The Forty-Second Seattle International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Dennis West

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has long reigned as the largest in the United States; nevertheless, expansion was the hallmark of the 2016 edition, which unfolded across twenty-five intense days in the dark during May and June of 2016. The numbers say it best: literally two dozen programmers scoured the production of over eighty countries to bring ever-appreciative Seattleites over four hundred feature and short films. The venues—twelve by my count, some multiscreen—overflowed the Seattle city limits into nearby communities; and they ranged from a 2,900 seat performance hall to an intimate art-house pocket venue. The eye-catching symbols and/or the names of grand sponsors, producing sponsors, hospitality sponsors, partner sponsors, contributing sponsors, media sponsors, institutional supporters, community partners, donors, and dignitaries extending greetings, and dues-paying SIFF members themselves spread out across fourteen pages of the 320-page catalogue. New programs abounded, such as the noncompetitive China Stars and the Ibero-American Competition; both selections presented recent features from their respective geographic regions. And, in case conventional moviegoing opportunities did not suffice, one inaugural program, SIFFX, surpassed traditional filmmaking boundaries to survey cutting-edge visual storytelling formats that draw on virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360-degree video. 

The new program receiving the most press and audience attention was the Official Competition, a dozen features from around the globe having their world, North American, or U.S. premiere. The offerings ranged from co-screenwriter-director François Péloquin’s independently produced and modestly budgeted coming-of-age tale The Sound of Trees, set in the backwoods of Quebec, to co-screenwriter-director Gilles Legrand’s lavishly produced French love story The Scent of Mandarin, in which Belgian star Olivier Gourmet plays a brooding World War I cavalry officer and amputee intent on using horsemanship and other ploys to romance his home-care nurse (Georgia Scalliet), an independent-minded widow, a mother, and a protofeminist. The accomplished debut feature The Sound of Trees proved a highlight of this program—for a discussion of this film, consult my communiqué on the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Latin American cinema has traditionally been underrepresented at SIFF, so the inaugural Ibero-American Competition represents a major first step in making that production better known to Seattleites. The “Ibero-American” designation refers to Portugal, Spain, and Latin America. The competition showcased eight new fiction and documentary features lacking U.S. distribution and celebrating their American premieres during SIFF. 

An about-to-retire attendant and his young replacement get to know each other in Warehoused.

The Mexican two-hander Warehoused, co-written and directed by Jack Zagha, proved the most successful work in the Ibero-American Competition in part owing to a tightly structured and imaginative script peppered with surprising dialogue and wry humor. The screenplay was co-authored with Yossy Zagha and Spanish playwright David Desola; the film adapts Desola’s eponymous play. As critics have noted, this absurd minimalist comedy plays out as Waiting for Godot à la mexicana.

Time to sweep up in Jack Zagha's Warehoused.

The Warehoused title refers to the status of employees rather than to merchandise or materials that are stored. The narrative’s setting is, predictably, a generic, empty warehouse. Veteran Mexican actor José Carlos Ruiz stoically portrays the blue-smocked, about-to-retire warehouse attendant Señor Lino, a stickler for routine and detail, who painstakingly spells out to his nineteen-year-old replacement, Nin (Hoze Meléndez), the long-established and mandatory protocols to be completed on a daily basis, such as punching the time clock seven minutes early. Or the advisability of simply leaving alone the never-ending line of ants marching purposely across the cement floor. Dialogue glimmers and glints. Lino’s language at times rings pithy, folksy, and conclusive yet enigmatic: “Ants merely go about their business as they go about their business” (“van a lo que van”) just, apparently, as human workers should. The time frame is tight—one week’s working hours Monday through Friday—enough time for Nin and Lino to overcome generational differences and to appreciate the different attitudes, standards, and creativity or its lack that different employees will bring to a job that seems useless or absurd apart from the modest salary it provides. After all, it eventually appears that no shipments of masts, flagpoles, or anything else have ever arrived at the warehouse during Lino’s thirty-nine-year tenure—though a shipment just might arrive, be it tomorrow or decades in the future. And anything that did arrive would presumably have to be unloaded, recorded in a ledger, and then actually stored somewhere in the warehouse. Claudio Rocha’s camerawork combats staginess by unobtrusively gliding with the characters through the empty space as they sweep up, discourse, or simply shuffle about. Warehoused obliquely raises but does not answer some big questions: the value of work and creativity, the power of social status, the formidableness of routine, the nature of time, the meaning of existence. And this particularly weighty question: Do all the ants on earth combined weigh more than all the human beings on earth combined? 

While SIFF 2016 added new programs to its lineup, it also expanded previously existing ones, such as Northwest Connections, which presented fifteen features and twenty-eight shorts. Seattle arguably represents the greatest artistic and commercial hub in the Pacific Northwest, so unsurprisingly, this selection of “local products” garners considerable audience attention. No film in this selection proved more attention-grabbing and popular than Matt Ross’s family comedy-drama-cum-road movie Captain Fantastic, which captured the coveted Golden Space Needle [Audience] Award as Best Film. Audience demand to see this film —depicting the herculean efforts of a dad (Viggo Mortensen) to raise his children “off-the-grid” in the wilds—was so great that out-of-town press were accorded only one viewing opportunity, at the movie’s second and final public screening held after the festival’s awards had been publicly announced. Perhaps Captain Fantastic’s popularity derives from these factors: it is artistically unique thanks to its mélange of genres and its offbeat tone, and its central theme seems to reflect the polarized American Zeitgeist. How can we raise our children to protect them from the crass materialism and consumerism of our society while nurturing them into well-educated, self-sufficient, and morally upright adult citizens? For further consideration of Captain Fantastic see the upcoming winter issue of Cineaste, which features an in-depth interview with screenwriter-director Matt Ross.

Much of the buzz surrounding Captain Fantastic seemed to derive from its status as a (partially) made-in-Washington motion picture that received support from Washington Filmworks, a Seattle-based nonprofit that manages the state’s film commission and its production incentive programs. In fact, a half-page announcement framed in bright red in the festival catalogue heralds Seattle mayor Ed Murray’s bestowal of the 2016 Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film to Washington Filmworks. According to the mayor’s figures, then, this outfit since 2006 has supported the production of forty-one features and dozens of other film, TV, and commercial projects “resulting in over $299 million in economic impact to Washington State and $170 million to the Seattle region.” All this hoopla concerning tax incentives suggested to me, a naïve out-of-state observer, that the aforementioned interests in Washington seek to powerfully compete with the other forty-nine states in enticing production money from afar; and Captain Fantastic bears the program’s current badge of honor. 

Dick Goin shows off a prize catch in The Memory of Fish.

The best documentary I saw in Northwest Connections was The Memory of Fish, which screened as a world premiere. Ably photographed and directed by Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham, this clearly structured and information-laden film examines the history of man’s relation to the once salmon-rich Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington State. Approximately a century ago, two hydroelectric dams were constructed on the river to generate electricity for nearby residents and pulp mills; but since the dams lacked fish ladders, the runs of the anadromous native fish—coho, steelhead, chum, chinook, sockeye—were blocked from returning upriver to ancient spawning grounds. Across the decades, then, the trout and salmon runs disastrously dwindled.

The specific course of this depletion was recorded in the dozens of notebooks filled to brimming by machinist and avid sport fisherman Dick Goin, who since the 1940s had noted down the details of his daily catches on the river—specific species caught, their weight and length, and other relevant baseline data. Goin, who frequently appears in the present time of this character-centered film as an octogenarian, is an appealing personality given his humble Dust Bowl roots, his determination as a blue-collar father to feed his family with the river’s bounty, and his decades-long activism opposing the dams in favor of a free-flowing river. The Dick Goin story arc is concomitantly linked to another: the history of the dams as illustrated in old blueprints and photographs right up to their removal in 2011 at a cost of $325 million—reportedly the most massive removal project in history. The film’s dramatic high point is provided by actuality footage depicting the spectacular blowing up of the towering dams. 

Remove-the-dams activism in The Memory of Fish.

Galvin and Cunningham provide considerable political and socioeconomic contextualization concerning the pros and cons of dammed rivers versus free-flowing streams. Nevertheless, certain urgent issues remain little examined, such as the economic importance of the dams as energy producers in the twenty-first century, the economic and ecological pressures exerted by those parties pushing for development, or the stakes of nearby Native American communities (e.g., the Klallam people) in these matters. In a question-and-answer session after the screening, the directors stressed the educational potential of their film, which, it seems to me, could become something of a minor classic in the “Water Wars” currently unfolding in the American West. 

SIFF 2016 offered a huge and enticing selection of feature documentaries in other programs. The current worldwide explosion in nonfiction filmmaking has produced much work that is innovative or attention-getting either artistically or thematically. So I dedicated much of my viewing time to the documentary offerings. By the end of the festival, I had come upon no towering achievements in terms of cinematic art, but I had encountered many films worthy of attention. Examples follow. 

Haitian deforestation in Death by a Thousand Cuts.

Haitian deforestation in Death by a Thousand Cuts.

The Documentary Competition consisted of twelve features, all but one having their world, North American, or U.S. premiere during the festival. The Grand Jury Prize in this selection deservedly went to Death by a Thousand Cuts, a Dominican Republic/Haiti/U.S. co-production co-directed by Juan Mejía Botero and Jake Kheel. Like The Memory of Fish, this documentary examines man’s precarious relation to a vital natural resource, in this case Dominican forests, which, along much of the unmarked Haitian-Dominican border (on the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola) are illegally but routinely chopped down. The wood thus obtained is then clandestinely rendered by poverty-stricken Haitian indocumentados into charcoal that will be transported into a deforested Haiti, where it is widely prized as an inexpensive fuel. According to the filmmakers, less than two percent of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, enjoys forest cover, while estimates of forest cover in the Dominican Republic approximate twenty-five percent. In addition, the latter country boasts a relatively strong economy with considerable protection for natural resources. 

Death by a Thousand Cuts starts off as an investigation into the gruesome murder by machete of a Dominican park ranger allegedly committed by a Haitian indocumentado discovered illegally felling trees and producing charcoal. By film’s end, the investigation of this single incident has turned into a massive exposé whose socioeconomic implications ripple out in concentric circles. A sample of these bigger issues: virulent anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic has recently resulted in changes to the nation’s immigration laws threatening the legal status of hundreds of thousands of Haitian residents, such as the indocumentada widow of the murdered park ranger. Efforts by the relatives of the murder victim to seek justice through official channels are stymied in both countries, since the respective do-nothing bureaucracies are simply not committed to the required legal protocols and practicalities. While Haitian workers are routinely scapegoated, in reality certain powerful Dominican merchants are themselves deeply involved in the illegal production of charcoal. The clandestine charcoal traffic in the Dominican Republic will lead to the further deforestation of Hispaniola, and, eventually, to further desertification. And this ecological calamity will inexorably lead to a further decline in living standards on the island and to increased emigration. 

Charcoal for sale in a Haitian market in Death by a Thousand Cuts.

Death by a Thousand Cuts boasts many strengths, such as the filmmakers’ extensive on-the-ground research in both countries and their remarkable success in letting concerned parties speak for themselves concerning the issues involved. On the negative side, it is regrettable that more information is not offered concerning the middle men in the illegal charcoal traffic, the truck drivers, as well as those powerful Dominican merchants, bosses, and politicians reaping tainted wealth behind the scenes. 

The most artistically innovative nonfiction film I encountered at SIFF was co-cinematographer and director Keith Maitland’s Tower, which reimagines sniper Charles Whitman’s infamous ninety-six-minute shooting spree in 1966 from atop the twenty-eight stories high clock tower overlooking the University of Texas campus in Austin—the first of the campus mass shootings that would come to rock American society. The crime scene encompassed five city blocks; hundreds witnessed the events. The UT Tower Massacre is widely regarded as the mass shooting that forever changed police response tactics and led to the creation of SWAT teams. And, in some quarters, the incident is hailed as the most momentous act of spontaneous vigilantism in modern US history, since Austin police were inadequately armed whereas citizen riflemen armed themselves, assembled, and returned Whitman’s fire.

Maitland impressively mixes rotoscopic animation, contemporary interviews with those present, and abundant actuality footage to dramatically re-create events from the perspectives of victims and others on the ground, including one wounded pregnant woman who lay incapacitated and pinned down in the blazing sun before her rescue by two courageous teenagers an hour after she had fallen. The mesmerizing rotoscopic animation—punctuated by nerve-wracking rifle shots and, subsequently, the color red overflowing the screen—effectively suggests the eerie atmosphere of first bewilderment and then horror that came to engulf surviving victims, witnesses, concerned armed and unarmed citizens, and others present. Tower succeeds mightily as dramatic re-enactment, oral history, and journalistic enquiry. 

Maitland provided invaluable contextualization in a question-and-answer session after the screening. In his opinion, the University of Texas attempts to downplay this tragic bloodbath while residents of Austin tend to view it as a “gaping wound.” He believes, then, that his film can assist in a necessary healing process. The filmmaker also underscored his desire in Tower to deny attention to the notorious sniper—an expert marksman—in favor of stressing the actual words and actions of the victims, law enforcement officers, civilian good Samaritans, and witnesses themselves whose stories, he contends, have been little heard till now. 

The timing of Tower’s release could not be more propitious: August 1, 2016, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the UT Tower Massacre as well as the implementation of Texas’s “campus carry” legislation, which will affect all public universities and colleges in the state. The controversial law permits the concealed bearing of handguns on campus and in classrooms. As more and more states pass campus-carry legislation, Tower may become required viewing on those affected campuses. 

Adoring fans engulf Dean Reed in Chile.

The compilation documentary Red Gringo, directed by Miguel Angel Vidaurre, draws on an extraordinary abundance of actuality footage and occasional interviews to follow the activities of the American-born show-business celebrity Dean Reed in his beloved Chile from the 1960s into the 1980s, when, during a visit, the Pinochet dictatorship expelled him from the country because of his leftist activism. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Reed was known in the United States as a good-looking, modestly talented teen singing idol with a few pop singles to his credit, such as “Our Summer Romance.” His fame was modest in America; but it rather inexplicably skyrocketed in Argentina and Chile, countries where he later successfully toured and resided for a time. 

When confronted with brutal poverty in Chile, he began to develop a political conscience that soon led to much publicized and controversial left-wing political positions, such as those highlighted in Red Gringo in the famous newsreel footage of the singer in 1970—the year of Salvador Allende’s election—symbolically washing the U.S. flag before the gates of the embassy in Santiago while denouncing in the strongest terms his country’s racism and imperialism. As a transnational political agitator, Reed rejected America’s bellicose anti-communist foreign policy and actively supported Allende’s Popular Unity movement, which promised a “Chilean road to socialism.” While Red Gringo focuses on Reed in Chile, it also makes some reference to his career—as director, actor, singer, guitarist, writer—in East Germany in the 1970s and 80s, after he had left South America. 

Dean Reed (left) meets Chilean President Salvador Allende.

Dean Reed protests U.S. foreign policy in Red Gringo.

Red Gringo works best as a snappily edited introduction to Reed’s time as both pop idol and revolutionary in Chile; but it may disappoint those somewhat familiar with the subject since it does not explore key sociopolitical issues such as the evolving debates—in a Cold War context—within the Chilean left and the right concerning how best to respectively use or attack Reed’s celebrity status, his U.S. citizenship, his music, and his attention-getting style of political grandstanding. For instance, initially many on the left tended to tar Reed and his music with damning charges of cultural imperialism as exemplified by mainstream American pop music; many on the right eventually shifted from considering him a cosmopolitan manifestation of U.S.-style consumerism to eventually pigeonholing him as a foreign agitator linked to the left-wing, rabble-rousing musicians of the pro-Allende Nueva Canción movement. Later, while residing in East Germany, Reed wrote, directed, and starred in the TV biopic El cantor (1978); a clip from that movie shows Reed portraying the renowned Nueva Canción singer and Allende supporter Víctor Jara, who had been savagely tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime in 1973.

My documentary viewing schedule did allow for a light interlude: the intriguing, charming, and socially relevant Kedi (Turkish for “cat”), written and directed by Ceyda Torun. In her introductory comments at a festival screening, the filmmaker stressed the enormous cultural significance of Istanbul’s street cats, whose population she calculates at one feline per five human residents. Torun drew on 180 hours of footage to capture selected cats (Smokey, Ginger, et al.) on their rounds as well as the myriad ways in which the hundreds of thousands of animals interact with Istanbulites: reducing the rodent infestation plaguing a restaurant; providing humans with companionship, entertainment, and endless therapeutic opportunities; even—could this be a tall tale?—leading a poor fisherman on a beach to a discarded wallet stuffed with money. The film’s technical achievement looms large as cinematographers and would-be wranglers Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali expertly deploy Handycam rigs to truck along with the feline adventurers at more or less cat’s-eye level as, for instance, they navigate the obstacle course of human feet and legs in a busy market.

Street cats have long called Kedi home.

Cat napping in Ceyda Torun's Kedi.

A street cat makes the rounds in Kedi.

In her remarks, Torun stressed the historical presence of street cats in Istanbul—she claims they have seen five empires come and go. Now, however, the population has come under increased pressure because of a recent government campaign demanding the animals’ elimination and because of encroaching urbanization and the concomitant disappearance of green zones. Kedi, then, cattily cautions us humans to consider the fate of other resident species before we recklessly modify our own urban environments. 

Although I attended the entire forty-second edition of SIFF, by festival’s end it became apparent that I had nevertheless missed certain of the prize-winning films. Luckily for distracted moviegoers such as me, the festival offered a week at the end of June designated Best of SIFF: 2016, a program which highlighted the prize winners and other popular fare. At this point, it is difficult to imagine just how SIFF will succeed next year in expanding even further. 

Dennis West is a Cineaste contributing editor.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc. 

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4