is a night for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival juries, filmmakers and guests to come together and celebrate each other’s achievements.

50th Chicago International Film Festival Announces Award Winners

International Feature Film Competition

Representing a wide variety of styles and genres, these works compete for the Festival’s highest honor, the Gold Hugo, a symbol of discovery.

Gold Hugo, Best Film: “The President”
(Georgia, France, UK, Germany)
Director: Mohsen Mahkmalbaf

Silver Hugo, Special Jury Prize: “Refugiado”
(Argentina, Colombia, France, Poland, Germany)
Director: Diego Lerman

Silver Hugo, Best Director: “Timbuktu”
(France, Mauritania)
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako

Silver Hugo, Best Actor: Anton Yelchin,
“Rudderless” (USA)

Silver Hugo, Best Actress: Geraldine Chaplin,
“Sand Dollars” (Dominican Republic, Mexico)

Silver Hugo, Best Cinematography:
John Christian Rosenlund, “1001 Grams” (Norway)

Silver Hugo for Best Screenplay:
Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz (co-writer and co-directors),
“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (Israel, France, Germany)

Gold Plaque for Best Art Direction:
Mauro Radaelli, “Human Capital” (Italy)

Gold Plaque for Best Costume Design:
Pia Myrdal and Anne-Dorthe Eskildsen,
“Speed Walking” (Denmark)

Gold Plaque Special Mention for Originality:
“The Owners”
(Kazakhstan) Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

The International Feature Film Competition Jury includes Kathleen Turner (USA), Margarethe von Trotta (Germany); Ferzan Ozpetek (Italy); Giora Bejach (Israel); and Parviz Shahbazi (Iran).

The International Feature Competition is sponsored by The John and Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation.

New Directors Competition

This selection of first and second feature films receiving their U.S. premieres in Chicago celebrates the spirit of discovery and innovation upon which the Festival was founded.

The Gold Hugo goes to “Underdog”(Sweden), a modern take on class conflict that keeps its focus on its believable characters instead of highlighting the melodrama inherent in its narrative. When a young Swedish woman named Dino begins working for a successful Norwegian man named Steffen, the consistently genuine performances and Ronnie Sandahl’s mature handling of difficult themes allow the film to resonate. It is a film that both addresses specific cultural issues and yet feels simultaneously universal through its honesty. Director: Ronnie Sandahl.

The Silver Hugo goes to “Next to Her” (Israel), an accomplished portrait of sisterhood with striking performances conveying a difficult subject matter. Liron Ben-Shlush anchors the film with her stunning turn as Chelli, intimately capturing how responsibility can turn into codependency. Asaf Korman subtly portrays that the victims are not always who we think they are. Director: Asaf Korman.

The New Directors Competition Jury includes Anna Croneman (Sweden); Izza Génini (Morocco); Wieland Speck (Germany); and Brian Tallerico (USA).

The New Directors Competition is sponsored by Columbia College Chicago.

The Roger Ebert Award

The Roger Ebert Award will be presented annually to an emerging filmmaker whose film presents a fresh and uncompromising vision. Films competing in the Festival’s New Directors Competition are eligible for this award.

The Roger Ebert Award goes to “La Tirisia” (Mexico), which instills empathy through its director’s strong sense of visual composition and handling of difficult themes. Setting his film in a surreal, sensual landscape in Oaxaca, Mexico, this subtle drama of two pregnant women transports viewers to a unique part of the world, but deals with universal human emotion at the same time. It’s the kind of unforgettable journey that only film can replicate. Director: Jorge Pérez Solano.

Docufest Competition

This selection of international documentaries competing for the Gold Hugo go beyond the headlines in telling those true stories that surprise, entertain and challenge us.

The Gold Hugo goes to “Echo of the Mountain” (Mexico). Through extremely intricate artistic works, a Huichol artist conveys the symbols and meanings of his own native culture—a traditional culture kept alive for thousands of years in the deep mountains of Mexico. Director Nicolás Echevarría follows artist Santos de la Torre for one year, as he elaborates his next mural. Rich aural and visual textures provide an intimate view of Santos and his world. Echevarría’s documentary conveys the hybrid complexity of the exchange between modern and traditional cultures still coexisting in our globalized present. Director: Nicolás Echevarría.

The Docufest Competition Jury includes Luisela Alvaray (USA), Peter Berggren (USA) and Clayton Brown (USA).

The Docufest Competition is sponsored by Columbia College.

Chicago OUT-Look Program/Q Hugo Award

Chosen from the Festival’s OUT-Look program, the winners of this award exhibit new artistic perspectives on sexuality and identity.

The Gold Q Hugo Film Award goes to “Xenia” (Greece) for confronting an unfriendly world with defiant gaiety. Director: Panos H. Koutras.

The Silver Q Hugo Film Award goes to “Something Must Break” (Sweden), for telling a brave, modern story about characters whose relations to gender and sexuality are hard to categorize but are lived with passion and guts. The jury looks forward to the unfolding career of this exciting filmmaker who presented this tale in such an uncompromising way. Director:Ester Martin Bergsmark.

The Q Hugo Film Award jury includes Mihai Chirilov (Romania), Nick Davis (USA), David Robinson (UK), and Brenda Webb (USA).

The Founder’s Award

The Founder’s Award is given to that one film orperformance across all categories that captures the spirit of the Chicago International Film Festival for its unique and innovative approach to the art of the moving image.

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival presented actor Michael Keaton with the Founder’s Award for his electrifying performance as an actor who hopes to revive his moribund career in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s daring comedy “Birdman.” "To pick a single film or performance from this year’s incredibly strong lineup of more than 150 films was difficult, but an eagerly anticipated challenge - they all exemplify the Festival’s spirit of innovation and discovery. And yet, Michael Keaton’s performance in ‘Birdman’ moved me deeply; it confirmed that Keaton is not only one of our greatest American actors, but one whose work will soon be reevaluated and further appreciated,” said Festival Founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza.

Chicago Award

The Chicago Award, presented to a Chicago or Illinois artist for the best feature or short film, goes to “The Alley Cat,” directed by Marie Ullrich, an exceptionally innovative and refreshing first feature representing the auspicious and exciting start of a promising filmmaking career. Bold, gritty, and full of energy, Ullrich’s film is a prime example of first-rate low-budget filmmaking, serving as an intriguing announcement of a new voice.

The Chicago Award jury includes Monica Long Ross (USA), Julian Antos (USA), and Malik Bader (USA).

Short Film Competition: Live Action

The Gold Hugo for Best Short Film goes to “Amazon” (Norway). Marianne O. Ulrichsen’s “Amazon”finds its power in contrasting the small heartbreaks of childhood against the vast beauty of the Norwegian landscape. This coming of age story, involving shifting vulnerabilities and eventual connection between two young girls, pulses with life, buoyed by the human performances of its two young actors and the breathtaking cinematography of Annika Summerson. The lyrical short film captures and celebrates the undefined possibilities inherent in liminal spaces: those unscheduled afternoons, new meetings and open landscapes that lead to self-discovery. Director: Marianne O. Ulrichsen.

The Silver Hugo for Live Action Short is awarded to “In August” (USA). Through its beautiful cinematography and sincere performances, “In August” exquisitely captures the moment between a little girl realizing her world is changing forever and the change itself—the sublime before the storm. Director: Jenna Hasse.

The Gold Plaque for Best Student Short is awarded to “Skunk” (USA). Demonstrating instincts similar to early David Gordon Green or Debra Granik, “Skunk” masterfully teases the audience with the promise of a lazy summer day and the nightmare that other teens induce upon each other. The young actors’ nuanced performances wonderfully illustrate youthful humiliations via the conflicts of puberty—the bravado of boys who can’t yet control their bodies, and the retribution of a girl not interested in taking things lightly. Director: Annie Silverstein.

The Gold Plaque for Narrative/Live Action Short goes to “Artun” (Iceland/Denmark), a pale yellow, Black Metal ode to that age when you feel like the dirtiest thing in the world because you're still so clean. Director: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson.

The Silver Plaque for Narrative/Live Action Short goes to “The Immaculates” (France). In this affecting document of tragedy, director Ronny Trocker weaves a quilt of 3D imagery, leading viewers through a disorienting landscape of retelling and remembrance. Director: Ronny Trocker

The Gold Plaque for Best Experimental Short goes to “Prehistoric Cabaret” (France). In this colonoscopic reverie, courtesy of the world's most dangerous camera, we penetrate the cosmic mystery shrouded in secrets within the enigma at the very center of being (or at least through the center of our lovely hostess). Life IS a cabaret. Director: Bertrand Mandico.

A Special Mention goes to “Washingtonia” (Greece). With humor and heart,“Washingtonia” exists in the space between narrative and free association, offering an absurdist urban myth that is somehow recognizable, even as it eludes definition. Director: Konstantina Kotzamani.

The Live Action Short Film Competition Jury includes Lindsay Bosch (USA), Susan Kerns(USA), and Spencer Parsons(USA).

Short Film Competition: Documentary

The Silver Hugo is awarded to “Love.Love.Love.” (Russia). Sandhya Daisy Sundaram’s “Love.Love.Love.” is a rotating treatise on the forms love takes in the lives of Russian women. In a beguiling series of deceptively compact tableaus, it evokes a universal hunt for romance and companionship from the dawn of birth to the twilight of old age. We award “Love.Love.Love.” Best Documentary Short because, in rare form, it lives up to its title, and reflects invisible truths found in the combination of everyday moments. Director: Sandhya Daisy Sundaram.

A Gold Plaque -Special Jury Prize goes to “Ghost Train” (Australia). “Ghost Train” paints a vivid portrait of a man who is drawn to a cabaret dancer at a local haunted house. As he deals with his wife with Alzheimer's and faces his own death, he finds solace in her vivacity and energy in a house dedicated to death. Through found footage, stunning black and white cinematography and borrowing the style of bygone horror films, “Ghost Train” leads the audience on an exploration of life, death and legacy. Directors: James Fleming and Kelly Hucker.

Special Mention to “A Paradise” (Cuba), a brief but compelling observation of a poor family in rural Cuba, and a discreet look into complex issues surrounding children living in poverty. Director: Jayisha Patel.

The Documentary Short Film Competition Jury includes Jack C. Newell (USA), Brian Ashby (USA), Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (USA).

Short Film Competition: Animation

The Silver Hugo for Best Animated Short Film goes to “Coda” (Ireland). “Coda”’s elegantly simple visuals, minimal lines and solid patches of color, describe an urban nighttime world of disconnection and insularity. Here, the moment of dying is seen as a chance for re-evaluating the individual's relationship to humanity and life itself. The jury recognizes this film for the challenging depth of its themes, and for the spare but powerful aesthetic which presents those themes with lyrical complexity. Director: Alan Holly.

The Gold Plaque-Special Jury Prize goes to “Symphony No. 42” (Hungary). The jury was hypnotized by the associative links between the domestic and the natural, and by the portrayal of animal exploitation as a farce. These nihilistic allegories functioned both as a dystopia and as an indictment of contemporary human activity. Director: Réka Bucsi.

The Silver Plaque is awarded to “Drifting” (USA), for its strange manipulation of time, and the notion of capturing the uncapturable, for no witness. A documented life critique. Director: Joel Benjamin.

A Special Mention goes to “Man on the Chair” (South Korea), for its poetic pastel beauty and its willingness to be calm and powerful at the same time. Director: Jeong Dahee.

The Animation Short Film Competition Jury includes Eric Patrick (USA), Timothy Brayton (USA), Chris Sullivan (USA).

INTERCOM Competition

One of the longest-running international competitions of its kind, INTERCOM honors a wide range of corporate-sponsored, educational and branded films. The Gold Hugo goes to “The Art of the Pit Stop” (Germany) from Kemper Kommunikation GmbH.

Truly living up to the spirit of INTERCOM and appropriately titled, "The Art of the Pit Stop" is a simple, poetic film that addresses the branded video with the highest level of cinematic achievement.

The INTERCOM Competition jury includes Dan Sutherland (USA), Susan Kerns (USA), and Ron Falzone (USA)

Special Awards

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival honored director Gina Prince-Bythewood with an Artistic Achievement Award and actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw with an Emerging Artist Award during the Festival’s 18th Annual Black Perspectives Tribute on October 10.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Evolution of Bert

Director Jeffrey C. Wray  

USA  (77 mi)  2014  d:  Jeffrey C. Wray  

While indie films are rare, Black indie films are even rarer, where the two that come to mind are Danny Green’s Mr. Sophistication (2012), about an attempted comeback of an edgy black comedian, which premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 2012 and then was never released, and Barry Jenkins’ extremely popular relationship movie, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), an award winner that played the festival circuit, but was never released on more than seven screens in any given week in the entire country, and was usually only shown on three screens or less.  Many of the more popular “black” indie films are actually directed by white directors, like Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007), Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (2008), even perennial indie filmmaker John Sayles took a stab with HONEYDRIPPER (2007), all set in black neighborhoods using primarily black casts.  While the title leaves something to be desired, making it sound like a quirky Walter Mitty style movie about a nerdy character, or a reference to Sesame Street, but instead it’s a funny stream-of-conscious exposé on being black in America, a well-acted film that wears its intelligence on its sleeve, featuring a terrific cast of non-professionals, blending fantasy and fiction, using a jazzy musical score by Kris Johnson, making this a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Perhaps what’s most unusual about this film is that it was shot 15 years ago when the director was a professor at Ohio University in 1998, shot sporadically over several months, and then just sat on the shelf while family, children, or other jobs took precedence.  While now he’s an Associate Professor of Film Studies/Creative Writing at Michigan State University, it took a grant award to allow the team to shoot the epilogue nearly ten years later, where the post production aspects of the film were only finalized just this year.  So it’s like a time warp taking us back in time, yet loses none of its initial thrust, which is a satiric coming-of-age film, the development of a social consciousness, and a comment on what it means to be black in America.     

Randall Stokes is a refreshing discovery as Bert, your typically intelligent, good-looking, and thoroughly confused black college student who is completing his final semester at school as a history major, but is no clearer about how he intends to spend his future, where his parents are ready for him to enter the job market.  We realize the extent of his difficulties in a hilarious dream sequence where he envisions his future in multiple possibilities, including a black Republican, a token corporate Negro doing the soft shoe, a man following his dreams, and another more emblematic representative of the working man.  The first in his family to graduate college, Bert’s problem is how to define himself, what distinguishes him from the rest of the students, as he seems to be a very personable guy with an optimistic streak, hangs with his best friend Nate the DJ (Nate DeWitt), while romancing Nita (Nakeshia Knight), his friendly, attractive, poetry spouting girlfriend for the past two years.  Because he’s so close to the finish line, he starts questioning this relationship, imaging what his life would be like with other women.  Nate immediately tells him not to give up on a good thing, suggesting other girls that respect him as part of a healthy couple wouldn’t give him the time of day if he was single, as a good part of their allegiance is to Nita, where respecting him is part of respecting her.  Easily the most revelatory character is played by the director himself in dreadlocks, playing Duke, a perennial student who’s been through it all and tries to school Bert about what to expect.  His advice about the future is so uncannily accurate that he comes across as a bit of a mystic, always wearing shades, usually found with a smile on his face.  When asked why he never takes off his shades, he gives three reasons:  his eyes are sensitive to light, he refuses to give the white man the pleasure of that smiling face with understanding eyes, where despite the violent racial past, whites still expect the black man to make them feel more “comfortable,” so shades freak white people out, and lastly, he’s just plain cool.  They meet in a quiet moment when Bert is listening to the music of Walter Jackson on his headphones, Walter Jackson It's all over - YouTube (2:57), where Duke is curious what he’s listening too, claiming they both love “old-school” music. 

Losing much of the stereotypes and cliché’s that generally denigrate blacks and lessen their potential cultural impact, music is such an essential ingredient in the film, told in a freeform, essay-like experimental style that integrates black history with contemporary affairs, girlfriend issues, and anxiety about the future, where jazz music, hip hop, R & B, along with poetry readings further emphasize self-expression.  Randall Sisco is a street musician who appears throughout the film, where he acts as a kind of Greek chorus, offering blunt comments on what he observes, while there is also an unusually soulful version of “Caifornia Dreamin” reminiscent of Bobby Womack, Bobby Womack California Dreamin (1968 cover) - YouTube (3:19).  Using a handheld camera by Joe “Jody” Williams throughout, the 16 mm film has a spontaneous feel, where the pace is fast and loose and highly observant, covering a remarkable amount of territory, where the film aesthetic becomes a way of exploring the black experience, enhanced by the authenticity of such well-written, well-developed characters, even those in secondary roles, where the director leads them into inspired monologues, often expressed through long takes, with occasional jump cuts to offer jarring images that express a new experience or idea, becoming a meditation on black identity.  Whether then or now, students are well aware of stereotypes, how black men in particular are pigeonholed into acceptable, non-threatening career choices, where they are forced to follow existing rules and guidelines rather than use their imaginations to invent their own.  Some of the more inspired scenes reveal angered female indignation at the way black men typically mistreat them, where Bert is no different, though he probably realizes afterwards that he deserves a swift kick in the head.  Witty and poignant, the film offers a candid discussion on the black reality, using genuine characters and inspired musical choices, but it’s the poetry that elevates this film to another level, offering several samples from Nita as well as Bert’s final “Resurrection essay,” creating theatrical moments in time that deserve to be treasured and held in posterity.