(Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

51st Chicago International Film Festival special New Directors competition special presentation


First-time directors in their feature debut can be a hit-or-miss proposition.  They either look ill-prepared or trying too hard to impress.  Resources and a good crew behind them can hide flaws, but, more often than not, what makes for a successful director is artistic vision.  We're looking for storytellers not concepts.  Some first-time directors with concepts lean on technical proficiency and lack the ability to tell a character-driven story.  The good ones that hang around to continue their work in this field can see the beauty within each cinematic moment and make a good idea come to life.

As an entry in the 51st Chicago International Film Festival, there are high hopes for Claire Carre, the writer, director, and editor of "Embers."  This, her first feature, was one of ten projects selected to represent the 2014 IFP Independent Filmmaker Lab.  "Embers" made its world premiere at the Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany this month and now makes its North American debut in Chicago.  The film will have three screenings at the festival: October 16 at 10:00am, October 17 at 1:00pm, and October 25 at 11:00am.  All three showings occur at the festival hub that will take over the AMC River East 21 location in River North.  Claire Carre, her co-writer and producer Charles Spano, and actor Matthew Goulish will be in attendance at the first two screenings.  In addition, Carre will also be a part of a Science and Cinema: Refresh My Memory panel on October 17 at noon as part of the CIFF.  Tickets are still available over the phone, online, or at the AMC River East box office.  

With "Embers," we definitely have something to bite into from Claire Carre.  The film occupies a domestic world after an unseen neurological disaster that caused societal collapse.  People drift aimlessly through urban ruins trying to eek out existence and survival.  Worst of all, the people still alive now are stricken with amnesia and now have the inability to keep short-term memory.  Think "Memento" on a community-sized scale.  They forget the names of people around them or how they ended up where they find themselves.  Sleep and the mornings are the worst, as if they start at zero each day.  Characters sift through minimal clues attempting to ground and remind them of their humanity and civility.  

"Embers" follows several generally-unnamed characters through this desolate, yet striking landscape that was filmed in the decaying slums of Gary, Indiana and former World War II bunkers in Poland.  There are five active story threads of different survivors.  At the core, are a pair of lovers (Jason Ritter of TV's "Parenthood" and Bulgarian-born Iva Gocheva) who discern that they must belong together because they share the same colored bracelet totem.  The two struggle to stay together fearing that separation will drift them apart even further.

In addition to the central couple lie other microcosms of societal pitfalls.  There is a young boy (Silvan Friedman) separated from his older guardian (Matthew Goulish) and presented with a new one (Dominique Swain).  A violent 20-something (Karl Glusman of "Stonewall") who acts out in rage and represents the unknown chaos seeks to disrupt the world of this moral collapse.  On the fringe are a teacher (long-time character actor Tucker Smallwood) researching a cure and a young woman named Miranda (Greta Fernandez) who is bunkered underground with her full memories after being spared from the viral fate above by her protective father (Roberto Cots).  How each occupy and interact with the world represent the high-concept poetry of "Embers."

Even at a short 85 minutes, "Embers" methodical and restrained with its dramatic pace.  It is frustratingly slow on purpose to push you into this realm where time is elusive.  If you can overcome the unsettling cloud of this pace and deliberate sense of the unknown, you'll watch these story thread bloom to challenge your thinking and empathy.  Claire Carre has something introspective here and runs with it.  "Embers" is a movie that requires concentration and not special effects.  Not everyone will be in the right mindset for the heavy lifting of love, morality, learning, and survival.  It is decidedly worth the effort to try.

The minimalistic concept itself was already fascinating.  Like a truly promising writer and director, Claire Carre moves past the concept to populate this story with rich characters and poignant developments that keep you guessing and help you invest in the fate of these characters.  There's no quick fix for this problem and the open-endedness is also deliberate, but there is a glimmer of hope that permeates this very nice work.  If you need a little "diamond in the rough" that will challenge your viewing at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival, seek out a look at "Embers."

LESSON #1: HOW PEOPLE JUDGE WITH THE INSTINCTS ALONE-- Instincts are not learned behaviors.  They are our automatic responses and gut feelings.  We use the proverbial gut feelings inside of us to judge people and our surroundings through observation.  Instincts judge people and places by an invisible feel.  Our muscles and mind reacts differently in different places and for different people.  Our instincts judge our safety on whether we feel at ease or whether the hairs stand up on the back of our necks.  Finally, the instincts we judge with create trust that keeps us going forward.  In a world such as the dystopia of "Embers," judging by instincts are all these people have to go on.  It is highly interesting to watch these characters repeatedly try and make sense of their world with only instincts at their disposal.

LESSON #2: MEMORY DEFINES YOUR IDENTITY-- When you only have your instincts to go on, you reduced to "fight or flight" and basic survival.  Our memories are what define our personal identity.  How we learned to carry ourselves, behave, show decency, interact, trust, and emote are what make each of us different.  In "Embers," some aspects of peoples' personalities show through without their immediate memories.  People who were chaotic, optimistic, or fearful before are still in that mode now.  Only continued and remembered experiences and learning can correct those imperfect modes and personalities.  Fate becomes even more elusive when you can't keep it on course with memory and goals.  That's the connection our characters are missing and grasping for in "Embers."