Using Film to Explore Other Cultures and Faiths

Photos and Text by: Lauren Messenger

The Niagara Foundation was honored to welcome Jean de St. Aubin, executive director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, to speak on using film as a way to explore other cultures and faiths on August 21. Chicago and Global Family events are roundtable discussions between Niagara Foundation staff, members, and local or global leaders in Chicago.

A group of nine guests, ranging from a representative from Senator Durbin’s office to a CNN correspondent, discussed the role film plays in society as being a nonintrusive introduction into another culture or religion that they would not have access to otherwise.

Ms. St. Aubin has been with the Film Center since 2003 when she came on as the Executive Director. Before this, she worked with the Chicago Park district where she lead citywide art programming and directed operations for the agency’s partnership with professional theaters, museums and other cultural institutions.


Chicago is home to many movie theaters, ranging from large 21 screen cinemas and IMAX theaters, to smaller establishments. Gene Siskel Film Center is different from these other theaters because they don’t show the big “box-office” successes; they show documentaries, international films, classics, independent productions, and festivals of international scope. Not only does the Film Center bring in a variety of films, but they also bring in the filmmakers themselves, allowing for the audience to interact, ask questions, and dive into the topics further. This is really what sets the Film Center apart from other sources, such as Netflix or Vudu:  The ability to interact with people who are interested in and participate in cultural exploration. They recently started a new program, the Movie Club, which meets after select films. Designed to keep the conversation going, the Movie Club seeks to further develop the community environment the Film Center is trying to cultivate.

When describing the film selection process, St. Aubin explained the process as curating films like they curate museum collections. You might go see a painting by Picasso, and around that painting are other Picasso paintings or paintings similar to or inspired by Picasso. The same goes for their film selection process, you might go to see one movie, but they have other films that you might be interested in as well that compliment each other.

The Film Center shows over 400 films each year, fluctuating from origins in the Chicago and the European Union to the Philippines. According to St. Aubin, the Film Center does not shy away from films that would be considered “controversial.” During their selection process, they are most concerned about whether or not is it a ‘good movie.’ Does it tell a story? Are the characters dynamic and compelling? How about the production value of the film? These are all factors that play into determining whether or not the film is ‘good.’ Sometimes screening films that might come off as “controversial” is a good thing, because it allows for the “controversial” topics to have a time and place to be discussed by people who are interested in it.


When asked about the interaction the Film Center has with the community that doesn’t walk into through their theater doors, St. Aubin used an example of how they took their cinematic experience into the underserved community. In partnership with the Chicago Public Library, the Film Center selects movies being shown in their successful Black Harvest Film Festival and brings them into underserved communities to be shown in their public library. This has been a very successful endeavor, as evidenced by the screenings selling out.

Chicagoans know of the Film Center, it is centrally located on State Street in the theater district, but those outside of Chicago and the Chicagoland area might not know of them and what they offer to the community in terms of cultural growth. To help this, they work closely with Choose Chicago, the Loop Alliance and other organizations within Chicago to help develop Chicago as a total cultural destination.

For more information on the Gene Siskel Film Center, their film schedule and ticket information, please visit their website.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.