CIFF finale: Pepper Land wins Gold Hugo

The festival concluded two frenzied weeks of screenings by awarding prizes to films from over seven different countries, showing that it really is committed to keeping the “international” in Chicago International Film Festival.

By Robert Sorrell

The 49th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) wrapped up last Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre with a screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which won the prestigious Grand Prix at Cannes this summer. Over 4,000 miles away from the French Riviera, after two frenzied autumn weeks of screenings, the Chicago International Film Festival had a few awards of its own to present.

The Festival’s highest prize, the Gold Hugo for Best Film, went to My Sweet Pepper Land, a film set in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that turns a playful eye to mavericks who fight against stifling social norms. The film, which also garnered a nod in the Un Certain Regard competition section at Cannes, struck critics due to its stark beauty and inventive play on genres, turning the American “Western” on its head. The Verdict (Jan Verheyen) and Just a Sigh (Jérome Bonnell) scored the Silver Hugo Special Jury Prize and Best Director, respectively. Films from around the world made strong showings in the competition as well, as works from Mexico, Poland, China, Brazil, Kenya, and Israel nabbed prizes.

The winner of the Docufest Competition, and my favorite film, was the enigmatic, playful Trucker and The Fox (Arash Lahooti, Iran). Clocking in at only 78 minutes, this documentary punches above its weight class, balancing humor and solemnity to craft a surprisingly affecting portrait of filmmaker, trucker, and animal lover Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani.

New to the festival this year was the Q Hugo, an award for films in the OUT-Look competition section focusing on LGBTQ themes. It is unclear what place the new category will take in the festival, and also what it will mean for Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival, which after a hiatus in 2012 will run its 31st festival November 7–14. Reeling is currently the second longest–running LGBT festival in the world, and this year will showcase over 40 films at seven different venues throughout the city including the Music Box Theatre, Block Cinema, and the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The CIFF has also been around the block a couple times. At 49, it is the longest-running film festival in North America, yet many Chicagoans aren’t aware of the Chicago International Film Festival’s place in film lore. In 1967, the festival famously introduced the world to an unknown New York director, Martin Scorsese, whose first film I Call First (now entitled Who’s That Knocking at My Door), won top prize among the festival’s lineup of around 60 international films. Other notable finds include Wim Wenders (of Paris, Texas and Buena Vista Social Club fame), whose 1974 film Alice in der Städten was nominated for the Gold Hugo. Wenders went on to garner nominations for the Gold Hugo in 1975 and 1976, when he won for Im Lauf der Zeit. And the festival hasn’t been idle since, as it has expanded yearly and found a base at AMC River East.

So far, there hasn’t been much chatter about next year’s festival, but as the CIFF turns 50 and Chicago’s film status still rides high on the shoulders of cinema giant Roger Ebert (X ’70), film lovers will definitely be in for a treat next fall. Though the festival has almost gone under many times, most notably in 1973 when the University of Chicago stepped in and held festival screenings on campus, the CIFF of 2013 has friends in high places and a stability only afforded to the world’s elite art festivals. And if there’s one thing that the film industry does quite well, it’s throw a party. Next fall, show up early for tickets, but pack your dancing shoes; you’ll need something more than a $7 Coke to celebrate 50 years with the CIFF.