American Utopia screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-In on Thursday, October 15 at 7 PM as part of CIFF.

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be able to see Spike Lee’s American Utopia—a filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway show—at a drive-in theater, I’d have said, “Cool!” If someone had also told me I’d be doing so because a global pandemic had temporarily decimated the communal moviegoing experience, making drive-ins the only safe way to see a film on the big screen with other people in the immediate vicinity, I’d have said, “. . . oh.”

But so it goes, and here we are. It’s true that audiences will be able to see the Chicago premiere of American Utopia, along with seven other films, at the ChiTown Movies drive-in (2343 S. Throop) as part of this year’s 56th Chicago International Film Festival. These events show how the organizers are making the best of a not-so-great situation, creating experiences that are on par with those of the festival’s in-person editions—and, in many ways, altogether different. I caught up with the festival’s artistic director, Mimi Plauche, to chat about the festival and what it’ll be like in this pandemic year, even for those outside the city. (Full disclosure before we go any further: I did a bit of prescreening for this year’s festival and last year served on the Narrative Shorts Jury.)

“The one thing about this year’s festival is that it’s going to be a completely new and fresh and hopefully innovative experience for audiences,” says Plauche. “One of the aspects of online that we’re really embracing is this question of accessibility. You don’t have to be in Chicago to experience the festival. For most of the films in the program, they’ll be available nationally, with a limited number being available to Illinois and the surrounding states. It’s a great opportunity, I think, to reach new audiences and to bring that festival experience to people who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity to see the films and hear from filmmakers.”

This year’s festival, which takes place from October 14-25, includes 58 feature-length films (seven of which are world premieres) and 56 short films spanning nine shorts programs. In addition to American Utopia, films playing at the drive-in include the festival’s opening night selection, R.J. Cutler’s documentary Belushi, about the legendary Chicago-born comedian; Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked, copresented with the Music Box Theatre as part of their Music Box of Horrors at the Drive-In event; Bad Hair, a horror-satire from Justin Simien (Dear White People) that costars Chicago native Lena Waithe; Francis Lee’s eagerly anticipated Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet ​and​ Saoirse Ronan​; the world premiere of The Road Up, a new documentary from Louder Than a Bomb directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel; and the Chicago premieres of Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami​, and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, the follow-up to her 2017 breakout The Rider, also the festival’s closing-night presentation. (Note that some of these films are only playing at the drive-in, while some will be available virtually as well.)

And there are many more films that are available to screen online. The Masters program includes Christian Petzold’s Undine, Hong Sangsoo’s The Woman Who Ran, Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, François Ozon’s Summer of ’85, Daniele Luchetti’s The Ties, and Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil. The documentary selection, curated by senior programmer Anthony Kaufman (who also programs the U.S. indies and the Industry Days events), is especially exciting this year, with Steve James’s City So Real—including the world premiere of its never-before-seen fifth episode—Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, and documentaries about such luminaries as Del Close (Heather Ross’s For Madmen Only), Greta Thunberg (Nathan Grossman’s I Am Greta), and Stanley Kubrick (Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick). With the Chicago premiere of his new documentary, Notturno, Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) will receive the festival’s Artistic Achievement Award.

“We still will have those bigger titles, as always, but . . . I think about the festival’s 56-year history, and the sense that we feel we’re discovering stuff, but also we want audiences to have that same experience of discovering something new or something inspiring, really programming to that,” says Plauche, who is personally excited about films showing as part of the New Directors and International Competitions, such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, Julia von Heinz’s And Tomorrow the Entire World, and Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden’s Becoming Mona.

She continues: “And programming to this moment that we’re in, and connecting with audiences that way, whether it’s an escape, through the comedies, or something that helps us all to reflect on what’s happening in the world right now, whether it’s the pandemic or a lot of political, social, and cultural changes that are happening . . . I think it broadens the lens and gives us a different angle from which to view our own contemporary experience right now.”

Mama Gloria is a portrait of Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen.

Many examples of films that help achieve this are included in the Black Perspectives program, curated by Joyy Norris (who also programs the After Dark section), which features such narrative films as Simien’s Bad Hair, King’s One Night in Miami, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love, Ignacio Márquez’s The Special; documentary features like Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner and Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI; and a slew of shorts. One of the documentaries, Luchina Fisher’s Mama Gloria, showcases the Chicago icon, a Black trans woman who famously ran a charm school for trans youth. “It’s not only inspiring,” says Fisher during a press conference for the festival, “but it’s really rare to see a Black trans elder on screen.”

There are likewise programs of films directed by women and those centered on the LGBTQ experience. The former includes films directed by Julia von Heinz, Ekwa Msangi, Stefanie Klemm, Suzanne Lindon, and Nishikawa Miwa, among several others. I’m Your Woman, directed and cowritten by Julia Hart, features The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan, who will appear virtually in conversation. Around Ammonite, star Kate Winslet will receive the Career Achievement Award, another celebration of women in film. Lee’s film is part of the Out-Look Competition along with Fisher’s Mama Gloria, Tsai’s Days, Ozon’s Summer of ’85, and Bruno Santamaria’s Things We Dare Not Do. And, as always, the shorts programs (curated by Sam Flancher) are robust, each grouped by theme: City and State, Animation, After Dark, Documentary, Drama, Comedy, Black Perspectives, Experimental, and Family-Friendly Animation. Of note are shorts from directors Jennifer Boles, Zach Woods, Lisa Barcy, Tebogo Malebogo, Ben Rivers, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson.

Another staple of the festival experience are events where filmgoers can connect with the filmmakers and even each other. Plauche says this tradition won’t go away with the pandemic. “For us, the festival is a celebration of cinema, but part of that celebration is the audience participating, and that audience interaction with the work, which is amplified by having the director or the cast or the screenwriter there,” she says. “And so it’s really about the experience, not just about watching the film. It won’t be the same, but I think that’s the question that we’re always getting to, what can we do that will make it more than just watching the films.”

The slogan for this year’s festival is “Let film take you there,” apropos considering that cinema, now more than ever, is enabling us to leave the confines of quarantine, figuratively and even spiritually, if not physically. This edition of the Chicago International Film Festival will be unlike any that came before it, and might even lead to a different kind of festival-going experience altogether. Plauche is optimistic that, ultimately, the films will benefit as much as the viewers: “I think if it’s done right, there’s a way to actually grow audiences for the type of cinema that festivals show.” Here’s to hoping.   v