CIFF: Programmers, Critics, and Volunteers talk films, navigating the fest and more


Mary Grace Blake

An interview being conducted at the Music Box theater to kickoff the festivels 58th year.

When it comes to recognizable film festivals, Chicago isn’t always the first city that comes to mind. Though it may be (foolishly) passed over in favor of bigger names like TIFF, Cannes or Sundance, the City of Chicago has long since made its mark in the landscape of film fests. Celebrating its 58th year, the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival — running from Oct. 12 through Oct. 23 — gathers 90 features and 60 shorts from across the globe, giving Chicagoans a chance to widen their cinematic horizons without leaving the comfort of the Windy City. 

Still, despite the fact that there is a world-class international film festival in our backyard, many first-time festival attendees may find the prospect of navigating a festival of CIFF’s magnitude daunting. With such a wide variety of offerings, where does one even attempt to begin? 

According to Sophie Gordon, one of the festival’s programmers, variety is the key to building yourself a great fest.

“Something that I think is a good rule of thumb when going in is, is looking for kind of a balance of larger events,” Gordon said. “Things like tributes, opening/closing night centerpieces, things that have buzzy titles and fun guests, but mixing that with films that you might not have heard of or that might surprise you.” 

Luckily for Gordon, building a diverse schedule with plenty of variety is easy when the Chicago International Film Festival boasts 14 unique programs, all structured around a common trait. Eye-catching programs from this year’s fest include OutLook, dedicated to highlighting the works of LGBTQ+ filmmakers After Dark, the festival’s late-night horror titles; Women in Film; and City & State, which is  “Competing for the Chicago Award — a showcase of the year’s best stories and brightest talents from our own backyard,” according to the festival screening guide.

It is not often that a film festival programs a category specifically to highlight films that come out of its home city or state.

“I think Chicago’s film and film community is one that continues to grow but has had a long standing history here,” Gordon said. “It has a really unique quality as Chicago being one of the largest cities in the U.S. and yet having a very different feel in terms of the film and the television made here.”

Marya E. Gates, a recent Chicago transplant from California and a new member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, emphasized the scrappiness and the individuality of the Chicago film scene: 

“It really is less about the industry, less about the awards, and more about pure love of cinema,” Gates said. “I think you see that in the festival’s lineup. No one here is making a film to audition to make a Marvel movie next. Maybe it’s a Midwest spirit sort of thing, but they’re proud of their culture and being not New York. They’re not trying to make films to get somewhere else. They’re trying to make films about Chicago, because it’s Chicago.”

In addition to a unique and thriving local film scene highlighted by the “City & State” program, the Chicago International Film Festival also carves out a significant chunk of its programming space for international titles, which Gordon says is a key part of what helps the festival thrive.

“I primarily work on international features and within the international program,” Gordon said. “There’s so many beautiful gems in there that are first time feature filmmakers or new voices that are coming to us in Chicago from around the world, and so that’s what I really encourage audiences to explore the most.”

Gates also emphasized the importance of exploring and supporting international features while they’re at the fest. For many smaller and independent films, a slot at the Chicago Film Festival is one of few chances to screen theatrically in the United States. 

“‘The Whale’ is going to be released,” Gates said. “You’ll have another chance to see that. But some of these other titles, especially international titles, and especially international titles directed by women, this might be your one chance.”

When it comes to independent films and international releases (which tend to comprise a vast majority of film festival programming) a theatrical or North American release is never a guarantee. For many viewers, the Chicago International Film Festival is the only chance to catch smaller (but no less worthwhile titles) in a proper theater.

“Films directed by women, still even American films, are less likely to get distribution. International films directed by women are far less likely to break out. The odds of you getting to see it in a theater are diminishing, so that’s a category I think you should take advantage of while it’s here. Those films deserve to be seen on the big screen.”

Beyond eye-catching titles and specifically programmed highlights, much of how a film can find success around a festival is on the strength of word-of-mouth, so getting the opinion of attendees, especially first-timers, is crucial.

Gillian Hadding, a DePaul student and first-time festival attendee/volunteer, highlighted a title she’s most looking forward to. 

“I have a bunch of vouchers that I’m excited to redeem, and after hearing reviews from a bunch of other people, I’m seeing ‘Runner’ tomorrow,” Hadding said. “I really like that it was part of the Women in Cinema, I wanted to support that program. But it also just looked interesting to me; I love films in the coming of age genre.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a film recommendation from a programmer with Gordon’s knowledge of the festival is an equally useful tool in navigating the fest. When asked for specific title recommendations, Gordon highlighted a female-directed Mexican/Peruvian horror film “Huesera.”

“This is from first time feature film director Michelle Garcia Severa,” Gordon said. “The film follows Valeria, who after many years of trying is finally pregnant… The film is a remarkably effective and unsettling horror film in its own right, but it is especially compelling in its honesty and its intimacy in portraying this one woman’s struggle with society, societal pressures around pregnancy and around motherhood.”

Despite all the good word-of-mouth in the world, Gates made sure to emphasize the importance and the surprising beauty of being willing to take a chance on the totally unknown. 

“Just randomly show up to a movie,” Gates said. “I’ve randomly done that before. Sometimes, I don’t recognize any titles, but I just go. The best movie I’ve ever seen at a film festival, I found that way.”

For more information about the Chicago International Film Festival, and to get tickets, moviegoers can visit the festival website