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Film Center’s Barbara Scharres closes out a career of bringing the world to Chicago

After 45 years at the specialty moviehouse, the programmer favors festival finds, Chinese action — and ‘Borat 2.’

Barbara Scharres is retiring after 45 years as director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The woman known as the face of Chicago film programming did not start out as a cinema buff.

Barbara Scharres, who’s retiring Thursday as director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center after 45 years, has played an integral role in cinema circles. But she had a different path in mind. “I was going to be a nurse like my mother,” she said. Her parents, who met in post-war London, exposed her to the arts, but not film. “My dad didn’t consider it an art.”

Born in Canada, Scharres grew up in Clarendon Hills, where her film interests were limited to Disney re-releases and the occasional blockbuster like “Lawrence of Arabia” (which she saw “five times over several weeks”). Her tastes ran more to theater, especially Broadway musicals, than they did to the pop culture of her teens, including songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, who could be her twin. “I’ve been told that a million times,” she said, “but I don’t see the resemblance.”

After enrolling as a nursing major at St. Xavier College, Scharres discovered that her course load would consist of “nothing that I was interested in. I thought, ‘I gotta get out of this,’ and changed my major to art. It was a narrow escape.”

During orientation week, she came across a free screening of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962). “From that point on, I was hooked,” she said. “I couldn’t keep away from movies.” Scharres then started making 8mm and 16mm films. But her nascent career was derailed by a part-time job.

Founded in 1972 as part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Film Center grew out of a monthly cinema series curated by Camille Cook. The Film Center’s first director, Cook hired Scharres as a part-time staffer. In 1975, Scharres went full time and served in various jobs, leading to her current role in 1988. October marked her 45th anniversary at the Siskel Center (renamed in 2000 for the longtime Tribune film critic). Though she’s just a few years away from another milestone, she didn’t want to stay on until her 50th. “I used to say I don’t want to go from the Film Center to Alzheimer’s. It was time.”

Along with other arts venues, the Film Center has been shuttered by the pandemic. It has continued with virtual events, but “it’s difficult to have any feeling for what the job used to be.”

The venue’s early years overlapped a pivotal era, with the end of the studio system, and the beginnings of indie and world cinema. After finding foreign films in college, Scharres also gravitated toward American experimental film. “I left school with that education and continued those interests in grad school,” she said. “From the start, the Film Center was a wealth of world cinema. Camille had a firm idea of the expansiveness of our mission. And I embraced it right away.”

Tony Jones, then president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Barbara Scharres pose with portraits of Gene Siskel during the Film Center’s move to 164 N. State St. in 2001.
Sun-Times file

Among Scharres’ many achievements have been a continued focus on global film, especially the cinemas of Hong Kong and Iran. Chinese action films wouldn’t seem to be a natural fit for a Clarendon Hills gal. “Their emotional aspects appeal to me,” she said. “I love the melodrama and over-the-top emotion. Those themes disappeared from U.S. films a long time ago.”

After retirement, Scharres will continue in another role: chief of lectors at Lake View’s St. Alphonsus Church, where she met her partner of 23 years. They had planned to marry this year but delayed their wedding due to the pandemic. It will mark the first marriage for both. “We’re cafeteria Catholics,” she said. “We pick and choose what we believe in.”

Active on the film festival circuit, Scharres hopes to keep attending these events. She has covered Cannes, Toronto and other major festivals for rogerebert.com, where she contributed to the site’s Top 10 of 2020 list. Along with foreign films like “Another Round” and “Apples,” Scharres picked the crowd-pleaser “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” for her best of 2020. “It was much more cohesive than the first ‘Borat,’ because of the female character Tutar [Borat’s daughter],” she said. “Her evolution is the core of the film.”

Very nice. But even the single-minded Borat must be wondering whether theatrical presentation will survive. “It’s so shocking that the whole culture of going to the movies could be destroyed,” she said. “Talk about a deus ex machina that drops in and changes everything. It will be a long, long comeback.”