CIFF Exclusive: Three Must-See Docs

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Courtesy of CIFF.

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Quixotic odysseys have captivated audiences ever since the dawn of storytelling. We love to watch characters attempt the impossible, defying the odds in their pursuit of an unlikely triumph. At this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, three documentaries center their gaze on people who do exactly that. Since this is the real world as opposed to escapist wish-fulfillment, not all of these dreams are guaranteed to be achieved, yet it is thrilling to watch the dreamers try with all their might to succeed.

Despite the Gods

Jennifer Lynch is a vibrant force of nature on the set of her wildly ambitious third feature, “Hisss,” a sexually charged Bollywood production about a fertility goddess. It’s impossible to resist her candid honesty and go-for-broke exuberance, even as the eight-month shoot threatens to stretch her optimistic energy past its breaking point. Haunted by her father’s experience with “Dune,” Lynch struggles to keep the epic project afloat. Following her every step of the way is her charming daughter, Sydney, who has many of the film’s best lines. Their tight-knit relationship is one of the film’s most touching elements, particularly when Sydney stifles her mother’s worries regarding her weight (according to both Lynch ladies, Sydney is currently developing a documentary of her own about our looks-obsessed culture). This is a superb debut feature from director/cinematographer/co-editor Penny Vozniak, whose observational eye illuminates the intensity and transcendent beauty of the artistic process. Penny, Jennifer and Sydney will be at both screenings.

Screens October 17th at 8:30pm and October 18th at 5:45pm.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

“Don’t you think that you’re awfully close to me, Shane?” snaps 86-year-old Broadway legend Elaine Stritch as she peers directly into the lens. Indeed, there are many occasions in veteran script supervisor Chiemi Karasawa’s directorial debut where Stritch appears to be looking right through the screen and into the audience, as if anticipating our every laugh and gasp. That’s the mark of a truly great performer, and the feisty diva’s unbreakable bond with her fans is undeniable.  Though her voice can no longer hit all the notes, and her mind tends to forget the lyrics, Stritch is still determined to sing Sondheim classics onstage, much to the delight of her fans, including the late James Gandolfini. “If we had met at 35,” Gandolfini quips, “we’d have had a torrid affair that would’ve ended very badly.”

Screens October 18th at 5pm and October 20th at 2pm.

The Missing Picture

Filmmaker Rithy Panh was 13 when Pol Pot’s communist regime unleashed a horrific genocide on Cambodian civilians, sending them to labor camps where murder and starvation were part of the daily routine. With no existing footage of the horrors indelibly etched in his memory, Panh recreates them with the use of clay figures ingeniously sculpted by Sarith Mang. Their gaping mouths and immobile bodies chillingly encapsulate the helplessness of Pol Pot’s victims, while Panh’s narration (read in French by Randal Douc) provides a heartbreaking account of the bodies his mind refuses to bury. Not since Spalding Gray’s one-man show, “Swimming to Cambodia,” has a film so ingeniously conveyed imagery no lens could ever capture. In Panh’s own words, “A picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.”

Screens October 22nd at 6:15pm and October 23rd at 8:30pm.

For tickets and other festival info, click here.

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