Q&A: Chicago International Film Festival Board Member Jacolyn Bucksbaum Discusses What Sets North America’s Longest-Running Competitive Film Festival Apart

The 58th Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is now in full swing, running Oct. 12-23, 2022. The longest-running competitive film festival in North America, CIFF examines, through the lens of a camera, international storytelling and its impact at home and abroad. Thanks to a dedicated support system of board members and donors, the festival is able to keep costs low and entertainment value high.

A credit to its long-standing success is CIFF board member, Jacolyn Bucksbaum, who, along with her husband, founded the John and Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation that supports numerous organizations across the city, from art to athletics. As life-long Chicagoans, their commitment is one of the reasons events like CIFF are able to continue, despite setbacks like the pandemic.

Jackie Bucksbaum
Jackie Bucksbaum

Better sat down with Jackie Bucksbaum to learn more about their foundation; the importance of access to the arts; and how Chicago plays a role in these endeavors. Read our interview and stay tuned for more Chicago International Film Festival coverage from Better.

Tell us about the John and Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation and its relation to the arts in Chicago — specifically the Chicago International Film Festival?

My husband [John] and I have our own foundation and we support many things, but we focus on the arts, education and we’re also very big into athletic endeavors — like supporting the U.S. Ski Team and USA Cycling. A little background, I worked in the motion picture business for 15 years in production. I did a lot of films with John Hughes and Oliver Stone, so my passion for films started early with my career and has continued. As I raised my kids, I left the business and started more philanthropic endeavors — still supporting, obviously, film endeavors. I got involved with the Chicago International Film Festival and have been a board member for 11 years. I’ve always supported the festival as a board member but, beyond that, I usually underwrite the main competition or Women In Cinema, historically.

This festival is an audience festival and we have films from around the world — it’s not a distribution festival. Film is all about storytelling and we all have stories to share and tell — what I love about the festival is that it brings people together.

Jackie Bucksbaum (far left) at a previous Chicago International Film Festival event
Jackie Bucksbaum (far left) and Governing Board with honorees Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren| Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt

When I look at our audience, I’m always so excited to see all ages and every kind of demographic that is represented in the city of Chicago, because we do make it accessible by not making it too expensive for people to come — which is very important to me. That’s why underwriting is so important to keep the festival affordable.

Besides the CIFF, what other organizations or projects does your foundation support?

We’re big supporters of the new Obama Presidential Center that is being built on the South Side as well as the Obama Foundation. I’m a huge fan of President Obama. I’m involved with the Society of Contemporary Art Acquisitions, which is our own 501(c)(3); we buy contemporary art for the Museum. I’m on the Photography Acquisition Committee at the Art Institute.

I’m also on the board of Latin School of Chicago, still as a Senior Trustee. Our kids went to Latin and we love to support organizations that support education, like Start Early and Erikson Institute.

We’re engaged in Jewish philanthropy, as well — here in the city and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Jackie Bucksbaum
Photo courtesy of The Focus Foundation

What sets CIFF apart from other film festivals?

We have films that are in [countless] languages. I love seeing people come to the festival to hear a film in their own language. You don’t get that a lot in this country. And most other film festivals don’t offer what we offer. It’s unique.

CIFF is not about “What’s the next hit?” It’s about what little story can I go to today that’s gonna make me think a little differently. We have films from all over the world and they’re not necessarily films we’d otherwise see here.

Your work with the festival obviously has a personal connection for you. What are your hopes for the future of the CIFF?

Broadening our reach in Chicago and beyond is always a goal. Our festival is longer than most and we’d like to see visitors from out of town come and spend several days here. We’d also like to continue to engage more board members that are passionate and have different skill sets that can help us grow the festival and attract some bigger sponsors so that we can do more. 

There’s always room for improvement and growth. Expanding our diverse audience and continuing to choose high-quality, diverse movies that really represent storytelling from all over the world are ongoing goals.

Governing Board members and guests at Closing Night of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival | Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt

Accessibility is a cornerstone of this series, what does that mean for Chicagoans and festival goers?

We have a pretty strong program in giving Chicago Public School kids the opportunity to have an experience where they can meet a director, sit with them after the movie, and understand what goes into a movie and how it’s made.

I also think keeping costs down is a huge factor. I know with more funding we could do more of that. That’s something that we’re always trying to do is to offer more free programming and more affordable programming.

We also partner with organizations like the Chicago Public Library and Chicago History Museum that give us additional places to screen … and they let us use their theater at a very low cost. We’re very budget conscious.

[People] have no idea what it took to get us here; a lot of effort by a small staff. We’re very small, but mighty. This is the 58th year … we’re here for the community.

Going to a film … it takes us to a different dimension, a different place for two hours. The whole idea of the festival is to come out; go out of your comfort zone; see something that you normally wouldn’t see; and challenge yourself.

For more information about this year’s film lineup, locations and the Festival’s programs, visit the Chicago International Film Festival website.

Editor’s Note: This abridged interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.

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