By Brian Brooks | Indiewire June 22, 2006 at 5:08AM
The 25-day Seattle International Film Festival is a behemoth when considering just some of the event's raw statistics. This year's 32nd edition, which ran in the picturesque Northwest city from May 25 - June 18, screened 418 films, including 198 narratives and 60 docs -- a record according to SIFF organizers. Additionally, this year's line up featured 15 archival films, four "secret" screenings (not listed prior) and 141 shorts. The extensive roster also boasted 19 world and 41 North American and 22 U.S. debuts.
SIFF 2006 launched with Neil Burger's "The Illusionist," starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufuss Sewell. The film is a romantic thriller about a magician named Eisenheim who has the ability to "mesmerize" crowds. The Viennese magician (Norton) uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing. The film opened the event's extensive line up of both American and international fare that is a highlight of Seattle's late spring social calendar.
Michel Gondry's closing night film "The Science of Sleep" was a popular event. The film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal is the story of an artist (Bernal), who travels between reality and his dreams. After moving Paris following the death of his father, he takes on a mundane job causing his existence to sink into the dreary. The arrival, however, of a new neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg) brings about a turnaround of excitement as well as a new unusual relationship.
"The 2006 edition was our most ambitious yet," commented SIFF artistic director Carl Spence to indieWIRE after the festival ended. "...we have argued about shortening the festival for years but the audiences here in Seattle have embraced the largess and length of SIFF. They support it wholeheartedly and love the eclectic smorgasbord of films that we present every year from the mainstay of foreign language fare and American independent films to the major studio films."
One particular highlight for Spence as well as the event's delightful managing director Deborah Person and staff this year was the North American premiere of director Michel Hazanavicius' "OSS 117: Nest of Spies," starring Berenice Bejo -- both of whom attended. The James Bond-esque pic features actor Jean Dujardin as an agent who goes undercover in Cairo, following the murder of a fellow agent, and takes the healm of a local poultry firm as a cover in order to investigate the murder. Along the way, he monitors the Suez Canal as well as the British and Soviets and suppresses fundamentalist rebellion, while brokering peace in the region.
"According to [Hazanavicius], the audience [in Seattle] was getting more of the jokes than French audiences with an unexpected level of intensity," said Spence about the screening. "Literally laugh out loud... describing the film as a cross between 'James Bond,' 'Austin Powers,' and 'The Naked Lunch' doesn't do it justice."
Fellow international titles were also jury favorites in this year's edition. South Korean director Shin Dong-il won the prize for Best Director for his feature, "Host & Guest." The film, which had its North American debut at SIFF, is an intimate story of an unlikely bonding between an intellectual filmmaker and a missionary. The two don't change the other's beliefs, but their friendship leaves them altered in understated ways. The jury also gave Chinese director Zhang Lu a special jury mention for his film, "Grain in Ear."
Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin's "Live Free or Die," which won the narrative feature jury prize in March at the SXSW Film Festival, took the jury prize for best new American film in Seattle. The crime/comedy, starring Zooey Deschanel, Aaron Stanford and Paul Schneider, is the story of John "Rugged" Rudgate, New Hampshire's own Billy the Kid.
This year's doc jury singled out Erik Gandini and Tarik Sale's Swedish production "Gitmo: The New Rules of War" for its top prize. The filmmakers headed out to the U.S. base in Guantanamo to investigate the incarceration of Swedish national Mehdi Ghezali who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Along the way, the group reveals a complicated military machine that is steeped in secrecy, yet disturbingly aloof to a systematic web of appalling interrogation techniques, abuse and torture. The film is a revealing look at the internal bureaucracy of the U.S. military in both Cuba and Iraq. Also taking doc jury kudos, and on a much lighter note, was local filmmaker Linas Phillips' surprisingly delightful, "Walking to Werner."
The fest's Golden Space Needle Audience Awards included Hazanavicius' "OSS 117," while the best doc in the category went to Rickie Stern and Annie Sundberg's "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," which has won similar prizes recently at Full Frame and Newport film festivals. "Wristcutters: A Love Story" director Goran Dukic won the best director prize in the category. Audiences also bestowed the best actor awards, with Belgian actress Fiona Gordon winning the award for her role in "The Iceberg" (by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy), while Ryan Gosling won for "Half Nelson" by Ryan Fleck.
Aside from the winners, another favorite of this year's event was the fest's music focus -- perhaps not a surprise given Seattle pedigree in fostering popular (and underground) music. "The Seattle Music scene is huge," commented Spence. "Not only for emerging hip bands, but music in general including film scoring and post-production audio." For the fest, Spence convinced "Mysterious Skin" composers Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd to create new music for a silent film program. "I had no idea that they hadn't performed live together before but had only collaborated together in the studio. ['Mysterious Skin' director] Gregg Araki put me in touch with them and they were so wonderful to collaborate with. The performance on the closing Saturday will never be repeated and the sold-out event is a definite highlight of SIFF in recent memory."
Music will most likely play a bigger role in upcoming editions according to Spence. "It makes sense to further the exploration of how music and film interesect not only in Seattle but in the film world. Look for more music at SIFF '07, otherwise stay-tuned..."
ABOUT THE WRITER: Brian Brooks is the Associate Editor of indieWIRE and served on the Seattle International Film Festival's documentary jury.