Interview: CIFF Senior Programmer Anthony Kaufman

(CIFF’s Anthony Kaufman)

Today is the beginning of the 56th Chicago International Film Festival. Unlike other years, the prestigious festival is a bit different than the ones we have experienced in the past. With an ongoing pandemic and COVID on the rise in Illinois, the fest is combining streaming on-demand and appointment screenings and an in-person drive-in theatre experience along with virtual filmmaker Q&As and a completely online Industry Days.

One thing remains the same – the film selection will be spectacular. Werner HerzogChloé Zhao, Spike Lee, and Tsai Ming-Liang are just some of the acclaimed directors whose work you’ll see at this year’s fest, alongside such highly anticipated films as AmmoniteBad Hair, and One Night in Miami.

Behind the scenes the curation of these films can be attributed to Anthony Kaufman and his team.

Besides being the Senior Programmer at CIFF, Kaufman is an assistant professor, film programmer, and journalist. He is also the co-founder and Senior Programmer of DOC10, Chicago’s only documentary film festival.

Anthony has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, and Variety; he is a regular contributor to Filmmaker Magazine.

You’ll also find Anthony as a Part-time Assistant Professor at The New School, and has also taught film studies courses at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, the Graham School, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the University of Southern Maine, and Brooklyn College.

Kaufman has also edited “Steven Soderbergh: Interviews” and the co-author of “Hope for Film: A Producer’s Journey Across the Revolutions of Indie Film and Global Streaming.”

Reel Chicago had a chance to sit with the man behind the CIFF films before the madness and excitement ensues.

Some answers.

CIFF is now the premier festival in Chicago and the midwest. Can you take us through how you pivoted to a virtual festival?

We were fortunate to have months in advance to plan. Because we’re in October, we saw what other festivals were doing and we were in ongoing to talks with fall Festivals such as the New York, Hamptons, Mill Valley and AFI Film Festivals. We exchanged ideas and best practices, and some of the obstacles of online streaming.

How many selections did you receive this year and how hard was it choosing the films? Can you take us behind the scenes? Are the judging sessions stressful?

We had a surprisingly healthy amount of submissions this year. We heard talk from other festivals that submissions were way down, but we actually more short films submitted to us this year than ever before. Features were a bit down, but not by much.

And since we had fewer overall slots in our final program (about 60 features this year rather than 125-130), the acceptance rate was still just as challenging. And selecting films isn’t exactly stressful. Watching hundreds of movies gets taxing, of course, but once you find a film you love, it’s a joy and delight.

With theater chains essentially showing studio tentpoles now festivals are being overtaken by the Netflixes, Amazons, Hulus and smaller studios. How does an aspiring filmmaker with no name get into a
festival as prestigious as CIFF?

Make a great film. It sounds simple, but of course, it’s really hard to make a great film. But people will notice.

ALSO READ: Two Kino Lorber films to screen at CIFF next week

What are you looking forward to the most out of this year’s group of films?

The Chicago International Film Festival has a reputation for discovery, so I’d urge people to just look through the program and select a film that sounds interesting to them and be surprised.

There’s such a diversity of styles and subject matter, really something for every person’s taste.

How did you recreate industry days for a virtual audience?

Zoom, obviously. What was great about the virtual conference was that we didn’t have to fly everyone in, so we could kind of get the crème of the crop in terms of industry thought leaders.

I don’t think we’ll ever be so lucky to have so many luminaries in one year: Dede Gardner, Terence Blanchard, John Logan, and Effie Brown are amazing, not to mention all the executives we have coming in from companies such as Netflix and Neon.

There are now so many films helmed by female directors and BIPOC? How does getting accepted into a fest as prestigious and important as CIFF help them on their careers?

In an industry that remains #SoWhite and predominantly male, festivals and other non-commercial outlets do offer a platform for more diverse voices to thrive that the bigger companies may not always provide.

So yes, it’s a stepping stone and an avenue for lots of filmmakers to advance their careers. But of course there are a lot of ways talents are being discovered nowadays.

As Senior Programmer what makes you the most proud?

I’m most proud that we’re actually having a festival this year, with lots of guests and live conversations (even though they may be online). I think we’re all in desperate need of not only connection right now, but also new and original films.

I can’t think of many other places right now where U.S. audiences can see a new Russian film and interact with the director. How many times can people watch Netflix rebooted TV shows or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at a Drive-In before needing to watch something different?

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How are you going to relax after the festival?

Because of the pandemic and the winter, there’s not a whole lot I can do, except sit around with my family inside and watch movies.

Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1