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CIFF 2020: The Roger Ebert Award Returns to Champion New Voices

Starting in 2014, the Chicago International Film Festival chose to honor one of its most vocal advocates by presenting the Roger Ebert Award to a debut filmmaker from the New Directors Program. The festival has described it thusly: “The Roger Ebert Award will be presented annually to an emerging filmmaker whose film presents a fresh and uncompromising vision.” Past winners include “La Tirisia” (2014), “Nahid” (2015), “Kills on Wheels” (2016), “Killing Jesus” (2017), “Little Tickles” (2018), and “Adam” (2019).

This year’s New Directors Program highlights the international aspect of CIFF, including new voices from around the world. Films included in the program are listed below with descriptions from the official site:

“Any Crybabies Around?” (Sato Takuma)

In this sensitive, assured drama, rising star Taiga Nakano plays young parent Tasuku, who flees to Tokyo in shame after being caught drunk and naked on national TV during a local festival. After years of rock-bottom city living, he returns home, ready to embrace adulthood. But will the town and his family have him back?

“Becoming Mona” (Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Niels van Koeverden)

Life is what happens when you stop living for others and start living for yourself. This poignant tragicomic journey of courage follows Mona from early childhood, when she is inculcated to be a quiet, obedient presence in the world. She blossoms into a talented young artist, but years of repressing her feelings have impaired her emotionally, binding her to unhealthy relationships at work and at home. Still, there is a fierce, independent spirit that lies inside her, waiting to be liberated. Assured direction coaxes flawless, seamlessly connected performances from actresses Tanya Zabarylo and Olivia Landuyt in the title role as a young woman and young girl respectively.

“Gaza Mon Amour” (Tarzan & Arab Nasser)

Sixty-year-old Palestinian fisherman and lifelong bachelor Issa (Salim Daw) holds a secret torch for Siham (Hiam Abbas), a dressmaker at the market. Just as he is getting up the courage to propose to her, Issa nets an ancient statue of a well-endowed, larger-than-life-sized Apollo. When the Hamas authorities get wind of the existence of this mysterious treasure, the troubles begin. Has Apollo fated Issa to a loveless life? Will he be able to find his way back to Siham? Twin directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser (Dégradé) return to the Festival with this gentle, layered love story set against a playfully sly snapshot of life in modern-day Gaza, with all of its entanglements and absurdity.

“Memory House” (João Paulo Miranda Maria)

In southern Brazil—in a strange Austrian colony of sorts lost in time—indigenous-Black man Cristovam has arrived from the north to take a job at a milk factory. In the face of unrelenting xenophobia and racism, he finds refuge in an abandoned house filled with art objects and folkloric memorabilia that connect him back to his roots. Soon, the mysterious relics start to provoke a metamorphosis within him. Endowed with a newfound sense of identity and power, Cristovam’s quiet forbearance turns to emboldened action—and tension mounts, building to a mythic, stunning conclusion. Rich, evocative photography and an unsettling tone envelop this uncanny tale that unmasks the social, racial, and political tensions facing Brazil today.

“Of Fish and Men” (Stefanie Klemm)

In this taut thriller set in the idyllic Swiss countryside, a single mom is raising her young daughter and running the family fish farm with the help of a farmhand-turned-friend. When his brother unexpectedly appears in search of debts owed, the specter of impending disaster looms large.

“Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (Lili Horvát)

After building a successful career in the U.S., gifted neurosurgeon Márta impulsively returns home to Hungary in pursuit of the man of her dreams, but when she tracks him down in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. Is he spinning an elaborate deception or has her obsession trapped her in a world of illusions?

“Schoolgirls” (Pilar Palomero)

Growing up in small-town Spain in the early ’90s, 11-year-old Celia is ever the responsible student and considerate daughter. When impossibly cool Brisa storms in from Barcelona, she upsets the order of the girls’ strict Catholic school, run by nuns with a stern disposition and an iron fist. Unexpectedly, the two girls become fast friends, and soon Celia is swept up in a rebellious clique that breaks all the rules and flaunts authority. Her eyes newly opened to the world, Celia starts to raise questions about her own family background, including her absent father. This astute drama—in which the young character’s coming of age mirrors the post-Franco restless social energy around her—is anchored by salient performances from its young cast, who effortlessly convey the tensions and anxieties of adolescence.

“Sleep” (Michael Venus)

After a woman’s recurring nightmares send her on a search for answers, both she and her daughter find themselves drawn to a hotel where they become trapped in a web of unsettling visions as dreams and reality collide. A horror-tinged thriller that channels Grimms’ Fairy Tales by way of David Lynch.

“The Special” (Ignacio Márquez)

In this deftly told and uplifting debut, a profoundly charming young man must navigate the challenges of early adulthood with Down Syndrome as he seeks to build a life of independence from his troubled father. Long separated by an ocean of silence and shame, will the two men be able to assemble a common future?

“Spring Blossom” (Suzanne Lindon)

Writer-director Suzanne Lindon delivers an astonishingly assured turn as a restless Parisian teen bored by her peers and confronting her burgeoning sexuality. She embarks on a love affair with an actor 20 years her senior—only to wonder if the more innocent pleasures of youth are passing her by.

“Striding into the Wind” (Wei Shujun)

Fed up with his final year at film school, skilled sound recordist Kun takes up with a student production and embarks on a journey of self-discovery across China’s lush, varied landscape. Featuring winning performances and directed with a wry emotional clarity, Striding into the Wind is a keenly-observed meditation on movies, modern China, and the meandering restlessness of youth.

Find out more and get virtual access here.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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