If you were to do a city-by-city, screen-by-screen, fest-by-fest, week-by-week comparison of filmgoing cities around the world—which I haven’t done!—Chicago’s day-to-day opportunities to see films that are classic and newborn alike seem unparalleled. The film industry is besieged on every level esthetic and fiscal—Wall Street has lost faith in streaming entities throwing billions in programming at subscribers at a lot of billions of investment; the Writers Guild is on strike for livable wages for its members who create the words behind films, series and streaming originals—but the good stuff, the right stuff, is out there.
Chicago not only has invaluable festivals in the mix, most of them have been sustained for years, even leapfrogging past uncertainty in early pandemic times. This week alone, we get two overlapping, stellar festivals: the eighth edition of the tight ten-film nonfiction showcase, Doc10, at the Davis and Siskel, and the Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box. I posed a couple of questions to Doc10 senior programmer Anthony Kaufman and CCFF producers Brian Tallerico and Erik Childress.
Anthony, a starter—do you have a reflection on the mood of the industry right now, especially as seen through the Doc10 selections? And is it really true that, under current circumstances, with movies like these, you see-’em or you miss-’em?
Kaufman: Yes, even though documentaries have never been better in artistry and compelling storytelling, a lot of the companies that produce and release docs have lost faith in audiences going to see them in theaters. Film festivals like Doc10 remain one of the only places left to experience them fully on the big screen, if at all!
This is especially unfortunate for a lot of Doc10’s films, such as the gorgeously photographed and sound-designed “King Coal” or the stunningly intimate and sharply observed “A Still Small Voice” (both of which have not been acquired despite Sundance acclaim), two films whose artistic and emotional impact is so much better felt in a movie theater. So don’t wait: Get a ticket!
You’re also a programmer for Chicago International and have written about the industry for decades. From those perspectives, do you hold concerns about the livelihood of the industry and events such as this being tenuous?
In short, yes, I think a lot of the filmmaking community, and in particular, nonfiction filmmakers, are worried about the changes happening in distribution and exhibition. Distributors are acquiring fewer films, and documentaries, in particular, are being released in much fewer theaters. But I say two things in response to that. Because of the crisis in acquisitions and distribution, it makes a festival opportunity like Doc10 even more essential—it’s probably the only way to see many of these movies in a theatrical setting, if at all, with great visuals and sound, and the immersive experience they deserve, and bring the community together in a way that is empowering and fun. Plus, when it comes to documentary filmmakers, they’ve never exactly been motivated or dictated by commercial interests, so great documentaries will continue to get made, and documentary filmmakers will continue to persist, aided by grants and the nonprofit world. Just because Netflix and Amazon are less interested now in this year’s Sundance-winning doc about Nikki Giovanni doesn’t really change what Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster are doing or how they’ve been working for the last two decades.
How do these films respond to those concerns?
I think films like “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” or Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “King Coal” or Luke Lorentzen’s “A Still Small Voice,” or frankly, most of the docs in the program, are testaments to the documentary filmmaker’s indefatigable commitment to their craft and their art. These films were made 120 percent according to these filmmakers’ visions, corporate interests be damned. In my curating, writing and teaching, I try to break down the distinction between doc and fiction, and here again, I would point out the fact that the documentaries in Doc10 are as creative, captivating and emotional as any great indie fiction film, and in most cases, willfully don’t conform to the documentary boxes that streaming companies have constructed in the last couple years, such as true crime. Granted, the Michael J. Fox movie is a celebrity doc and “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a kid competition doc, but they’re exceedingly well-crafted additions to these subgenres.
What does this anniversary mean to you and to Doc10?
Well, this is our eighth year, so we’ll see if we can get to ten. When I posted from our packed preview screening of “Little Richard: I Am Everything” [last month] on Facebook and Instagram, I added the caption: “Audiences will see docs in theaters. Really.” People responded to that post across social media, because there’s yearning and hope and belief out there that there is still a theatrical audience for docs and indie films in general. But I agree it’s a confusing time, and I still don’t know whether our theaters will be as crowded this weekend as they were pre-pandemic. Talk to me afterwards and I’ll be able to let you know for sure whether this year’s fest was about sustenance and perseverance!
Do you rely on the support of other festivals, distributors, and a curious, repeat audience?
Those are three different networks. We’ve gotten some promotional support from the Chicago International Film Festival (where, as you know, I also work), and The Nightingale and Chicago Palestine Film Festival have also been kind about helping spread the word. But I would say most festivals are not all that collaborative, because admittedly, everyone is fighting for that elusive theatrical audience and there’s a little competitiveness. As far as distributors, they’ve been helpful, but shockingly, only two films have distributors already in place this year, the Little Richard and Michael J. Fox docs, so I’ve been dealing a lot more this year with the producers and filmmakers directly, and having relationships helped get those films. For instance, we’ve shown Penny Lane and Luke Lorentzen’s films in the past, and the producers of “King Coal” came to the festival last year with “Navalny” and “Fire of Love”—All great people and a joy to have at the festival. As far as the audience and Chicago doc community, we’ll see.
The pandemic really hurt the momentum of the festival, like all theatrical viewing, and last year was very much a transitional one because of lingering COVID concerns, so I think this year will be a true test of our relationship with our audience. But judging from the audiences I’m seeing around town at the Siskel and other special events with filmmakers, I am hopeful.
What threads do you see in the films after all is said and done, a few hours away from opening night?
It’s interesting to think about whether new threads might emerge during the festival after talking with the filmmakers and audiences about the films; but obviously having seen all ten feature docs and thought about them, I already see some throughlines. I do think there is a sense of hope, perseverance, and forward-looking-ness, despite difficult circumstances, that run through the films. You can see it in the lives of Michael J. Fox, Nikki Giovanni, and Little Richard, all incredibly inspiring people who never give up; you can see it in Penny Lane’s look at altruism or the way Elaine Sheldon sees the tensions between our coal-powered past and a different future; or the Syrian women in “Under the Sky of Damascus” trying to change their patriarchal society; or even the young musicians and their teacher in “Going Varsity in Mariachi” who are coming out of the worst and isolating years of the pandemic to come together to make great music that makes their community proud. Personally, I have found the world to be a very difficult place to be in over the last few years, so I think it’s not a surprise that these ten films offer, in very different ways, stories about people that are trying to make our future better or think about it in more positive ways.
The eighth edition of Doc10 runs May 4-7 at the Davis and Siskel. Program, expected guests and tickets here.
Chicago Critics Film Festival
Brian Tallerico and Erik Childress are the producers of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, in its tenth version this time out.
I want to ask both of you, what do you want a tenth anniversary to mark or represent? You’ve shown sustenance and perseverance, but what does it say about the festival? Chicago audiences? The very confusing marketplace right now for seeing movies in theaters, or even getting them into distribution in front of audiences?
Tallerico: The festival has always been about community, connecting film lovers in Chicago with art from around the world. Being able to do that for a decade has had its challenges and rewards, but it feels like it’s even harder to make that connection now than when we began. The market is so fractured now, with more movies going from festivals to streaming services and never playing in a theater again. But that makes our role even more essential. We refuse to give up on the theatrical experience and our regular attendees appreciate that. When we started, I don’t think that we could have predicted that just getting films in front of audiences in a darkened theater would be such a challenge a decade later, but it’s how seriously we take the issue that we continue to persevere.
Childress: It takes more than just a willingness to exist to keep a festival going. Particularly one that is new and run with a skeleton crew as opposed to the millions in backing that the fests you hear about every season get. But for us, it’s more than that. It’s trust. Our audience at the Music Box knows that we deliver a very special program. The number of passholders grows every year, willing to sample everything we put on the menu and the ticket buyers who engage with the opportunity to take maybe their only chance to see some of these films on the biggest screen possible in their hometown.
How much does the distributor’s support mean? Is a lot of it built on relationships, the way you say you’ve established a relationship with an audience? Both know that CCFF is there?
Tallerico: We have had regular studio partners from the beginning, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to A24, IFC and Magnolia, in particular. We simply couldn’t do our fest without them. We have also been lucky enough to partner with Fox Searchlight, Mubi, Music Box Films, NEON and many more this year, one of our most diverse line-ups. I love that we have an award-winning local production like “Waiting for the Light to Change” on the same weekend as the Chicago premieres of films by Paul Schrader and Christian Petzold. Festivals can be great equalizers, and that’s always been essential to our success. The only thing the movies have to have in common is that we like them.
Childress: It means everything. Year one there was a lot of enthusiasm for what we were doing. More than even we dreamed of! But there was also hesitance from certain studios and distributors. Now they all have a conversation with us. Just a couple months before we put on our first festival, a little company named A24 released their first movie. That year we invited James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now” and it was part of our closing night. A24 has given us at least one film for each of our ten years. And those that said no that first year now come to us and let us sample their lineup in between the festivals we attend while we seek out films waiting for a distributor.
Is there any thread—culturally, economically, thematically—that you see in the films now, a week out? Do realizations like that sometimes come afterwards?
Childress: It’s funny how you don’t always put a lineup together based on themes but then you see them unfold right in front of you. What I see this year are a number of films about creation and coming together to make something whole. Our fortieth-anniversary screening of “The Right Stuff” is the embodiment of that. Then I look at our opening-night film, “Blackberry,” about those who created the first smartphone or our closing night selection, “Theater Camp,” which starts as a hilarious collection of teachers and kids struggling to find the right elements for their big show and ultimately coming away with something genuinely sweet and beautiful. Even documentaries we have like “A Disturbance in the Force,” about the making of the “Star Wars Holiday Special” as well as “And The King Said, What A FANTASTIC MACHINE” about our collective obsession with self-documentation and the stamp that unknowingly puts on the world. It all feels like the perfect encapsulation of what we have done with this festival and I could not be more proud of what we have accomplished.
Tallerico: It’s always interesting to look back on a line-up for themes after it’s been programmed. While it may seem hard to find at first, I think this year’s fest takes place at a historical crossroads post-pandemic, where artists are looking back at something that may have been lost in films like “Brooklyn 45,” “Master Gardener” and “Past Lives” while also holding optimism for the future in these films and others. The festival itself is at a crossroads, looking back on ten years of success and considering what happens next, just like so many of our great movies do this year.
The tenth Chicago Critics Film Festival runs May 5-11 at the Music Box; program, expected guests and tickets here.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.