Chicago international film's kind of town

Festival brings world cinema to the Windy City

Survival Guide: Windy City winners

It's a city of neighborhoods, and in October the neighborhoods reach out to the farthest expanses of the globe.

The Chicago International Film Festival, the oldest competitive film festival in the U.S., unspools its 43rd edition beginning Thursday with a red-carpet gala screening of Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" at the Chicago Theatre, an 86-year-old movie palace.

This year's films, representing more than 35 countries, are all Chicago premieres. Many are world premieres and U.S. premieres. "Kite Runner," will make its U.S. bow. Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages," also a U.S. premiere, will close the festival Oct. 17.

Although in its fifth decade, the festival appears to be hitting its stride. Its International Feature Film competition presents about 18 films judged by a jury of international film artists and professionals that compete for the fest's top prize, the Gold Hugo.

Festival selections are sometimes picked up for U.S. distribution, including recent favorites like "Turtles Can Fly." Last year, "Fireworks Wednesday," a gripping story of social chaos in Iran, took the Gold Hugo.

Festival founder and artistic director Michael Kutza has helmed the festival for 43 years, surely a fest record. He founded Cinema/Chicago in 1964 to provide an alternative to the commercial movies that dominated the city's theaters. The festival opened in 1965 at the Carnegie Theater, where King Vidor, Bette Davis and Stanley Kramer were honored for their contributions to American cinema.

"With the wide and eclectic range of films we will be presenting at this year's festival, we are truly bringing the world to our attendees," Kutza said. "It's an opportunity for movie lovers to see the types of human stories that the modern-day multiplex experience unfortunately no longer offers."

Last year, the festival attracted more than 50,000 moviegoers for its 110 feature films and 35 shorts. As per its custom, the fest will play host this year to more than 100 directors, actors and producers who will be involved in postscreening Q&A sessions.

This year's festival is dedicated to film critic Roger Ebert.

In today's narrow marketplace for "foreign films," most of what is shown in Chicago will not gain even a select-site release. As such, the festival affords an opportunity for Windy City denizens and others to sample films that otherwise would be unavailable to them.

The festival presents an eclectic array of film groupings. Its New Directors competition encourages new voices. The World Cinema section presents films from around the world.

Other programs include the Cinema of the Americas, which features works from Latin American and the Caribbean, and the Black Perspectives section, which showcases films by Africans and black Americans. The Anime Focus presents works by Japanese animation artists.

The DocuFest section shows 10 nonfiction films from around the globe. In the Short Film competition, more than 30 narrative, documentary and student works are shown in four themed programs.

The Gala Presentations, spread throughout the festival, present showcase screenings from the world's most prominent directors. In an effort to make the festival a family experience and not just one for the sophisticated cineaste, organizers present films for family audiences on weekends.