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A Conversation with Gabe Klinger About CIFF

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 12, 2010 6:00PM

2010_10_11CIFF2010.jpg I love the Chicago International Film Festival. This is my fourth year covering the festival for Chicagoist, but I've been going practically every year since I moved to Chicago in 1993. I've seen some amazing films at CIFF, and the chance to gorge myself on all different kinds of films is something I always look forward to.

But CIFF has problems. Naturally no film festival is perfect, nor can it be all things to all people. However it seems that the same annoyances and missed opportunities reappear every October, and the festival seems unable or unwilling to address them. Judging from the responses to my open letter to CIFF a few seasons ago, I'm hardly alone in my view that a world-class city like Chicago deserves a world-class international film festival. And as much as I enjoy CIFF, it has not earned that description.

Gabe Klinger
is something of an enfant terrible among local film programmers and cinema thinkers. He's no stranger to the inner workings of the film festival world. And he doesn't mince words when talking about them. In addition to teaching film classes at National-Louis University and Columbia College, he's also organized screenings of cinema rarities, interviewed numerous filmmakers and has extensive involvement in film festivals worldwide. This year he was a member of the critic's jury at the Cannes Film Festival. He's also juried at CIFF, organized discussions for the festival and moderated Q&A sessions for various visiting filmmakers.

We had a candid discussion about CIFF, its past, present, and future, and what the function of a film festival should be.

Rob: Let’s start with the positive and work our way down to the negative. What do you think CIFF does well?

Gabe: It shows a dozen films every cinephile in Chicago should see. These are the typical ones on all the lists: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, My Joy, Certified Copy--

R: Uncle Boonmee was wonderful.

G: Yes! It's great that's here. I hear the two screenings are already sold out. But that's okay, since Strand is releasing the film.

R: CIFF always has the best Romanian films--they're been keeping abreast with the Romanian New Wave. Tuesday, After Christmas. If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Police, Adjective last year.

G: CIFF seems to have good relationships with Nordic countries, with Hungary, Poland, and a few other places. They seem to have carte-blanche with the cultural agencies that diffuse films from certain national destinations. Their problem is with a lot of other national cinemas.

R: Yes. Why no films from India in the festival? Or the Philippines? And only a single film from South Korea?

G: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Poland, Hungary, Brazil are examples of countries that have what they call national cinema agencies. These are funded by the government with the initiative to offer films to as many festivals as possible. South Korea has a national cinema agency. As far as I know, India and the Philippines do not. A festival like Rotterdam sends out its programming delegates to these countries to meet filmmakers face to face. They have an extraordinary budget to do this. As far as I'm aware, CIFF doesn't have the budget to fly its programmers around the world. However, they could hire an outside curator to make informed selections about some of these national cinemas in order to be as inclusive as possible, especially if there are interesting movements happening within those national cinemas.

R: More than that, one of my biggest problems with CIFF is its insistence on giving screen space to mainstream films that everyone will be able to see anyway. The most galling example this year is Red, which is showing at CIFF a mere two days before it goes into wide release!

G: A festival has to balance art and commerce. Working with distributors and sales companies to help launch a film at a festival can lead to good things. For example, the distributor might see it as an opportunity to gain advance buzz on a film. To gain positive reviews. And red carpet images that will appear on Entertainment Tonight. A festival lends an air of legitimacy to a film.

R: And I’d say that the reverse is also true--these “high profile” Hollywood films lend legitimacy to CIFF. That’s the thinking behind these choices. It has to be. I mean, why else would Stone be chosen as the Opening Night feature? And why else would Ron Howard be awarded a lifetime achievement award by Cinema/Chicago?

This sort of pandering to the studios baffles me. The way it works, CIFF should be catering to smaller distributors and sales companies.

R: Is it just too much work, or does it go against their philosophy?

G: The problem with CIFF is that the programmers have little clout. What is their bargaining position? How can they create leverage? Well, a market festival like Cannes or Toronto has plenty of leverage from the simple fact that they work hard to create the conditions for international distributors to be able to access a large quantity of films that they might like to purchase. As a result, filmmakers come to Cannes and Toronto because they want their work to be distributed and they know that if they promote their films they will have a better chance of that. It's a Faustian bargain. No director that I've ever talked to likes doing press junkets for their films. On the other hand, filmmakers love traveling to cinephile-friendly festivals because they are engaged in an intellectual discussion with people who care about the craft and artistry behind the work, and aren't interested in the industry. If a filmmaker is interested in coming to a festival, you can bet nine times out of ten that their film will be programmed at that festival. This is a strategy that a festival builds with filmmakers and artists on an individual basis. This is why important non-market festivals like the Vienna International Film Festival and the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema are successful: because filmmakers want to go to these events. They think they're cool. They want to be seen there. The result is that it can enrich a city's culture to have such a large concentration of great artists in one place at a particular time.

R: Well, it’s the same reason that bands like to play in Chicago, or comedians like to do shows here--Chicago itself is such a cool place that people just want to come here.

G: Rotterdam, FIDMarseille and other festivals have a production market in which filmmakers are selected to come from around the world to pitch their projects to producers and financiers. This is an alternative to the market model. One might call it the production model. Chicago is neither a market festival nor a production festival. So why should filmmakers come here? Chicago has to offer up some kind of incentive. But, if you ask me, they continually fail to do so. CIFF is known, based on the interactions that I've had with various filmmakers over the years, as not being an intellectually engaging festival for visiting filmmakers. They have receptions and parties in sterile, corporate-type places that are completely disconnected from the real arts communities of Chicago.

R: For sure. I mean, the filmmakers come here, to CIFF, and they basically see an airport, a limo, a hotel, a multiplex, the hotel again. They’re not really seeing Chicago at all. They’re not interacting with Chicagoans really.

G: And anyway, the festival is not reaching out to independent programmers, critics and other arts community leaders to be involved. So visiting filmmakers never get to engage with these types of people. To add insult to injury, the members of the festival's smaller juries, who are sometimes arts community leaders, are rarely invited to social events. CIFF doesn't even invite any of its volunteers to their parties. This year they're holding a bunch of panels on important subjects. But they made the huge mistake of having these occur in a noisy bowling alley!

R: Right--I mean, okay, Lucky Strike is right there at River East, but really, is that a good place to have a film panel discussion? Uh, no.

G: How do they not foresee this type of problem? Filmmakers will walk away--and have walked away--from CIFF with a bad taste in their mouth.

R: Moving on, the lack of any sort of retrospective sidebars irks me. But on the other hand I can picture them thinking, "Well, Chicago has plenty of institutions like the Siskel and Doc Films that are already doing that, so why should we?" And perhaps likewise for avant-garde cinema.

G: It's a complicated question and one that merits further reflection. I'm sure that that is and has always been CIFF's programming philosophy. Why should we do that when other institutions in Chicago are already filling in the gap? It's a valid question, and here's my response: A non-market festival like CIFF's primary function is creating a dialogue about the history of cinema. They may not know this, the audience may not know this, but that is the primary function of any film event. CIFF markets itself as an international festival. This means that they will be more visible than other, smaller festivals such as the Chicago Underground FIlm Festival and the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival. It's a lofty expectation to have, but with their budget, their visibility, and their potential to make waves not just locally but at an international level, I believe it's their responsibility to position important film restorations at their event, to have some kind of retrospective presence. And the lack of any avant-garde presence certainly leaves big gaps for other programmers to fill, but wouldn't it be wonderful to have James Benning and Ken Jacobs here side-by-side with Kiarostami and Weerasethakul?

R: I remember a time, not that long ago really, when CIFF was partially held at the Music Box. And I went to see a film there, and afterwards there was a Q & A with the filmmaker. It lasted maybe 20 minutes and then they had to clear the theatre for the next show. And the filmmaker said to the audience, "If anyone would like to continue this discussion, why don't we all go down the street to Cafe Avanti?" And by gum, some people did. I especially remember the discussion with Bela Tarr at the Fine Arts after Satantango ... there was nothing rushed about it, and there was a genuine back and forth. Well, I miss moments like that.

G: Unfortunately, that happens at most festivals. It's true that the Music Box--both the place and the neighborhood--seem more conducive to that type of interaction.

R: It seems like moments such as these are rarer and rarer. It's all about, well, we need to move things along in order to clear the theater; and, well, these are celebrities, we can't allow them to mix with the audience, and so on. Having everything at AMC River East is convenient but in a way it’s too convenient. It doesn’t encourage you to slow down, linger, digest what you’ve seen.

G: Right. The idea of moving everything to one venue may be convenient, but convenience shouldn't be a priority. Making the AMC a one-stop shop for festival cinema is appealing, especially to pass holders who pay a lot of money and may want to get the most for their buck without having to commute back and forth between venues. But there's another price to paid, a much more important price. You know, the socializing will happen one way or another. I'm more concerned about Michael Kutza and his organization continually alienating nearly every other film venue and film institution in Chicago in favor of a flavorless, antiseptic multiplex. Chicago's theaters are part of its culture, and when you're not willing to work with or be inclusive in some way of places like the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Music Box--well, you're losing something. You're losing neighborhoods, too. River North is not a neighborhood any of us feel very attached to. I don't anyway.

R: It’s a "neutral" location ... I suppose that's how CIFF sees it.

G: Neutrality is pretty boring. The festival has no ambition to reach out to Wicker Park or Pilsen art galleries for example to host film-related events. Neighborhoods are practically excised.

R: You’ve written before, "I'm convinced our city deserves a better international film festival. And I don't know what we can do about it." So, what do we do? Do we just say, well, CIFF can't be all things to all people?

G: It's a good question. I suppose some of us could reach out to the Board Members. Everyone who works for CIFF has a livelihood they're trying to protect, so when criticisms are hurled their way, they usually don't take them lightly and try to answer diplomatically. The problem is that I sense from CIFF staffers a total and utter lack of interest in anything film or art-related going on in our city outside of CIFF. If a meaningful discussion is to happen, CIFF's staff first needs to learn more about what other programmers are doing, what critics are writing and lecturing about, and so on. An informed critical viewpoint is not reflected in their programming. If it was, it would show. But CIFF exists in a bubble.

R: I don’t know. It seems like basically we can either praise and support those things about CIFF that are great; we can boycott CIFF, which is silly; or I guess Chicago cinephiles can continue doing what they do the rest of the year: program and screen and watch the films that CIFF doesn't want to show or won’t take the initiative to show. Places like the Siskel, Doc Films, Facets--

G: Yes, we have to begin to offer the alternatives. Because I don't think The Nightingale, Cinema Borealis or Chicago Filmmakers are even on their radar. I personally am not boycotting the festival, but as I was organizing my schedule for October, I realized that I would be spending zero time at CIFF. I mean, there are too many other interesting film screenings going on around town. There's Marty Rubin's great Raoul Walsh retrospective, Stan Brakhage films being shown at Doc, the annual Iranian Film Festival (this year's line-up is full of treasures), not to mention great runs and one-offs at the Music Box and Block Cinema.

R: But, just to play devil's advocate for a minute, isn't part of CIFF's mission to bring members of the public to the theater to see movies they wouldn't usually see? I mean, non-cinephiles, just your average joe kind of moviegoer.

G: Marketing is marketing. You can always try to sell films to a larger audience. The problem at CIFF has to do with its base programming. It's not inclusive enough, it's not creative, it's not doing anything that really calls attention to serious film folks around the world. Having an informed audience who come from a cinema background helps a festival a lot though. It brings a lot of legitimacy to an event like CIFF. These cinephiles are communicating with other cinephiles around the world. Some of those cinpehiles even run film companies or make films that CIFF might want to court or have at their festival in some years. It all goes back to what they're able to program.

R: In other words, by aiming for the middle, CIFF is missing out on the chance to take things to a higher level. By kissing up to the big studios and their mainstream-friendly product they’re dooming their chances at ever showcasing the kinds of essential new films that the New York Film Festival and Toronto, for example, snag every year.

G: Yes. Yes. This year, for example, the new films by Jean-Luc Godard, Jia Zhang-ke, Manoel de Oliveira, Raul Ruiz, Abdelatif Kechiche, Olivier Assayas, Kelly Reichardt, Xavier Beauvois, Lee Chang-dong, Aleksei Fedorchenko, Takeshi Kitano, Hong Sang-soo, Patricio Guzman, Errol Morris, Jerzy Skowlimowski, Marco Bellocchio, Catherine Breillat, Jan Svankmajer, Naomi Kawase and Frederick Wiseman are not in the festival. I’m sure the festival attempted to get many of these. In most cases, however, there is no reason a sales company is willing to have their films play here if they don’t see any exciting opportunities for them. Likely the festival would be able to re-brand itself and appeal to a certain contingency if it threw its efforts that way.

R: This is a bit of a touchy subject here in the Chicago film community, but, to phrase it delicately, I doubt that few people would argue that Michael Kutza is the source of practically everything that's either good or bad about CIFF.

G: Kutza's been there too long. There needs to be a different vision for the festival. Times change and Kutza's vision is a bit antiquated. Change is good. The festival board needs to see this. I don’t have anything against him personally, but there is an element of denial that everything is perfectly fine. Everyone knows--it’s the elephant in the room--this is simply not the case.