The Seattle International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West
Man’s best friends—Labrador Retrievers, mainly—on leash and sporting bright green vests parade through the lobby of the multiplex accompanied by their attentive human trainers. Expectant onlookers, heavily armed with cell phones and cameras at the ready, ooh, aah, snap pictures, and respectfully ask questions about the training of these dozens of service dogs that will eventually assist the visually impaired. The event is the very full-house screening at the forty-fourth Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) of the documentary Pick of the Litter, skillfully directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy. This feature—a huge crowd-pleaser—chronologically follows the rigorous, two-year-long training of five sibling Lab pups as they prepare to assist humans in need. This event seemed to typify the Seattle Festival in several ways: a full-house screening with an enthusiastic and participatory audience; a down-home atmosphere since some on-location shooting had transpired in nearby Snohomish; and engaging subject matter offering irresistible human—and animal—interest that just spills off the screen.
Seattle is very much an audience festival; and the incessant tagline at this year’s long-running 2018 edition—May 17 to June 10—ran “Seattle International Film Festival: STARRING YOU.” Perhaps “you” cannot so easily be pigeonholed as a dog lover, in which case festival programmers also offered for your consideration the feature documentary Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit directed by Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox. The filmmakers whisk us behind the scenes to chronologically follow the efforts of exhibitors—known as cat fanciers—and the purebred felines themselves to dominate a recent competitive show season in Canada. The eccentric fanciers are well characterized; but the real stars are the fluffy Red Persian Oh La La and her rival Bobby, a white Turkish Angora.
If cats and dogs did not interest you, no worries, since during the twenty-five day long megaevent you had the opportunity of preparing your daily screening schedules from a smorgasbord of “over 430 features, short films, and documentaries gathered from ninety countries” according to the festival catalogue. Your smorgasbord pickings included noncompetitive programs such as Archival Films; Northwest Connections; African Pictures; Secret Festival; China Stars; Culinary Cinema; Films 4 [sic] Families; Emoción Pura: Cinema from Spain; and Latin American Cinema. An Official Competition was featured as well as other competitive programs. In addition, you enjoyed the opportunity of listening in person to specially invited guests, such as renowned actor/director/novelist Ethan Hawke and New Zealand-born actress Melanie Lynskey. Or you could watch celebrities such as Boots Riley—screenwriter/director of the over-the-top satire Sorry to Bother You—run the red-carpet gauntlet. If you were a student in the Seattle metropolitan area, the festival may have visited your school with an educational outreach program on filmmaking. And, for you jaded moviegoers bored with conventional film formats, the festival—with great hype—inaugurated a new venue, the SIFF VR Zone, which showcased interactive and immersive virtual reality pieces created in Seattle and around the world.
The backbone of the Seattle Festival remains the extensive selection of recent documentary and fiction features from the United States and abroad. These included many U.S., North American, or world premieres as well as films that had already screened at better-known international festivals, such as Berlin. A note in the festival catalogue contends that “More than 70% of the films screened at the festival will not return to theaters.” With this warning in mind, I determined to roam Feature Films from A-to-Z in search of quality works to tout as worthy of wide distribution, such as U. S. theatrical release. My brief, impressionistic notes on a half dozen of these works appear below.
Seattle—famed as a progressive metropolis—always programs a meaty selection of activist documentary features; and this year proved no exception. One of the best of these was Julia Bacha’s Naila and the Uprising, a revisionist examination of the First Intifada (1987–1993), which the director has characterized as “a vibrant, strategic and sustained non-violent civil resistance movement…led by a network of Palestinian women who were fighting the dual struggle for national liberation and gender equality.” Bacha seeks to correct the historical record by emphasizing the key role of women leaders, such as Naila Ayesh, in the sustained grass-roots organizing that successfully propelled the First Intifada. Naila and the Uprising features extensive on-screen commentary by the protagonist as well as archival footage and interviews with knowledgeable journalists and committed women colleagues who also participated in the movement. The documentary’s most striking artistic feature is Bacha’s use of laboriously hand-made, under-camera animation depicting Ayesh’s many past tribulations—such as her brutal incarceration when pregnant—never captured on film or video at the time. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable and polarizing of our time; and Bacha’s major achievement is to show future generations the key historical role of women in nonviolent movement building to bring peace to the region. [An interview with Julia Bacha will appear in an upcoming issue of Cineaste.]
The initially middle-class and then nouveau-riche family of Spanish actor Gustavo Salmerón gifted him a treasure trove of home movie footage. In addition, for fourteen years he himself relentlessly filmed his family—holidays, everyday life, a severe financial crisis, and so much more—to assemble the ultimate home movie: Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle. Early in this documentary, these three items are identified by the film’s octogenarian protagonist, the matriarch Julita Salmerón, as her goals in life. And, indeed, she bore six children, did once own an ornery pet monkey, and, later in life, after inheriting a fortune, purchased one of Spain’s hundreds of castles and resided therein. Had One Hundred Years of Solitude been set in Spain, this larger-than-life, obsessive, shamelessly eccentric, impishly humorous, loquacious, and ever-riveting character might just have found a leading role.
The stories the plump señora spins range from merely fascinating to bizarrely surrealist, such as her enthusiastic membership as a lass in the fascist, pro-Franco Falange Española, which allowed her to parade in a snazzy uniform and to dream of cooking up and presumably devouring yummy croquettes stuffed with the flesh of the organization’s sexy, “martyred” founder, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Compulsive hoarding is one of her obsessions; and the García Márquez-like ongoing search throughout the castle for her grandmother’s vertebrae—she was supposedly savagely murdered by “Reds” during the Civil War—is the key comic motif driving the narrative. The extent to which la señora may be playing to the camera—a longstanding documentary bugaboo—proves impossible to gauge. Regardless, her narrative enthrallingly sketches one woman’s—and her family’s—journey through Spain’s tumultuous postwar history.
Screenwriter/director Marcelo Martinessi’s first fiction feature, the notably accomplished The Heiresses, was billed by SIFF as a U. S. premiere, an event not to be missed since few motion pictures are produced in Paraguay and even fewer surface on the international festival circuit. This nuanced and subtle character study of a sixty-something, cosseted, repressed, and cloistered upper-crust lesbian follows her growing disorientation as her life partner—who always handled day-to-day practicalities—is whisked off to prison. Meanwhile, the household finances have declined to the point where inherited furniture, crystal, paintings, family heirlooms, a piano, and other belongings must be discreetly sold off piecemeal. Then, by chance, her life changes when she cautiously begins to use the couple’s automobile and soon ends up earning money by chauffeuring older society ladies to their weekly card games—and taking on other regular female passengers, such as an attractive, worldly, and free-thinking middle-aged woman.
Descending to déclassé status and attempting to live your life as a lesbian in Paraguay’s arch-conservative patriarchal society are urgent themes Martinessi treats with great sensitivity and thorough attention to detail. The art direction and cinematography relentlessly stress the darkness and claustrophobia of the couple’s musty, decaying family mansion. The noisy, crowded-with-humanity prison scenes were actually shot on location in a Paraguayan correctional facility. The uniformly restrained acting style convincingly reflects life in this constrained world. With her expressive large eyes and subtle facial gestures, Ana Brun excels at projecting the timidity, insecurity, and repression plaguing the protagonist.
The Heiresses has now opened in Paraguay, where it has ignited a firestorm of controversy. The sociopolitical import of Martinessi’s project must be underscored, since in Paraguayan society discrimination against homosexuals remains particularly rampant in both social circles and the legal realm. According to reliable Paraguayan and international press reports, the film was sensationally and crudely denounced on the floor of the Senate by the right-wing Senator Zulma Gómez (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico), who vehemently objected to the presence of homosexual characters in a Paraguayan movie.
In interviews, German screenwriter/director Robert Schwentke has spelled out his intention in The Captain to debunk the national myth of the “clean Wehrmacht,” which holds that the German armed forces in World War II had acted professionally according to the rules of war and that atrocities and war crimes had been the nefarious work of the Nazi Party and the SS. In The Captain, Schwentke closely follows the criminal trail of the historical Willi Herold (aka the Executioner of Emsland), a nineteen-year-old seemingly “ordinary German soldier,” who, behind the lines in the closing, chaotic days of World War II, inadvertently stumbles onto, and then fatefully dons, the well-fitting uniform and shoes of a mysteriously disappeared Luftwaffe captain. Subsequently, his brazenly successful and long-running impersonation of an officer allows him to gratuitously and sadistically conceptualize and carry out the prolonged massacre of scores of detained German soldiers in a prison camp—amongst other atrocities.
Controversy swirls around The Captain in part because of Schwentke’s measured and distanced depiction of his icily pale protagonist, hauntingly played by Max Hubacher. Schwentke purports to depict an ordinary German soldier—were all capable of unspeakable atrocities?—and, as critical reaction has noted, thus skimps on developing a well-rounded ideological and sociopsychological portrait of this specific subject. The director’s observational-allegorical approach is enhanced by Florian Ballhaus’s dynamic widescreen black-and-white cinematography.
Carla Simón pertains to a generation of young Catalan women cineastes who are currently receiving considerable attention on the festival circuit for their innovative work. Simón has spoken openly and at length about the troubled autobiographical background that serves as the basis for her finely tuned first feature, the Catalan-language Summer 1993, which she wrote and directed. At a very young age, Simón lost both her parents to AIDS, a disease which at that time was terrifying and little understood in Spain. After their death, in the summer of 1993, she was removed from her home in Barcelona and sent to live in a rural setting with an uncle, his wife, and their three-year-old daughter.
Summer 1993 depicts this first emotionally laden summer with her uncle’s family. During this compressed time frame, the six-year-old protagonist—memorably played by Laia Artigas—must seek to understand and come to terms with all the following: her grief over her parents’ death; the mystifying and hush-hush manner that adults use to refer to her parents’ lifestyle and demise; the disorienting relocation from a cosmopolitan urban setting to a very rural one where clucking chickens and luxuriant cabbages abound; and the sudden adoption of a new, ready-made family including a potentially troublesome little sister. Simón’s successes are many: the use of improvisation and other means to elicit performances by child actors that ring natural rather than cute; mise-en-scène and cinematography that privilege the children’s point of view; the effective mixing of both comic and dramatic elements in the narrative; and the depiction of the children’s activities within the social contexts of both the family and the rural community.
SIFF hosted the North American premiere of the thought-provoking and strikingly one-of-a-kind Turkish fiction feature Something Useful, directed, co-edited, co-produced, and co-written by the veteran Pelin Esmer. In this now mysterious, now intellectual, now lyrical narrative, two Turkish women, formerly strangers, meet during a lengthy nocturnal train trip and gradually get to know each other. A self-assured, attractive woman (Başak Köklükaya) in her early forties introduces herself as a lawyer, but is later revealed to be, in addition, a renowned poet travelling to her twenty-fifth class reunion. A nervous, distracted, and conflicted nurse trainee (Öykü Karayel) in her twenties travels not on a life-saving but rather a problematic mission involving for-hire euthanasia. The protagonists arrive at their destination; but…spoilers must be avoided. The characterizations are strong, particularly in the case of the ever-observant, outgoing-in-her-way lawyer-poet, whose character benefits from the judicious use of the voice-over narration of her thoughts. Even minor characters are astutely observed as in the tour-de-force extended long take constituting the class reunion, in which attendees reveal off the cuff the challenges and pain of their everyday lives.
Something Useful represents a very original meditation on a theme seldom taken up in contemporary cinema: the beauty of literature and its power to encourage empathy, solidarity, and hope in our troubled societies. When did you last view a movie in which a short story by Julio Cortázar (“A Yellow Flower”) is not only specifically named and analyzed, but is also skillfully integrated into the thematics of the film?
As the above examples suggest, SIFF 44 offered up an attractive array of quality fiction and nonfiction features. In addition, in a very welcome gesture, this year’s festival for the first time opened up a Seattle-funky lounge strategically located near major venues in order to offer “you” the chance to informally mingle with filmmakers, jurors, passholders, visiting critics, volunteers, fans, journalists, festival staff, and others of our ilk. After all, wouldn’t you like—over a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee—to query rap radical Boots Riley about this or that particular dimension of his outrageous anticapitalist satire? Incidentally, Starbucks—a home-grown corporation—is prominently highlighted in the festival catalogue as “Official Coffee Provider of SIFF.” Surely a prized designation in java- and movie-crazy Seattle.
Dennis West is a contributing editor at Cineaste.
For information on the Seattle International Film Festival, visit
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4