It was almost like a movie. Amat Escalante’s harrowing and unapologetically bleak film Heli—which looks at the crooked law enforcement and low-totem pole players of Mexico’s drug cartel scene—came to a an ambiguous closing shot before dipping to white for the end credits. The auditorium house lights came on at the press screening I was at. No one moved from his or her seat. Utter silence. Then suddenly, a critic in the row in front of me let out a groan. A very loud one. He wanted to be heard. After 104 minutes of wince-inducing violence and despair, Heli offered no logical retribution for its audience. The groaning critic was expressing one of two things: that he’d witnessed a carefully nuanced, searing cross-section of a very real dilemma south of the border—or that he’d just seen another arthouse trash film filled with hot air. As other critics began leaving the auditorium, they started chuckling at the thought of the groan. The groan seemed to carry an echo too, as if it was a shared movie review, a unanimous proclamation that the Chicago International Film Festival had once again managed to bring some of the more polarizing films of world cinema to the Second City for the 49th consecutive year. This year’s lineup was particularly dark in nature, from crude historical narratives (James Gray’s The Immigrant, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to timely, devastating documentaries (the border crossing Purgatorio, the brotherly survival tale in Kenya’s Tough Bond). For all of its variety, this year’s Chicago film fest found itself hovering over the theme of the self-projected artifice, which was explored in three grossly differentiating films.

You see, unlike most marquee U.S. film festivals such as Sundance or SXSW, the Chicago International Film Festival has done a consistent job of flying just below the radar of mainstream but several cuts above other notable film festivals. Sure, there are “movie stars” who make appearances at opening night and certain gala events, but the main crux of the Chicago Film Fest is focused on its usually impressive program of world cinema. The fest’s red carpet schmoozing takes a backseat to the discovery of new artistic voices from international films that would be hard to find stateside.

Consider the above-mentioned Mexican film, Heli. For most of its running time, the camera is deliberate in its movements. Slow pans reveal awful imagery: a boot pressed against a man’s face, a man being forced to roll face down over human vomit, and the devastating reunion of a woman with her husband after he was savagely beaten. These images are all the more powerful because the characters in the narrative are desperately trying to fool themselves into thinking they’re bound to escape or even create a new life. In the violent landscape ruled by the drug cartel, these poor Mexican peasants are disillusioned at best. In an early scene, the protagonist’s wife visits a local psychic in hopes of hearing the possibility of a new venture or at least to give validity to her current situation. Later, during the film’s gruesome torture scene, a group of adolescents in the background gleefully plays their American video games on consoles. At one point, a young boy whips out his cell phone to film a victim being tortured with fire and thinks out loud about the idea of uploading the footage to YouTube. It’s that self-projected artifice—that daily routine to dilute the horrors of one’s reality—which is what’s really striking about Heli. Lots of drug films have shocking violence, but few observe the nameless people at the peripheries of the screen’s frame and examine their ways of coping with their environment.

Sometimes this artifice is therapeutic. Part of the festival’s documentary program, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture shows us one filmmaker’s in the 70s transcendent retelling of his unfathomable childhood experience as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia by way of hand-made art; rather than relying solely on historical archival footage, Panh used small whittled-down clay figures as stand-ins for a majority of the film’s recreations. The title of the doc resonates exponentially as the simple toy-like sets suddenly become vessels for ghostly imagery. We can only imagine how the scenes played out in real life and thus are forced to project our own anxieties and shock onto the stoic faces of the tiny clay models on the screen. The effect is heartbreaking and, more importantly, is never played for gimmickry. 

Finally, taking a hard right turn from subject matters of drug cartels and Cambodian genocide, we land at the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, France’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche—which was one of Chicago’s festival highlights to be sure. Centered on a remarkable lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue chronicles several years in the relationship of a lesbian couple. Exarchopoulos, the youngest of the pair, has to carefully micromanage each of her self-projected artifices. At her high school, she “dates” a male classmate in order to ward off any suspicion or prejudice toward her actual sexuality from her peers. At home, she deceives her parents by insisting that her partner Emma (played by Léa Seydoux) is just a tutor. Emma even assists with the mirage and fabricates a boyfriend during a dinner conversation. These self-projected artifices are juxtaposed with Emma’s own vocation. She’s a painter, using Adèle as her model for many of her works. So, on display in the walls of Emma’s art galleries, is her true love—but for a good portion of the film’s running time, their relationship is taboo for most of their public appearances. When Adèle and Emma are older and living together during the second half of the film, their struggles and strife link to the restraint from those earlier scenes. The film floored me: Exarchopoulos is the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

With these three varied film selections—Heli, The Missing Picture, Blue Is The Warmest Color—the theme of the self-projected artifice rose to new challenging heights. Maybe by looking through the eyes of our fellow foreign artists, we are able to peel back some of our own layers of artifice (at least in what we produce in American cinema) and see some fundamental similarities in our ways of handling those scenarios, fiction or non-fiction. And as the 49th Chicago International Film Festival drew to a close, I thought back to the groan from that early press screening. If it did signify a sentiment towards a festival that vehemently sought out challenging and polarizing titles from world cinema, then I hope to hear the same groan next year.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.