The Seattle International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West

The annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) stands out in three ways. First is the sheer quantity of its offerings as literally dozens of programmers scour the globe to bring Seattlites every spring hundreds of recent and new films from around the world. Second is its duration. Moviegoers are offered twenty-five days in the dark to come in out of the city’s rainy climate, shake off any lingering winter doldrums, and catch up on world cinema. Third is the festival’s notable grassroots support best exemplified by the markedly active and dedicated fan club known as the Fool Serious. This twisty name, according to local lore, derives from the practice of committed, non-stop moviegoers annually obtaining coveted and costly full series passes in order to attend as many screenings as possible.

This group enlivens the festival atmosphere in many ways, such as the creation and distribution of beautifully designed pins—affix them on the lanyard with your pass—and a nonstop word-of-mouth campaign informally rating the most recent film offerings as they hit the screens. The club’s more impactful activities include the sponsorship of selected screenings and, at the end of every festival, publication of a statistically sophisticated rating sheet summarizing results for all the features screened and evaluated by Fool Serious members. Two hundred ballots were cast and duly analyzed at the end of the 2019 edition of SIFF.

The forty-fifth edition unspooled in multiple venues in the greater Seattle area from May 16 to June 9. This edition offered SIFF’s usual mix of tributes, an indigenous media lab, a new works-in-progress forum, educational outreach efforts, live readings of scripts, and a varied slate of both competitive and noncompetitive short and feature film programs including archival presentations. SIFF is a “festival of festivals” mixing in its programming abundant premieres as well as screenings of movies that have already played better known international festivals, such as Karlovy Vary and Cannes. The heart of SIFF, for this critic, is the vast program labelled Feature Films from A to Z, which yielded a number of gems. My brief and impressionistic notes on several of these works appear below. My aim is to spark readers’ interest so that these features become better known.

In Volcano, the young Charlton Heston look-alike Serhiy Stepansky memorably plays middle-class, cosmopolitan Lukas, an interpreter for an international team of observers on an inspection tour for the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The team travels by SUV across the remote, sun-drenched steppes of southern Ukraine, not far from Crimea. When the vehicle breaks down, Lucas wanders off in search of cell phone reception only to return and find his associates mysteriously disappeared along with their vehicle. He is taken in by a colorful local family and then lingers on. In this absurdist black comedy, war seems to be raging somewhere nearby; but the native bumpkins, who subsist close to the bone, simply soldier on amidst the anarchy that ensued from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. To survive, these hustling rustics incessantly resort to exploitative labor practices, or dabble in corruption, or dream up harebrained get-rich-quick schemes, such as marketing a “molecular superglue” of dubious origin, or locating and digging up in an uncharted field the unidentified bones of German soldiers perished in a bygone battle—the better to market them to presumably wealthy relatives residing, presumably, somewhere in Germany, for sure a very wealthy country.  

The thirty-something Lukas eventually faces an existential crisis as he seeks his place in the world while slowly becoming entangled in this shifty environment, where the land holds a grip on inhabitants in spite of a failed social order characterized by lawlessness and a lack of economic opportunity. Man’s place in the landscape of the steppe is an essential theme highlighted by Vadim Ilkov’s sweeping cinematography, which powerfully captures indelible imagery: a ghostly mirage–a choir of deceased women singing?—shimmering in the sunlight, or an aerial view over a limitless field of parched and spectral sunflowers where, deep in a rectangular man-make pit, Lukas remains trapped. Volcano is Ukrainian director/co-screenwriter Roman Bondarchuk’s first fiction feature; we eagerly await his second.

Choreographing battle scenes in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” involves toys as well as the real thing.

Rehearsing the pyrotechnics before putting on the show in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”

In his major work “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” the Romanian New Wave auteur Radu Jude (born 1977) creatively poses this big question: how can cinema effectively explore and represent the past with an eye toward influencing the current sociopolitical environment? His answer: a self-reflexive, metatextual fictional work whose plot simply follows the efforts of a present-day experimental theater director to stage a stylized and subversive public “re-imagining” of the 1941 Odessa Massacre in which tens of thousands of Jews were burned alive and otherwise extrajudicially executed by Romanian troops, Axis allies of the Nazis. The high-spirited young director, played at a rhetorical gallop by Ioana Iacob, has researched in depth the Romanian Holocaust. Nevertheless, she faces endless opposition from quarters such as City Hall, and, amongst the citizenry at large, the populist and chauvinist denialists who seek to stress their nation’s victimhood and to hide or minimize its participation in the Romanian Holocaust. This genocide claimed an estimated 280,000 to 380,000 victims during Romania’s four-year alliance with Nazi Germany. The narrative advances from rehearsal to rehearsal, and from one talky and argumentative scene of opposition to another. In interviews, Jude, who is not Jewish, has indicated that when he was growing up in Romania, his nation’s alliance with Nazi Germany represented a strictly taboo subject. Additionally, he has spoken publicly condemning his country’s persistent anti-Semitism and those Romanians who still deny the Holocaust.  

One of screenwriter/director Jude’s most inspired decisions is his creation of an engaging, articulate, and forceful foil for the hard-driving theater director. This City Hall functionary (sharply played by Alexandru Dabija) nervously wishes to avoid overt censorship and to support artistic freedom but at the same time not get folks too riled up about the version of history—complete with pyrotechnics suggesting the burning of Jewish victims—about to unfold before their eyes. The pair’s spirited exchanges on the topic of whether or not this show should go on draw provocatively on a wide range of historians and philosophers ranging from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Hannah Arendt. Likewise, the film’s artistic influences range from D. W. Griffith to Bertolt Brecht. Jude has highlighted Italo Calvino’s belief that historical filmmaking should not simply stage or reconstruct an event—context must be provided. Hence Jude’s effective recourse to still photographs and archival film footage of Nazi atrocities. Another of Jude’s coups is his pointed use of Romania’s National Military Museum, where nationalism and militarism are on rampant display while the handheld camera nervously follows the protagonist as—kicking off the narrative—she seeks a way out of this labyrinth. “I Do Not Care” has weaknesses, such as a faltering romantic-sexual subplot; but it excels as a provocative and innovative example of political cinema produced at a time when Holocaust denial and fascism seem to be on the rise in certain quarters.

Cruising on the forklift in In the Aisles.

Christian (Franz Rogowski) surveys the night-shift scene in In the Aisles.

In his beguiling warehouse fantasy In the Aisles, co-screenwriter/director Thomas Stuber takes us into a mammoth wholesale supermarket in present-day Germany to follow the goings-on of the night-shift workers. These are the folks who stock the towering shelves bordering the aisles and conduct myriad other essential tasks. The protagonist Christian (Franz Rogowski), an introverted and word shy young man—and a former petty criminal—buckles down at his new job and succeeds in moving up by becoming a certified forklift operator. In his adventures with this marvelous machine, the deadpan stockman conjures up a twenty-first-century Buster Keaton sparring with a miniaturized General. Amongst his new workmates, Christian encounters potential friends and even a romantic interest, Marion (Sandra Hüller), who, appropriately, toils away over in the sweets department. A conscientious supervisor solemnly shakes hands with every worker at the end of each shift. The Christmas party proves generally fun, and it offers Christian a chance to timidly hold hands with the mysterious Marion. All bodes well until an older mate who has mentored Christian suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide. Did he secretly lead a life of quiet desperation?  

Stuber orchestrates a rigorously disciplined and measured approach to this material—it’s as if doses of inexplicably enlightened capitalism are being ladled out. The acting style is restrained, the dialogue, spare. Diegetic classical music serenely welcomes the night shift. Camera movement is measured, moving us slowly through the never-ending aisles without diverting our attention from the worker bees buzzing in their hive. In the West, as mining, manufacturing, and other old industry manual jobs disappear, the demand for precarious low-wage employment—think warehouse shelf stocking—has increased. In the United States, the rapidly expanding e-commerce behemoth Amazon continues to be rocked by scandals involving the poor pay and treatment of its workers, who reportedly make annually, on average, $28,446. In the enchanted In the Aisles universe, we never see an employee’s pay stub, never know if worker compensation represents a living wage without recourse to the German equivalent of food stamps. Unionism is out-of-bounds. Stuber’s bold fantasy imagines a capitalist enclave where ununionized blue collar employees take considerable pride in their work and appreciate the camaraderie of the workplace. “Poetic realism” Stuber calls his approach. See it to believe it.

The road movie Yomeddine sets sail.

A lighthearted interlude in Yomeddine.

The Egyptian fiction feature Yomeddine, written and directed by Abu Bakr Shawky, is a proud descendent of Italian neorealism: economical on-location shooting using available light cinematography, nonprofessional actors playing humble characters from disadvantaged sectors of society, and the exploration of serious social themes such as poverty. The diminutive Christian protagonist, Bashay, is played by an actual resident (Rady Gamal, now cured) of the Abu Zaabal Leper Colony; he bears the horrific facial scars and withered hands caused by the dreaded disease. After his wife dies, the forty-year- old Bashay—who habitually labors as a garbage picker in a landfill—decides to load up his donkey cart and leave his humble abode in the leper colony in search of his biological family. Three decades earlier, in the dead of night, the family had unceremoniously dropped the ailing child off on the colony’s doorstep—his face completely enshrouded in burlap. The adult Bashay is joined in his cross-country adventure by his stowed-away pal nicknamed “Obama” (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), a ten-year-old black Nubian orphan boy, and the tragicomic road movie sets sail.

During their lengthy journey along the banks of the Nile, they cross paths with bad people, such as thieves, as well as good folks, such as a legless former truck driver who helps them hitch a ride in an associate’s vehicle. Of course many reflexively regard Bashay as the ultimate “other,” a disfigured and surely contagious outcast to be shunned at all costs. When he is physically harassed in a railcar by a conductor, he tears the veil from his ravaged face and cries out “I’m a human being” while defiantly jutting his chin forward. His cry, heard by nonplussed passengers nearby, cuts to the existential crux of the film: What is a human being? What is one’s place in society? In interviews, Shawky has not shied away from the “feel-good” label at times attached to Yomeddine; and critical debate has swirled around the slippery question of sentimentality—just how sugarcoated is the filmmaker’s uplifting worldview? This critic particularly values Yomeddine for its fearless depiction of a marginalized and underrepresented sector of society and for the emotionally moving, more-or-less realistic performances coaxed by Shawky from nonprofessional actors who do not read or write.

It’s time to dig for buried evidence in Cold Case Hammarskjöld.

SIFF always programs a meaty selection of documentary features, and the forty-fifth edition proved no exception. The most provocative of these was screenwriter/director Mads Brügger’s remarkable documentary entertainment Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which is billed as a Danish/Norwegian/Swedish/Belgian co-production. Brügger is a well-known Danish journalist, author, filmmaker, television host, producer of radio programs, and all-around provocateur. In Cold Case, he—along with sidekick Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl—investigates the untimely death of the secretary general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, in a plane crash in former Northern Rhodesia in 1961. After Hammarskjöld ’s demise, President John F. Kennedy hailed him as “the greatest statesman of our century.” The secretary general was a world-renowned, influential, and ardent champion of the sovereignty of the African nations emerging from colonialism; and conspiracy theories have long circulated contending that the crash was no accident but rather clandestinely orchestrated by multinational corporate interests (e.g., mining) and/or Western intelligence agencies. Early in the film, Brügger himself speaks directly to the camera concerning his goal of excavating “the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” By the end of the documentary, many spectators will remain unsure as to which of these two outcomes prevails—if either. And then there are the many mysteriously unresolved and troubling details: for instance, who placed, and why, that ace of spades playing card glimpsed ominously in a shirt collar in the famous/infamous photos of Hammarskjöld’s body at the crash scene?

Key interviewee Alexander Jones spins his explosive version of events in Cold Case Hammarskjöld.

Brügger fruitfully draws on the documentarian’s trusty standby—interviews with those presumably in the know. The film’s most explosive allegations surface in interviews with one Alexander Jones, who purports to have served for an extended period as an intelligence officer in the shadowy white supremacist militia known as the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). The articulate, collected, and seemingly believable Jones alleges that this nefarious mercenary outfit was involved in Hammarskjöld ’s murder and also, later, in a vast clandestine campaign to use counterfeit medical injections to systematically infect black South Africans with the HIV virus.

Brügger’s esthetic approach is, to understate it, unusual: a jokingly self-referential and agitational structure and style that follow the two investigators’ efforts jumping from subject to subject, country to country, while repeatedly seeking to entertain viewers. The principal entertainer is, naturally, Brügger performing himself: goofily parading around in neat naval whites while bragging that they resemble those worn by SAIMR’s self-designated, now deceased “commodore” Keith Maxwell. Or hamming things up as a pale faced, pith-helmeted, well-funded and empowered white man come on safari to Africa with a shovel (no less!) to personally dig up the remains of Hammarskjöld ’s airplane—and then celebrate by ostentatiously smoking a Havana! Brügger’s corny performative antics go beyond those of other documentarians whose work comes to mind, but just how entertaining all this will prove for audiences remains to be seen. One thing is certain: though Cold Case only opens in the United States in August, it has already ignited controversy in the country’s mainstream media. See, for instance, Rick Gladstone and Alan Cowell’s “More Clues, and Questions, in 1961 Crash That Killed Dag Hammarskjöld” in the February 17, 2019 edition of The New York Times.

The aforementioned gems represent a few examples of the many strong films I encountered during the forty-fifth edition of SIFF. I did experience disappointments during the festival, principally the absence of virtually all the filmmakers I was most interested in. The presence of filmmakers at festivals is greatly appreciated because of the formal interview opportunities afforded as well as the usually informative question-and-answer sessions following screenings where on-the-spot cineastes respond directly to audience questions—for better or for worse. Perhaps my complaint relates somehow to the current unsettled situation in festival management as a new executive director is sought. However, no Fool Serious member or casual attendee I encountered seemed to doubt that next year the forty-sixth edition would roar back as good or better than its predecessor. I agree.

For information on the Seattle International Film Festival, visit here.

Dennis West is a contributing editor at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4