by Jude Blackburn

Last summer when the festival’s advisory board decided to hold the 2021 Chicago Irish Film Festival (CIFF) online, we really weren’t worried about the technical challenges as online film screenings had already evolved internationally and here in the U.S., so all we needed was a virtual screening platform and we got one. What we couldn’t be sure of was if there would be any films to screen. What were we thinking, this year’s films are as amazing and diverse as any year in the festival’s 22-year history! If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Irish filmmakers over the years is that they are always working on a story and they would never let a pandemic get in the way, actually, they might do a film about it and that’s exactly what happened. This year’s festival will include eight short films that touch on Covid-19 from every direction including ridiculous responses to Ireland’s lockdowns to looking at life in a whole new way with wonderful results. And we are particularly exciting to share one special covid short intitled How to Fall in Love During a Pandemic that all started at last year’s festival in the Logan Theatre bar! 

2020 also marked the 175th anniversary of the Great Famine and the festival is honored to be screening Ruan Magan’s TheHunger: The Story of the Irish Famine, narrated by Liam Neeson. This fascinating documentary explores the famine not only from an Irish point of view with its unimaginable loss of life and devastating wave of immigration, but how the famine played out on the international stage where France and the United States were horrified by the extent of the famine in Ireland compared to other European countries at that time.  At the complete other end of the documentary timeline is the film What is Going To Happen Next? by Matthew Nevin who traveled the world asking people across 203 sovereign nations to imagine their futures and the answers more than surprise reflecting the extraordinary differences in cultures, geographic locations and economic opportunities; an eye-opening journey.  

Over the last 22 years the festival has screened as diverse a group of feature films as any indie film festival goer could ask for and this year will be no different, because that’s one of the festival’s core missions, to screen films by up-and-coming filmmakers making their debut or sophomore films.  Since the Irish are renowned for intense family dramas on stage, in literature, in music and certainly in film this year’s films present two fascinating looks at dysfunctional families, from vastly different perspectives. The Keenan family, in Sam Uhlemann’s The Edge of Chaos has an Olympic level of dysfunctionality, harboring resentment, addiction and secrets from the past that keep the film quite literally on the edge of chaos, pun totally intended. The families in Phil Sheerin’s The Winter Lake live in the isolated part of Sligo, one newly arrived looking for a new beginning where nobody knows them, and the other long entrenched harboring a secret bleaker than the landscape. Both films will keep you riveted so pop your popcorn in advance and dim the lights. 

Shifting across the spectrum of indie film Colin Hickey’s The Evening of Redness in the South is a dialogue free experimental film filled with breathtaking cinematography and accompanied by the natural sounds of life; breathing, walking, working. Hickey captures a group of workers at a building site, their lives, hopes and dreams against vast blues skies and curls of black smoke that captures the art of filmmaking rarely created in today’s digital Tik-Tok world. Winner of over 20 awards worldwide for experimentation and cinematography watch this film cured up with a glass of wine and be amazed by this modern silent film.

The CIFF fell in love with shorts from the beginning and since then we’ve screened over a thousand to the delight of our audiences. This year we are especially honored to have a number of films by some of Ireland’s best women filmmakers including Roisin Kearney, Claire Byrne, Natasha Waugh and Deborah Grimes. Their films along with the other 40 plus short films screening at this year’s festival, in 5 curated programs, cover topics as diverse as 70’s punk rock to divorce, homelessness to a social media influencer, juggling life against the odds to a female pilot and her first mate. Award winning, creative, funny, heartfelt, soul searching, and lyrical this year’s shorts once again underscore the amazing talents of Irish filmmakers working around the world and we are thrilled to be a showcase for their work. 

As much as films are the cornerstone of a film festival so are partnerships the festival has built over the years, many being in Ireland, and the CIFF is honored to bring three of those partnerships to our audiences with special events. Grainne Humphrey, director of the Dublin International Film Festival, has curated an amazing program of music and video with some of Irelands up and coming artists. Fionnghuala Ní Néill, director of the Dublin Animation Film Festival, has created a wonderful program of animated films for children including a chat with an award-winning animator for a behind the scenes look at how animation works. And then on the business side an industry event with Green Ray Film Agency, a recently founded film distribution company in Cork by Indie Cork Film Festival’s Una Feeley and Mick Hannigan.  

Details about these special events as well as the entire program will be on the festival sites in the coming weeks, but right now you can purchase Festival passes in various bundles: 3 Films5 Films, an All Shorts Pass, and an All Access Pass currently with early bird discounts available until the beginning of February. Individual tickets will be available after February 10,2021.

Over the years the festival has shifted from reels of films, to numerous digital formats, to this year’s remarkable platform of virtual streaming, something we never could have imagined just a year ago. But a festival is what we make of it and we think this year’s festival is outstanding and we hope you will join us and be amazed.