10 to see at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival

Streaming for the first time, the 11-day cinema smorgasbord is especially strong this year on non-fiction.

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“Careless Crime,” recounting a 1979 theater arson in Iran, is streaming as part of the Chicago International Film Festival.

Dreamlab Films

The Chicago International Film Festival, now in its 56th year, makes a novel move online thanks to the novel coronavirus. The 11-day showcase of world cinema offers 39 dramas, 19 documentaries and 56 shorts via the internet. Seven features are world premieres. Audiences can interact with filmmakers in livestream Q&A sessions.

“We can reach new audiences,” says artistic director Mimi Plauché. “The festival is more accessible to people who live anywhere in the U.S.” Some titles, however, are limited to Chicago audiences; other films are limited to Midwesterners living in Illinois and five other states. 

56th Chicago International Film Festival

56th Chicago International Film Festival

When: Oct. 14–25

Where: Online, plus eight screenings at ChiTown Movies drive-in.

Tickets: $12 per online screening, or $16 for special presentations. Passes available.

Info: chicagofilmfestival.com

The global pandemic forced international festivals to go virtual, so Plauché and her programming team scouted this year’s entries through the internet. She says she is partial to “the films you watch and you can’t stop thinking about them.” Three are dramas in this year’s downsized lineup: “Any Crybabies Around?,” “Dear Comrades!” and “Memory House.” 

Nonfiction fare is especially strong this year. Completed before the virus went global, every film ends up documenting our pre-pandemic life when we could be close to one another without wearing masks.

The festival site offers tech tips for home viewing on a Mac, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, PC, Android and Roku. A support team can be reached by phone, email and chatbox from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the festival. Each ticket lets you watch for a 48-hour window after you first hit play. 

Here are 10 films worth streaming:


“Careless Crime” (Iran) Shahram Mokri directs a masterful drama based on the deadly Rex Cinema fire started by anti-Shah arsonists in 1979. The plot interlaces key motifs in Iranian cinema, including its signature reflexivity. The perfect film to persuade audiences to stay the hell out of movie theaters.

“There Is No Evil” (Germany/Czech Republic/Iran) Mohammad Rasoulof conducts a compelling inquiry into the ethics of executioners. Four short dramas portray men who obey or resist orders. 


“Dear Comrades!” dramatizes a 1962 Russian strike in black and white.

Films Boutique

“Dear Comrades!” (Russia) Andrei Konchalovsky directs an arresting black-and-white period piece exhuming the June 1962 massacre of strikers in Novocherkassk. Deemed a state secret for decades, the incident is a lens on ideological purity and state treachery.


“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” (U.K., U.S.) Werner Herzog and University of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer co-direct a diverting essay on meteorites and those who obsess over them. Herzog indulges in his usual quest for weird wonders.

“Til Kingdom Come” (Israel/UK/Norway) Maya Zinshtein observes three generations of Kentucky pastors and a two-generational Jewish charity. This is a disquieting take on evangelical leverage between the White House and right-wing Israeli politics. 

“The Prophet and the Space Aliens” (Israel, Austria) Yoav Shamir engages the founder of the International Raëlian Movement in a playful case of access journalism. Come for the UFO love cult, stay for office hours with a Berkeley prof of Talmudic culture.


“Notturno” registers the human toll of conflict at the Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon borders.


“Notturno” (Italy/France/Germany) Gianfranco Rosi (“Fire at Sea”) quietly depicts the unending tragedy on the borders of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon. A sublime cinematographer, Rosi registers the horrific human toll of conflict on ISIS-tortured kids, institutionalized adults and others.

“The Reason I Jump” (U.S., U.K.) Quoting at length from a 2007 book by autistic teen Naoki Higashida, director Jerry Rothwell portrays autistic teens in Britain, India, Sierra Leone and the U.S. to let “neurotypicals” better understand the language challenges faced by people with autism. And this is mostly done with verbal imagery, not visual imagery.


“Shorts 1: What We’re Made Of (City and State)” In “The Reversal,” Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Boles animates archival glass-plate photographs to document the reversal of the Chicago River. Visually ravishing and historically revealing. One of seven shorts in this program.

“Shorts 4: The World As We Know It (Documentary)” The timely “Comrades” is verite reportage about street tactics of Hong Kong protestors. “How to Disappear” is a brilliant deconstruction of the videogame “Battlefield” where desertion is not an option. (Ironically, for the sake of social distancing, this year’s virtual festival discontinued its sidebar of VR immersive cinema.) Four other shorts stream in this highly recommended program.

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