CHICAGO — Approaching half a decade now, the Chicago International Film Festival features movies from 44 countries, including some that produce very few movies like Puerto Rico, Bulgaria and Burkina Faso.
The festival running this month includes more than 300 non-Hollywood films shown over 30 days, which is especially nice after a summer of deadly blockbusters. Non-English-language movies are subtitled.
Similarly, the International Chicago Children’s Film Festival (Oct. 18-26) is screening 124 films, 33 of them feature length, from 40 countries.
Fourteen Iranian films are being shown in October at the Gene Siskel Film Center. If you have never seen an Iranian movie, it is time to see one of their outstanding productions. “Shadow Company,” a documentary about contract killers hired to go to Iraq, is also being featured.
Meanwhile, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films is showing a Thursday evening retrospective series of films by Ousmane Sembene, a working-class hero and one of the most famous African filmmakers, who died last summer.
Here are some mini-reviews from these festivals.
“Jump” : If you enjoyed the excesses of “Spellbound” — the documentary about the National Spelling Bee — you will love “Jump.” The film tells the history of jump rope. The jumpers and their coaches’ passionate obsession and neuroticisms make the movie even more pleasurable.
“America the Beautiful” : Chicagoan Darryl Roberts almost outdoes Michael Moore’s style in this documentary about beauty standards in the U.S. The camera points directly at a teenage girl who explains to us how ugly she is. The girl, who is called “giraffe” by her classmates, rises and falls as a teenage supermodel. The indictment of the scary beauty industry is on par with Moore’s indictment of the U.S. heath care system.
“Half Moon” : Using contemplative magical realism, men with guns and strong-willed women create an Iranian stew as we follow the mythic king of Kurdish music from Iran to Kurdish Iraq on a bus trip that makes the 1960s seem tame. It’s both more and less political than it seems. There’s only one sentence in the movie about “the Americans,” but it’s pretty potent. If you only go for the film’s visual images, you will still value it.
“Operation Filmmaker” : This is a story of an MTV decision to follow an Iraqi film student who goes to Prague and becomes the subject of a documentary while working for a movie that is being shot by an MTV subsidiary. You will enjoy this gut-wrenching journey. The film includes a scene with Duane “the Rock” Johnson who also shot a film in Prague.
“La Leon” : Shot in golden black and white on the wetland islands of Argentina, the film is meditative and mysterious, with the silence outweighing the narrative.
“Chicago Ten” : Using animation and real footage, this film is about the 1968 Democratic Convention and the gagging, chaining and shackling of Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale during the conspiracy trial of antiwar activists.
“Killer of Sheep” : Charles Burnett’s UCLA thesis film has waited 23 years to get its commercial release. The story focuses on a family living in Los Angeles’ Watts community, where the father works in a slaughterhouse. This stark, vivid and truthful movie shot in black and white makes us feel like we are watching something ancient because of how much has changed since then — and how much hasn’t.
International Film Festival movies are playing at AMC21 and Landmark theaters. Children’s Festival films are at Facets, Kerasotes and Davis theaters. Film prices and parking can be expensive. Share a pass with a friend and split the cost.
If you’re not in Chicago or can’t get to these showings, ask your local theater about running them, or look for them on DVD.