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Chicago’s Independent Film Community
Keidra Chaney

Chicago International Film Festival
photo: Keidra Chaney
For years, Chicago has struggled against its “Second City” status, particularly when it comes to culture and the arts. Even with world-renowned theaters such as Steppenwolf and Second City, we still stand in the shadow of Broadway; we boast the Museum of the Art Institute and the MCA, but they don’t quite have the name recognition as the Met. Until the past couple of years, the reputation of Chicago’s film industry was no different. With big-budget Hollywood productions like "Batman Begins" and Vince Vaughn’s "The Break-up" coming to town, Chicago is slowly shaking off its reputation as “flyover country.”

But Chicago’s film community has always been a refuge from coastal bias for filmmakers who resist the siren song of Hollywood, as well as a haven for film geeks of all stripes. Growing up in the city in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I got a free education in film criticism before I even got to high school, watching shows like WTTW’s long-running indie film showcase Image Union, or reading Sun Times critic Roger Ebert’s glowing review of the Japanese animated film "My Neighbor Totoro" at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. It’s been this way in Chicago for years, anchored and supported by organizations such as The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Filmmakers, and Facets Multimedia. Chicago’s indie film community has stayed strong, even through the ebb and flow of the city’s commercial film industry. Chicago hosts a variety of independent film festivals throughout the year. Some focus on supporting and nurturing a Chicago-based independent media scene, while others bring the kind of films that would otherwise not make it to Middle America. Some of the local festivals have grown in stature in the past couple of years, but many of the city’s most popular film festivals have been going strong for two or more decades. The success and endurance of Chicago’s film festival circuit proves that you don’t have to leave the Windy City to stay on the cutting edge of independent film.

Several of the city’s most popular festivals (Chicago International Film Festival, Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, and REELING, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival) are taking place this month or in the next few weeks. Read on to find out more about these and other local festivals.

Gene Siskel Film Center
photo: Keidra Chaney
Chicago International Film Festival
October 6-20, 2005
The crown jewel of Chicago’s film festival offerings and the country’s longest running juried festival, the 41st Annual Chicago International Film Festival features two weeks of films from more than thirty countries. Never a festival that’s been known for previewing the “next big thing,” CIFF instead focuses on bringing a mixture of widely anticipated and little-seen narrative and documentary films to the city, including Israeli film Free Zone with Natalie Portman, and Learning to Swallow, a documentary of Chicago performance artist/scenester Patsy Desmond’s battles with manic depression and make a fake onedrug abuse. Recently profiled in the Chicago Reader, Desmond’s story makes for harrowing, compelling cinema. Also check festival listings for panel discussions throughout the city with local and national filmmakers, industry professionals, and film critics/writers; most of the events are free.

Women in the Directors Chair
Women in the Directors Chair is the largest and longest-running film festival in the US geared toward the work of female filmmakers. Arguably, it’s also the most anticipated Chicago-based film festival outside of CIFF. Approaching its 25th anniversary, WIDC has successfully weathered the storm of a particularly nasty economic environment for Chicago non-profit arts organizations. In the past decade WIDC has expanded to include a traveling national tour throughout the year. In keeping with its feminist mission, many of the films screened at WIDC tend to have themes with a social and political bent, including lesbian and transgender filmmakers at the annual ”Dyke Night” program, films from Palestine and the Middle East, and programs focusing on the work of new and up-and-coming media artists and activists, such as local Chicago teen Zaida Sanabia, whose coming-out documentary A Fish (Almost) Eaten By A Shark has screened in several national festivals. In recent years, WIDC has hosted its share of opening events and parties with buzz filmmakers as special guests, including current indie film darling and WIDC veteran Miranda July, who curated and hosted an opening night event at the 2005 festival.

Chicago Underground Film Festival
August (2006 date not yet announced)
The Chicago Underground Film Festival was started in 1993 by Bryan Wendorf, a Columbia College Film student who was impatient with what he saw as the increasing exclusivity of the film festival circuit. CUFF features the type of underground fare often overlooked by more conventional film festivals: politically provocative documentaries, experimental shorts, and occult films. In its early years, it earned a certain infamy by showing “trashy” films (think John Waters and Troma Films)—and even now, a few of the entries will leave you shaking your head, wondering what the selection panel was smoking. But in the past decade or so, the festival has become known as a vehicle for irreverent, provocative work from media makers from around the country, from short documentaries by members of the activist Internet collective to a
screening of ‘80s pulp horror film, Q the Winged Serpent. The festival also hosts lively and off-the-wall festival after-parties, held at various nightspots across the city.

Midwest Independent Film Festival
First Tuesdays of each month, 7:30pm
Century Centre Cinema
2828 North Clark Street
A relative newcomer to the city’s indie film community is the Midwest Independent Film Festival (formerly known as Chicago Community Cinema), which hosts screenings of both local films and productions from outlying states including Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. MIFF has a bit of a reputation as a meeting ground for new and younger film professionals looking for new gigs, so don’t be surprised by the approach of random strangers brandishing business cards, even if you have no connection to “the biz.”

The Chicago International Documentary Festival
March 30-April 8 2007
1112 North Milwaukee Ave.
Often lost in the buzz of larger, more established festivals, The Chicago International Documentary Festival, a juried 10-day event sponsored by the West Town non-profit organization Society For Arts, focuses strictly on non-fiction narrative film from around the world. While normally focused on low-key releases, two years ago the festival scored quite a coup by being one of the first festivals to screen future Oscar nominees Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Red Hot Ballroom—to packed houses, no less. The festival is taking a break next year but is currently accepting submissions for its return in March 2007.

Polish Film Festival in America
November 5-20, 2005

The Chicago Latino Film Festival
April 21-May 4. 2006
Chicago’s ethnic diversity makes the city an ideal host for film festivals with a global reach. The Polish Film Festival in America is sponsored by the Society For Arts (which also sponsors the International Documentary Festival in March) and features two weeks of film and film programming from artists of Polish descent. The Chicago Latino Film Festival, now in its 21st year, has screened hundreds of films from the US and Latin America, and sponsors panels and workshops with filmmakers, media artists, and journalists.

Chicago Filmmakers
5243 N Clark St

Onion City Experimental Film Festival
June (2006 date not yet announced)

REELING, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival
November 3-10, 2005
Not-for-profit organization Chicago Filmmakers has been the backbone of the city’s independent and alternative professional film community for more than thirty years, providing workshops, training, a coop which allows members access to film and video equipment, and a variety of festivals and events that feature the work of burgeoning filmmakers. To showcase these offerings, the Chicago Filmmakers’ Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival focuses on the best in avant-garde film and video from established and up-and-coming artists in documentary, narrative, animated, and short film. REELING, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival is also sponsored by Chicago Filmmakers and is in its 24th year. To keep the festival spirit going all year, the Chicago Filmmakers Distribution Project has a catalog of more than 600 independent films available for rental.

Chicago International Children’s Film Festival
October 27-Nov 6. 2005
Future Filmmakers Festival
June 16-18, 2006
If you’re hoping to nurture your child’s inner film snob, here are a few ways to get started. The Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, sponsored by the not-for-profit film organization Facets Multimedia, has been one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets since the early ‘80s. Film critic Roger Ebert as been a champion of the festival which, in addition to sponsoring screenings of quality animated and live action films from nearly 40 countries, also holds hands-on workshops on animation, music video production, and media literacy. Harry Potter fans in the family (and who isn’t these days?) may want to check out the October 30 screening of live action film Bibi Blocksburg and the Secret of The Blue Owl, Germany’s female answer to the beloved wizard.

For further inspiration or to show off your budding filmmaker’s talent, head to the Chicago Future Filmmakers Festival next spring. Recently upgraded from a regular program at the Chicago International Film Festival to a three-day event, this festival features work from filmmakers under the age of 20, and is currently accepting works from young film auteurs from across the country.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Steppenwolf Theatre Company The Second City

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