Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street in Downtown Chicago (photo courtesy of the Gene Siskel Film Center).

Feast for the Eyes: Cinematic Treasures Abound at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center This Summer 

By Laura Kinter

The Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago has provided the city with unique and comprehensive programming since 1974. The Film Center’s events span festivals, premieres of American and international films, and even lectures by well-regarded filmmakers. Its high standards are a breath of fresh air in a city—nay country—that markets a miniscule percentage of cinema compared to what’s out there. The Film Center’s mission is to provide a diverse selection of programming that meets the needs and interests of every community in Chicago.  

The Film Center curates all its programming in-house, by only two individuals: Barbara Sharres and Marty Rubin. All screenings, festivals, lectures, and series go through a rigorous selection process by Sharres and Rubin, and there are over 1,500 of them annually. The diversity of their programming reflects their mission to reach an eclectic audience. “We are very cognizant of our role as a cultural resource,” says Sharres. “Any time we show a film that has a particular audience, cultural group, or ethnic group, we hope that we’re reaching that audience and serving a particular community their needs.” The Film Center’s “crowning event in their summer programming,” the Black Harvest Film Festival, is an in-house curated festival celebrating its 19th year of production. Black Harvest showcases independent, local African American directors who use the art of film-making to explore the black experience and stories of the African diaspora.

Also in its 19th year is the Film Center’s Asian American Showcase, for which the center collaborates with the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media. The Film Center also works with the Human Rights Watch organization to put on the Human Rights Watch Festival. Though it does a handful of collaborations per year, the center always maintains artistic control. “We insist on previewing all the films and deciding if they’re suitable for our programming,” says Sharres. On occasion, for events such as the Annual Festival of Films from Iran or the European Union Film Festival, Sharres and Rubin personally seek out specific films they feel meet the high standards of the Film Center’s programming. They will work directly with filmmakers abroad, and at home, who do not have access to distribution—sometimes not even sales agents—and give their films the audience they deserve. In nearly every case, the Film Center deals directly with filmmakers, building a strong and transparent relationship between artist and venue, and contributing to Chicago’s rapidly growing independent film industry. Having a cultural resource so dedicated to presenting good work regardless of distributors or agents is a luxury most city filmmakers simply do not have.

“Our mission covers all world cinema from every time period, from every nation, from every genre, notes Sharres.” This gives us unlimited freedom in what we do. Our goal is to create audiences for films that haven’t had mainstream exposure like the latest Hollywood films have. On a local level, I’d say 99% of local films don’t have a distributor, so we work directly with the filmmakers. They come to us with their completed films and submit them for consideration.”

The selection process for festivals and events is rigorous. Sharres and Rubin personally preview all films to put together a diverse menu of programming for each month. “In any given month, our goal is to vary the programming sufficiently so that anyone picking up our schedule will find something of interest to them. Like every arts venue, we’re hoping to create that elusive crossover audience. Ideally, someone will like what they see, will notice the range of programming, and come back again,” says Sharres.    

Merely glancing at the Film Center’s summer schedule speaks to this mission. June will host a plethora of premieres, a 12-film series commemorating Italian director Pier Paolo Passolini, and a Martin Scorsese-curated Polish cinema retrospective.

As if that weren’t enough, the Film Center hosts ongoing Tuesday and Thursday night series in the spring and fall. On Tuesday nights the center hosts a lecture series presented in collaboration with the Art Institute’s art history department, and on Thursday nights they host a series called “Conversations On the Edge,” which engages film department students with avant-garde experimental films.  

The Film Center’s aesthetic and ambiance are very much akin to those of the Art Institute. The walls of the cafe area are sprinkled with old movie posters, and a large portrait commemorating founder and famed film critic Gene Siskel, giving a thumbs up with the late Roger Ebert. The building houses two theaters, the larger of which seats almost 200. The facilities are available for rental during weekdays before 5pm, and offer unparalleled quality in digital projection and surround sound. It is truly a new and exciting experience to view a film in the Film Center’s auditorium, and costs much less than your typical theater. General admission tickets cost only $6.00.  

Sharres conveyed her excitement about special upcoming programming for the summer season. The Film Center will present The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary by Brian Knappenburg that chronicles the life and death of famed hacker Aaron Shwartz. Burt’s Buzz, another exciting documentary scheduled for the Film Center’s summer lineup, documents the iconic inventor and figurehead of Burt’s Bees personal care products. The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer discussion with the film’s director, Jody Shapiro, via Skype. Also on the horizon for the summer are Documented, a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, and Ai WeiWei: The Fake Case, an intimate documentation of artist and activist Ai WeiWei while he is under house arrest. This is merely a sampling of what’s to come this summer, and more surprises will be revealed at www.siskelfilmcenter.org.  

The Film Center provides Chicago with a never-ending supply of richly diverse, high quality cinema. Nowhere else can moviegoers attend festivals, national surveys, retrospectives, and world premieres under one roof. Their relationship with Chicago and Chicago filmmakers provides a unique and homegrown cinema experience for film enthusiasts and moviegoers of all kind right in our own back yard.

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