a claymation-style person in front of a glowing yellow person, all against a bright patterned background
A still from Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light, screening at this year's CICFF Credit: Courtesy Facets

As the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (CICFF) celebrates its 40th year, festival program director Deidre Searcy wants people to know it offers something for everyone.

The festival runs from November 3-19 and is the first competitive children’s film festival in the United States. It includes a wide array of films designated by age groups—ranging from My First Movies (ages 2-5) to New Dimensions (18+)—steadily introducing topics designed to spark intellectual curiosity and discussion among viewers. 

Searcy says this year’s programming strikes a thematic balance between fear—whether sparked by COVID-19 or uncertainty toward the future—and hope.

“In particular, I was looking for films that dealt with differences and understanding other people’s experiences,” she says. 

Searcy says the festival received over 1,000 entries, which were evaluated by a selection committee composed of teachers, past jurors, and friends of the festival. Once narrowed down, panels of all-ages jurors offer feedback about the films before Searcy makes the final call, with input from festival manager Jake Laystrom.

The festival will also host family-friendly events, including hands-on animation workshops, a celebration of African American music, a performance from the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Wiggleworms, and its opening night celebration and screening, among others.

Opening night, held at the Chicago History Museum, will feature an appearance from filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, who won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his film Hair Love.

Founded by nonprofit media organization Facets, CICFF is both the largest annual and first-ever Academy Award-qualifying children’s film festival; first-place winners of the fest’s live-action short and animated short categories are then submitted to the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. 

Searcy says she hopes the festival can both continue to reach new audiences and collaborate with other arts festivals to continue its legacy as a cultural institution.

“I think that art, film, [and] music provide this opportunity for us to get out of this sort of limited perspective of, ‘This is what I know, this is the one political thing that I know, or this one political piece of information that I’ve gathered,’” she says. “But putting that in context is so important for us to be able to communicate and understand each other.”

I spoke to Searcy about what attendees can expect at the fest this year and the organization’s goals for the future. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Chicago International Children’s Film Festival
11/3–11/19, venues vary
$12 single tickets, $10.20 for Facets members; $40 four-ticket bundle, $36 for Facets members; $250 festival pass, $212.50 for Facets members

Emma Oxnevad: Did any of this year’s selected filmography inspire debate or extra consideration from the selection committee or jurors?

Deidre Searcy: The Color of Autumn. It’s a short—it has some folks involved in it . . . from Chicago, [and] it’s based in Chicago and [on] the experience of an eight-year-old girl on the south side of Chicago. I think that the fact that the N-word is used, we were concerned about that. It was important to us to find that the children who were involved in the making of it, that there was a cultural sensitivity consultant who worked with them in terms of the making of it. But I think that at the end of the day, what was more important to us was [that] these are experiences that our kids might have. . . . It’s one thing to talk about history . . . it’s another thing for young people to see that through the perspective of another child and to contend with it, as opposed to a general historical concept. 

Has the festival returned to its full pre-pandemic operations? 

This year is another hybrid year for us, and I think we’re holding onto hybrid maybe a little more . . . for school groups and for people with young children; maybe they’re a little bit hesitant or maybe there are barriers to having them come out. But ultimately, we do want them to have that experience and are trying it in as many ways as we can through incentives.

How has the festival evolved over the years?

Certainly, we were impacted by COVID, but I also think that [there are] school impacts around the arts that all arts organizations have dealt with: whether or not the arts are supported in a full way, or [if] there’s an emphasis on testing. So things like taking a trip out to the film festival don’t seem to coincide with a well-rounded education—which we know isn’t true—but can sometimes impact just how many folks are coming out, especially within the schools. . . . We’re partnering with other arts organizations, and I love that. We’re partnering with Merit School of Music, Chicago Danztheatre, Old Town School of Folk Music; we’re finding ways to make those connections for people, and I think that’s a good thing, as well as partnering with other film festivals. We’re partnering with [the] Chicago Irish Film Festival and we’re partnering with a Brazilian film festival. . . . We’re all in this together and have these wonderful things to share with audiences.

What are your goals for the future of the festival?

We’ve talked about extending the fest and being able to reach parts of rural Illinois and other places with our programming. I think that our participation in the Chicago Alliance of Film Festivals is really going to help, we hope, lift all the boats of all the film festivals. . . . I hope that as families start to connect with the various festivals, that they see the value. Chicago is a film town: films are produced here, filmmakers come from here, actors come from here, and you’ve got this long history. And [there’s] the first-of-its-kind alliance in the nation of film festivals that are trying to support each other and, in doing so, make it an even greater value for families and people who love film to engage in these different opportunities. . . . The future is in finding our strength together and [being] able to get that message out. People don’t know there are over 55 film festivals in the Chicago area, and it’s important for people to know that.