The Chicago International Film Festival Celebrates 51 years

| October 16, 2015

The Chicago International Film Festival kicked off its 51st edition with the critically-acclaimed Opening Night Presentation of Mia Madre at the historic Auditorium Theatre with a celebratory cocktail reception immediately following at the Wit hotel on the evening of October 15th. Audiences at the theatre were treated to a special musical performance by Chicago’s own Terisa Griffin, who competed on season three of NBC’s The Voice, as well as a sneak peek of anticipated highlights of the upcoming Festival, running through October 29 at the AMC River East 21 Theaters. The Festival brings an international selection of more than 150 feature films, documentaries, and short films from over 50 countries, including world and US premieres all with visiting directors to Chicago from around the globe.

Drawing an expansive crowd of partygoers including local Chicago and international filmmakers, celebrities, socialites, sponsors, board members, and film enthusiasts, guests mingled and sipped champagne and craft cocktails while enjoying sumptuous hors d’oeuvres as they engaged in lively discussion about the Festival’s slate of a critically acclaimed films and its well respected filmmakers.

“This is a ‘Director’s Festival’ and the filmmakers are our STARS!” said Festival Founder & Artistic Director Michael Kutza. “From the very beginning of the festival 51 years ago, we have been discovering the next great talents in cinema from around the world.”

Here are a few synopses of some films that stood out for me in initial festival promotions.

James White: In this Sundance-winning drama, James is an emotionally unstable young New Yorker processing the recent death of his long-absent father. His mother, a cancer survivor who raised him from a young age, falls terminally ill. With an immersive filmmaking style putting us inside James’s head, this raw, affecting film features a revelatory lead performance from Christopher Abbott, with Cynthia Nixon as his ailing mother. This is a great film that also stars Cleveland rapper Kid Cudi (Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi), who is also credited with the music. I might add that the soundtrack for this film includes songs by Billie Holiday and Ray Charles.

Cronies: A decade-old tragedy casts a dark shade over the drug-fueled wanderings of a young father, his troublemaking childhood pal, and his new (white) friend over the course of a single summer’s day in St. Louis. With its blend of black-and-white cinematography, documentary-style interviews, and day-in-the-life naturalism, this Spike Lee-produced dramedy presents a refreshingly candid and honest portrait of life in the hood. It would seem weird that two buddies would hang together, after one had murdered the other’s father. But this situation is totally examined during the doc interviews in this film.

Selections in the Festival’s City and State Program, which is sponsored by Whole Foods Market and KIND Snacks, features narrative, documentary and short films that celebrate Illinois’ rich filmmaking tradition and showcases the best films with Illinois roots.

“Each year the films in consideration for the Chicago Award get more competitive and we are thrilled to present such a large number of quality locally-produced works,” says Kutza. “For the Festival, it’s very exciting to showcase this wave of Chicago and Illinois-based filmmaking that cannot be ignored.”

Breakfast At Ina’s: Famous for its Heavenly Hots (pancakes topped with fruit compote), Ina’s was a Chicago breakfast institution. Every customer received a warm welcome from proprietor and chef Ina Pinkney, the “Breakfast Queen.” After 33 years in the restaurant business, Pinkney retired in 2013. Following the restaurant’s final month, Breakfast at Ina’s celebrates a beloved Chicago eatery and a woman who achieved her dream against the odds.

A Light Beneath Their Feet: In a commanding performance, Taryn Manning (“Orange is the New Black”) plays an Evanston mother, wrestling with bipolar disorder and an imminent empty nest. Dedicated daughter Beth has a bright future ahead, but must decide if she will stay near home to care for her unpredictable mom or follow her own path. Emotionally raw and bracingly honest, this coming-of-age drama balances the pull of family obligation against personal aspirations. This film pulled at my heartstrings; the issue of mental health is so prevalent.

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows: Velvet-voiced soul singer Syl Johnson struggled for decades before leaving the biz in the 1980s to open a Chicago fried-fish chain. Since then, he’s become one of the most-sampled artists in hip-hop. With a lively soundtrack, this buoyant world premiere documentary celebrates one man who can’t stop the music.

For Grace: After cooking his way through Chicago’s top kitchens, renowned Chef Curtis Duffy begins plans for his dream establishment, Grace. A delicious look at what it takes to build one of the world’s greatest restaurants, and the complex story of a man forging a new future out of his traumatic past.

There is also the widely anticipated Black Perspectives Program, which is part of the CIFF. The Black Perspectives Committee is made up of a group of professionals dedicated to promoting and supporting the films and events of the Black Perspectives Program. Founded in 1997 through collaboration with acclaimed director Spike Lee, the Black Perspectives Program showcases a wide range of films by African Americans and Black filmmakers from all nations as well as films that deal with issues of significance to these communities. The films, from local Chicago films to as far away as Ethiopia, represent distinct approaches to filmmaking and diverse worldviews.

In tandem with the films, the Program presents master classes and panel discussions that cover both film-related topics of concern to African American and Black filmmakers today, as well as social issues significant to these communities in Chicago. Each year, the Black Perspectives Program pays tribute to an actor or filmmaker who has made outstanding contributions to the cinematic arts. Past honorees include George Tillman, Jr., Viola Davis, Anthony Mackie, Pam Grier, Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, HalleBerry, Charles Dutton, Irma P. Hall, Robert Townsend, Terrence Howard, Ruby Dee, Jeffrey Wright and Sidney Poitier.

For more information about the Black Perspectives Program and this year’s awardee, as well as information about the film festival, visit

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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