by Kyle Sanders
Every year, it's a guessing game. Those eyes--those wide, darkened pupils--belong to someone but I can't figure it out who. Do they belong to Bridgette Bardot? Catherine Deneuve? Marlene Dietrich? Or how about Jeanne Moreau? Giuletta Masina? Anna Magnani? The longer I stare, the more impatient my questions become: WHO'S EYES DO YOU BELONG TO? WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN? WHAT STORIES CAN YOU TELL?!
In case I've completely lost you, I'm referring to the eyes that have become synonymous with the Chicago International Film Festival, an annual celebration of foreign film that was held at the AMC River East Theater in downtown Chicago October 17th through the 27th. The festival's alluring logo features a set of soft, mesmerizing eyes belonging to a feminine black and white shape.
This set of eyes suggests to hold plenty of life experiences, such as love, hope, and desire, much like my own eyes or even yours. It's why I come to this event every year--to see these familiar stories told from another set of eyes in a different world unlike my own.
I have seen a lot of movies, more so than the average movie enthusiast. I own a book entitled 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and so far I've seen 700 of those titles (plus hundreds of others not included on that list), and at least half of them have been foreign films. Within the past ten years, I've become comfortably acquainted with the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michael Powell, Satyajit Ray, Agnes Varda, Peter Weir, Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Almodovar, Michelangelo Antonioni, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, and countless others.
While I feel like I've reached the point of desensitization, I still yearn to find a film that will enthrall me, leave me motionless in my seat as the end credits roll, numb to the visceral feeling I've just experienced. The CIFF is where I come to fulfill such hopes, and more often than not, that mission is accomplished. The best part about the CIFF is the audience: film lovers young and old (mostly old) who talk about nothing other than their love of film, conversations that rattle on 450 words per minute. Yes, the extensive ramblings of the film lover can sometimes be tedious and annoying, but one thing is for certain: they know to shut the hell up once the movie starts rolling, and remain silent until the lights go up.
This year was no different. I found myself arriving earlier than usual, because for once I was seeing a film that was in actual competition: Paradise. I arrived about an hour and a half early to ensure I got a ticket. I was only the second person to stand in line, behind what appeared to be a graduate assistant toiling away at grading papers, and in front of an older mother/daughter duo prattling on in what sounded like Polish. As the line began extending beyond its control, the ushers finally unhooked the red velvet rope, and allowed us in to find that prime spot in the theater.
Paradise is a film collaboration between Russia and Germany, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and tells the intertwining tales of three characters during World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe. We are introduced to Jules, a French policeman who finds and convicts members of the Resistance, Helmut, a young German SS officer naively believing in the Nazi movement, and Olga, a Russian aristocrat who gets arrested for hiding Jews and is sent to a concentration camp. All three recount their stories facing the camera, addressing the audience with explanations to their convictions while in flashbacks we see how their lives become intersected at one fateful moment. These three characters are fleshed out through bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, garnering sympathy for their motives and the choices that they've made, chillingly unfolded in brilliant black and white.
When it comes to German and Russian films, I've seen my fair share. From the striking, surreal imagery of Fritz Lang and Werner Herzog, to the cold, calculated editing styles of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein. So naturally, with both of those worlds combined to produce a story set during the Holocaust, I wasn't exactly anticipating what I was about to see with excitement and joy. Yet Paradise combines the best of those worlds: There's a haunting, ghastly scene involving Helmut in the woods. As a fog surrounds him, he hears muffled screams nearby, while dark figures walk around aimlessly--symbolic ghosts of the committed crimes his foolish ambitions have blinded him from seeing.
It's a haunting scene, reminding us of the horrendous violence that happened that refuses to be ignored. In an earlier scene, Jules takes his wife from the kitchen into their bedroom to share a quick intimate moment--while the camera remains motionless; the lens never flinches away from the passionate moment happening in the background, not completely in view yet not invisible. It's a long and unblinking cut, voyeuristic in its execution. As any film involving the Holocaust, Paradise doesn't shy away from the desperation of those who lived it. When an elderly Jewish prisoner finally collapses to her death, Olga and the other women fight like rabid animals over who will get her shoes and clothes. Considering what we've come to understand about the Holocaust and the stories we've been told, the film presents these stark scenes not as shocking but as sympathetic, as a means of survival in a camp where dread looms at every corner.
As an avid film lover, I've seen my fair share of Holocaust tales. Most are typically bleak (Sophie's Choice, anyone?) others somewhat inspiring (Schindler's List, The Pianist) and some are just downright questionable (Life is Beautiful, a Holocaust "comedy" that somehow won Best Foreign Film in 1998). This film ranks in the former, providing multiple points of view where the audience gets a perspective from all sides. From those who were responsible (Helmut), to those who were punished (Olga) and to those who were just trying to stay out of danger (Jules). Needless to say (and without spoiling the film), the ending won't be tagged under "the feel good movie of the year" category anytime soon. However, the competent performances and breathtaking cinematography are absolutely fantastic, and contribute to the canon of a moment in our history we allowed to happen and will never be able to forget. It also doesn't hurt that this film ended up winning the "Founder's Award" at the film festival, which is given to the film that best captures the spirit of the CIFF for its unique and innovative approach to the art of the moving image.
What's great about the CIFF is that all of their international stories are told from a variety of different voices, including those voices of the LGBT community. This year's festival was no different, providing a dozen entries of queer cinema, including the French film Being 17.
Set in the scenic French Pyrenees, this coming-of-age film focuses on two high school boys, Damien and Thomas, who form an unlikely bond when circumstances force one of them to live with the other during the school semester. From the beginning, the two share an intense animosity towards one another, from humiliations in the classroom to shoving matches in the gym. Damien and Thomas could not be any different either: one born into good circumstances with caring, financially well-off parents, while the other adopted by a couple unsuccessful at conceiving. While Damien is picked up from school daily by his supportive mother and spends his leisure time learning how to fight with his veteran neighbor, Thomas is commuting back and forth to school during the day and managing the family's farm in the evening. When Thomas' mother successfully conceives after year of miscarriages, he begins to feel threatened, and resents the doting love that Damien receives. It's painfully clear there is tension between these two hormonal teenagers; however, that tension is slowly relieved as unexpected emotions begin to overwhelmingly confuse each boy, building to a complicated relationship that will eventually lead to passionate fruition.
While this film is part of the "Out-Look" selection this year, Being 17 seemed less "queer cinema" and more "coming-of-age drama." Unlike most of the international films I've seen that I would categorize in the LBGT genre--Happy Together, Bad Education, the films of Derek Jarman, etc.--director Andre Techine's handling of the subject matter allows more focus on the theme of adolescence-into-adulthood, which then gives way to the boys growing attraction for one another.
There is nothing generic or stereotypical to this love story. Though there are subtle hints of Damien's sexual interests--a David Bowie poster, reading passages from Plato's Symposium, the "girlish" grunts he lets out when attacking a punching bag--the film doesn't throw every gay teen cliche at the screen. It's even more refreshing to see how Damien's mother reacts to her son's coming out moment: intimate in its framing yet progressively casual in execution. The film also benefits from the talents of its two male leads. Both actors' chemistry is palpable, as their attraction and aggression towards one another keeps the drama flowing and burns a hole through the two hour running time. Being 17 showcases the growing pains of adolescence, revealing the elegant dance between maturity and masculinity, leaving a hopeful ending of better days to come.
Like all good things, the Chicago International Film Festival must come to an end. After numerous premieres, interviews, and awards handed out, the entries of this year's festival must move on, seeking further cinematic outlets and continuing to stir global buzz. As much as I would like to see every single film the fest has to offer, the commitment to such a task would be daunting (after all, I still have about 300 films left to see on an already staggering to-do list!). But even if time constraints and a modest budget limit you to seeing just one film at CIFF, it's always worth it to see a familiar story through the eyes of a foreign storyteller. Until next October, see you at the movies!