The Seattle International Film Festival
by Dennis West
Seattle currently ranks as America’s number one boomtown, a city growing faster than any other thanks in large part to the rapid expansion of firms such as Amazon, Expedia, and Google. These companies will have their vertical office space, and the resulting construction boom has sprouted copses of giant cranes cluttering up the skyline and marring those classic views of the iconic Space Needle. Prospective employees arrive in droves; and labor interests have become so powerful that recently Seattle—in an effort to mitigate income inequality—became the first U. S. city to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Housing represents the current socioeconomic battleground, i.e., how to provide affordable housing for low-income residents as home prices and rents soar. Entire city blocks of decades-old single-family homes vanish seemingly overnight, the lots quickly scabbed over with high-density, cookie-cutter residential units stacked up boxily five or six stories. With more residents comes more vehicular traffic; and in a billions-of-dollars effort to handle the challenge, this city without a subway has enlisted the $80-million colossal drill dubbed Bertha, complete with its four million-pound cutter head. The world’s most formidable tunnel-digging contraption—when not scandalously stalled in its frequent broken-down mode—churns away year after year, boring an underground passageway so that eventually automobile traffic can speed along a highway from the Puget Sound waterfront to areas of the city further uphill.
A booming city needs a booming film festival, and that Seattle boasts—which is fitting, since, according to festival publicity and general consensus, Seattleites on a per-capita basis see more movies annually than the residents of any other U. S. metropolis. Urban legend holds that the rainy climate drove the citizens indoors for indeterminate periods and turned them into confirmed moviegoers.
The forty-first edition of the annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), which took place in May and June of 2015, offered up hundreds of works at a dozen different venues across a mind-boggling period of twenty-five consecutive days—not that I was counting as I attended the entire event. SIFF excels at reaching out to the populace, for example, with its multifaceted educational arm, which distributes thousands of free tickets to area students, such as high schoolers seeking to improve their French-language skills by taking in a Francophone production. Local support runs strong, as seen in the long list of influential Seattle-based sponsors, such as Starbucks, routinely touted in festival publicity. As for the Seattle film fans themselves, many famously take vacation time in order to pack in dozens of morning-to-evening, back-to-back screenings, to the extent that the catchphrase “sleepless in Seattle” is now routinely applied to this dedicated demographic. These film folks may suffer sleep deprivation, but they are remarkably organized, and the SIFF membership rolls boast over seven thousand names of enthusiasts who pay to join and thus support festival activities with their checkbooks. Another organization of moviegoers, this one less formal, proudly sports the moniker Fool Serious; this group brings together in solidarity those who have acquired “full-series passes” allowing entrance to virtually all screenings. The Fool Series community has prospered over the years; and it currently wields considerable influence, for instance, by sponsoring screenings and by conducting a written poll in which individual members rank by number every single fiction and documentary feature screened.
With this sort of broad and dedicated local support, it is not surprising that the SIFF programming team pursues a “something-for-everyone” approach in which the aesthetic qualities of particular films do not necessarily represent a primary consideration for selection. When in broad daylight an evidently large individual in an ultrashaggy and mud-spattered bigfoot outfit nonchalantly lumbered past me on the sidewalk outside a SIFF theater, I then remembered that the U. S. fiction feature Valley of the Sasquatch was about to unspool inside in the Northwest Connections program, which focuses on topics presumably of special interest for residents of the Pacific Northwest—and a movie headlining a sasquatch antagonist more than fills that bill. A hugely sold-out program of short films, Faces of Yesler Terrace, addressed the ongoing and controversial gentrification of that Seattle neighborhood. Attendees at the popular Secret Festival reportedly signed oaths of silence in order to view in a semiclandestine manner a slate of motion pictures presumably banned from public exhibition on legal or other grounds. The tasty Culinary Cinema program attempted to nudge moviegoers beyond buttered popcorn by celebrating food culture in fiction and nonfiction features such as The Birth of Saké and Steak (R)evolution; and the festival even arranged for ticket holders to enjoy “spectacular evenings of food and film at Seattle’s most delectable restaurants.” Midnight Adrenaline aimed to keep moviegoers terrified or at least awake with scary fare such as Deathgasm or The Nightmare, which was touted in the festival catalogue as “the most terrifying documentary ever made.”
More conventional programs were also on offer. Two red-carpet tributes were structured as “evenings” with Kevin Bacon and Jason Schwartzman; and, at a given point, both actors graciously appeared on stage in order to take questions directly from the audience. Gala events and special presentations splashed on screen with great fanfare features as different as Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway’s outrageously flamboyant and raunchy take on the maestro’s sexual awakening in Mexico, and Shaun the Sheep, Wallace and Gromit-style animated comedy sheepishly created by directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton with the help of the Aardman Animation flock.
A robust archival program yielded gems such as director Arthur Berthelet’s 1916 feature Sherlock Holmes, in which American thespian William Gillette, renowned for his 1,300 stage appearances as Holmes, gave the storied detective several of his later-to-be-famous attributes, such as the penchant to brandish a curved meerschaum pipe during his deduction rituals. This motion picture, produced at the Essanay Studios in Chicago, had reportedly remained unseen for almost a century, until archivists in the Cinématheque Française stumbled upon a nitrate dupe negative late last year. The long-lost Sherlock Holmes had been regarded as a “holy grail” of the silent era because it features the only known appearance of the immensely popular and influential Gillette playing Holmes ever recorded on film. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinématheque Française produced the superb digital restoration—right down to the re-creation of the original color tinting—that screened at SIFF. Sherlock Holmes is slated for release in Blu-ray format later this year.
Three juried competitions of features were programmed in the categories of documentary, new directors, and new American cinema. My jury assignment took me to this latter category, which consisted of nine world premieres of U. S. independent fiction features—most were debut films. All were competently produced, but most proved artistically undistinguished as they lacked creative flair and tended to follow conventional narrative and stylistic formulas.
Chatty Catties, co-written and directed by Pablo Valencia, stood out as the exception in spite of weaknesses, such as a narrative structure hampered by gratuitously intercalated scenes featuring too many owners with too many felines. This indeed chatty and indeed cat-ridden movie made off with the International Critics Prize for its creative and risky artistry and, according to the jury statement, for its “fresh view of intimate relationships” and its creation of “an unexpected and utterly original emotional landscape.” Chatty Catties, you see, is a live-action, blackish, one-of-a-kind screwball comedy exploring the strained relationship between sophisticated and sassy, English-speaking, tubby tabby Leonard (singularly voiced by hearing impaired performer John Autry II) and his self-centered, flighty, and abusive mistress (a remarkably unfettered Megan Hensley), a likewise English-speaking young woman with her own day-to-day, depressingly mundane human problems, such as a faltering, dead-end career, troubles with men, and alcoholism. And, yes, furry feline and spacey human owner regularly hold conversations—Leonard excels as a potty-mouthed retorter—that are mutually intelligible and at times emotionally wrenching. And, yes, this jury decision reportedly proved controversial, particularly amongst festivalgoers muleheadly uninterested in any live-action talking-animal movies featuring any species whatsoever.
The new American cinema program aside, the heart of this film festival lay in the meaty selection of new fiction and nonfiction features on offer—more than 270 titles from ninety-two countries according to festival publicity. Many of these works had already screened at other major festivals, such as San Sebastián and Berlin; but SIFF showcased plenty of North American and world premieres. The aesthetic quality of these films varied widely; and, because of space limitations, the following comments briefly highlight only a few of the many titles worthy of comment. The documentary selection in particular proved exceptionally strong at this year’s SIFF, so that is where I now turn my attention. The three nonfiction features discussed below all had their directors in tow—always a welcome phenomenon at a festival since it tends to boost attendance and to provide viewers with frequently invaluable contextualization.
Certainly the most artistically and politically provocative documentary I saw at SIFF was first-time director Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker, which fearlessly follows the Ukrainian performance artist, conspiracy theorist, and all-around provocateur Fedor Alexandrovich as he wends his way through indelibly nightmarish landscapes now abandoned by history: through the dangerous “exclusion zone” in the ruined, still radioactive but haphazardly overgrown Chernobyl nuclear power plant; and through the massive-but-now-decaying, over-the-horizon radar installation Duga-3, a Cold-War era relic known in the West as the Russian Woodpecker. A high point of the film is a vertiginous and death-defying sequence that records a climb up the installation’s spectral, rusting-away but still-standing antenna, a gargantuan latticed array—now abandoned—estimated at one hundred and fifty meters in height and nine hundred meters in length. This otherworldly scenario eventually funnels the filmmakers into the supercharged flow of sociopolitical events in 2013–2014 in Kiev’s Maidan Square, where, during anti-Russian protests, Alexandrovich harangues the crowd, and the documentary’s cinematographer, Artem Ryzhykov, is twice shot as he dared to film actuality footage.
In fewer than ninety minutes, The Russian Woodpecker offers an intriguing tour of Ukrainian and Russian history from the Cold War to the present; and showboat performance artist Alexandrovich succeeds in prodding audiences to seriously consider such alleged and far-fetched conspiracies as the deliberate triggering of the Chernobyl disaster by a high-ranking Kremlin official in an effort to hide the disastrous and costly failure of Duga-3, which is located nearby. Alexandrovich, incidentally, is himself a scarred survivor of the Chernobyl calamity who, as a resident child, suffered radiation poisoning. In an interview with me, Gracia, a specialist in Russian area studies, expressed his belief that today in Ukrainian society a widespread perception persists that an official cover-up shrouds the 1986 Chernobyl incident.
Another extremely provocative political documentary on offer, as an American premiere, was German filmmaker Matthias Bittner’s War of Lies, which consists basically of a riveting interview with Iraqi refugee Rafid Ahmed Alwan adroitly intercut with news clips and imaginative re-enactments. Secretary of State Colin Powell stood in the United Nations in February 2003 to mistakenly inform the world that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, such as truck-mounted mobile biological warfare labs. That assertion was largely based on the fabricated claims of a single Iraqi refugee, Alwan—known to the CIA as Curveball—a former chemical engineer who had fled his country in 1999 and retained a burning desire to oust the infamous dictator. U. S. and German intelligence services believed many of Alwan’s fabrications, and they became the “hard intelligence” summoned by the Bush Administration to justify the bloody U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bittner discussed with audiences details about the production: his painstaking efforts—using Google Earth and going door-to-door posing as a salesman—to locate Alwan living clandestinely in Germany; the five months spent earning the gun-shy informant’s trust and respect; the film’s bare bones set design meant to suggest an actual interrogation center; and the theoretical and practical problems of filming the conversation with Alwan eight hours a day over a six-day period. Bittner puts big questions—such as what is truth?—to the articulate, always performing, ever-so-slippery, chain-smoking Alwan. He smoothly spins his answers to those as well as lesser questions, such as the interior design of those aforementioned trucks—everything assuredly sketched out on paper. I would guess that only specialists or ideologues will have firm opinions concerning what, exactly, is true and what is false in Alwan’s testimony; but many viewers will agree with me that Bittner ranks alongside Errol Morris in terms of an ability to get fascinating subjects to talk in an engaging manner about important topics. This represents a stunning achievement in a graduation film, which, it is hoped, will be picked up for distribution in the country that invaded Iraq on a trumped-up premise, the United States.
Seattle famously flaunts a reputation as a progressive city so, not surprisingly, activist documentaries received much fanfare at the festival. In one of the most urgent, Racing Extinction, director Louie Psihoyos creates a frequently breathtaking world tour—from the ocean depths to the rooftops of clandestine warehouses in China—to show us how and why endangered animal species are rapidly disappearing and the urgent implications of this phenomenon for mankind in the twenty-first century. Psihoyos’s committed activism frequently involves a sort of guerrilla filmmaking, which ingeniously draws on new technological advances, such as tiny GoPro cameras. Armed with these and other hidden devices, Psihoyos and his crew talked their way onto those flat rooftops to reveal with stunning pan shots acres of chopped-off shark fins drying in the sun—a few pieces of the one hundred million sharks harvested annually merely for their appendages, according to the filmmaker, who participated in a question-and-answer session before a huge audience. Endangered species are eaten not just in China, but also in the United States; and in one chilling scene, a successful sting, the filmmakers gather up the federally protected sei whale meat served them in The Hump, a trendy Santa Monica restaurant, and secret it into plastic bags for subsequent scientific testing. Psihoyos’s guerrilla filmmaking depends not only on technological advances in the taking of images, but also in their exhibition. Several sequences foreground the ways in which powerful new projectors—they deliver fifteen thousand lumens—can be creatively enlisted in the struggle to save endangered species. For instance, in a sequence set in New York City, we watch thirty-stories-high video images and statistics regarding the current extinction crisis projected as a literally illuminating consciousness-raising ploy on the iconic headquarters of the United Nations.
Psihoyos’s activism is not just technology based, and during his on-stage presentation he urged the audience not to ignore local grass-roots efforts, such as the ongoing Washington State ballot-measure campaign to ban the sale of endangered species products. Psihoyos did claim considerable success for his cinematic activism, for instance, by crediting his Academy Award winning documentary The Cove (2009), which vividly records the ritual slaughter of dolphins trapped in a Japanese cove, for a sixty-five percent drop in the consumption of dolphin meat in that country. The audience accorded Psihoyos a standing ovation—the only instance of such enthusiasm directed at a filmmaker that I witnessed during the entire festival.
The homespun, fun-filled, and perpetually zestful Seattle International Film Festival excels at putting before local audiences a rich variety of film fare on a caveat-emptor basis. Veteran festivalgoers, such as many Fool Serious members, have learned over the years how best to navigate this moviegoing marathon by avoiding likely duds and targeting the particular programs most likely to meet artistic and other expectations. SIFF notably constitutes a one-of-a-kind, Seattle-centric cultural event. This Seattle-centricity, however, may present a few minor challenges for film professionals coming from outside. For instance, visiting critics have been taken aback on arrival to learn that there is no expectation in the press office that festival catalogues will be routinely made available. Nor is a “Who’s Where” list available—that all-important information on foreign and U. S. visitors to a festival detailing their lodgings and the dates of their stay—this is how colleagues, in attendance unbeknownst to each other, can hook up. More disappointingly, SIFF provides no meeting point, routine happy-hour event, or some such where local and out-of-town film folks—distributors, journalists, filmmakers, festival staff, critics, and others of our ilk—can freely and informally meet and mingle. Full disclosure: these observations come from an out-of-town critic who is also a proudly card-carrying member of SIFF—at benefactor level—and a long-time attendee.
The informative and beautifully produced 320-page festival catalogue on its front cover emblazons the dates of this event as May 14–June 7, but in reality SIFF 2015 overflowed these boundaries. A program featuring the best films in this year’s edition was scheduled for the weekend following the close of the festival. And this news flash: After a vigorous fund-raising campaign, and with much to-do, SIFF recently acquired two venerable and iconic movie theatres, the Uptown and the Egyptian, in vital neighborhoods removed from downtown. SIFF has now become such a culturally essential institution in the city that screenings regularly occur year round at three different exhibition venues tallying up five screens. So, no doubt about it, nowadays SIFF—unlike Bertha—goes “Boom!” full time.
Dennis West is a Cineaste Contributing Editor.
For more information on the Seattle Film Festival, click here.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 4