FESTIVALS: Seattle Sells Out? Big Fest Loses Sight of Local Talent
by Cal Godot
(indieWIRE/6.20.2000) --The 26th Seattle International Film Festival was a sight to behold. Three full weeks of film from May 18 - June 11. Movies from every nation on earth. Well, nearly every nation. "More than 250 films from over 50 countries." This is repeated like a mantra at just about every screening, just in case you were wondering what makes SIFF so special. It's big, it's long, it's international.
There's not much else about SIFF that distinguishes it from any other festival. Just like Sundance, there are star-fuckers everywhere. Press-relations volunteers push minor stars on reporters like they're selling a new version of Windows 2000. Festival directors spend precious time kissing the posteriors of whatever local politicians or millionaires happen to wander into a screening. Festival attendees pack parties and crane their necks to get a glimpse of anything resembling a "star."
The sin of excess is hardly one that will send you to the gallows these days. In fact, this would-be "international city" expects such garishness. This is the city that gave you Microsoft, the 747, and the WTO riots. When Seattle does something, the city goes all out. Texas has nothing on the bigness of Seattle. Eager to overcome its reputation as a northwest backwater town known only for coffee and grunge music, the city has begun to doom itself to bankruptcy and high taxes by financing bigger stadiums, bigger parking garages, bigger aquariums, and of course bigger film festivals.
By far SIFF's greatest sin is its ghetto-izing of local filmmakers. The festival staff will point out, however, that this year's festival showed a few local films. Shaya Mercer's "Trade-Off," one of the better documentaries about last year's "battle for Seattle" (which you may know as "the WTO riots") screened at the festival. Mercer's film won the Best Documentary award and was ironically shown at the Cinerama (a theater owned and restored by corporate money, namely Paul Allen). Additionally, SIFF put on a big media event for Greg Lachow's "Silence," an amazingly innovative combination of performance art and silent film.
And then there was the Northwest Shorts Night: nearly two hours of shorts by local filmmakers, presented back to back and on one night only, almost insuring that no one but the friends and family of each filmmaker would attend. Apparently no one at SIFF has the smarts to program local shorts in front of a few of those 250-plus features they're screening.
It's not as if there is no local film scene. Both 911 Media and the Northwest Film Forum manage to offer year-round programs of local filmmakers in several venues, including two independent theaters (The Grand Illusion in the University District and the Little Theater on Capitol Hill). The Experience Music Project (another Paul Allen sponsored project) thinks enough of local film to hire the Film Forum to program showings at the Project, with a specific emphasis on local filmmakers. Yet somehow SIFF is mysteriously unable to program a significant number of local films.
But the grandest example of SIFF's neglect of local filmmakers has to be the Fly Filmmaking portion of the festival. Each year SIFF manages to get the otherwise stingy local production facilities to donate equipment and services to three filmmakers, who write, shoot and edit a film during the last week of the festival. This event would be a plumb for almost any local director. But local film talent is restricted to the scarce crew positions, demonstrating (to my mind, at least) what SIFF really thinks of local filmmakers: Good enough to be servants, but not good enough to be served.
Instead of offering this opportunity to cash-strapped local directors, SIFF prefers to invite outsiders to helm these intensive productions. This year SIFF jumped belatedly on the digital bandwagon by using miniDV and HD formats, along with Super16, in an attempt to showcase alternatives to traditional film.
This year SIFF invited Jim Taylor (co-writer of "Election" and "Citizen Ruth"), Clay Eide ("Dead Dogs"), and Mary Kurilya ("Freak Weather") to experience the joy and stress of making movies on the fly. Kurilya bailed at the last minute (maybe because she kept seeing her name misspelled) and was replaced by Meg Richman, who happens to be local, which explains why she could jump in so quickly and save the day (she directed Kurilya's script). The three shorts were presented in "high definition projection" at the Cinerama, where reviews were decidedly mixed; most were unimpressed with the miniDV and HD, with the general consensus being that digital has a long way to go.
As to the straw demon of commercialism, the corporate-sponsored festival is the proud recipient of such infamous First Amendment defenders as Blockbuster Video, Microsoft, and Starbucks. Last year these sponsors (especially SIFF's exclusive deal with Blockbuster) attracted some controversy. Blockbuster's deal with SIFF limits any video retailers from being sponsors, and gives the impression that SIFF does not support local independent video outlets. This year, festival directors were so proud of their big-money sponsors that they handed out all sorts of freebies. (Yet I must admit I appreciate my Starbucks-made thermal coffee tumbler, even if it does have this year's universally despised festival artwork).
As a prime example of its adherence to the corporate Hollywood credo, SIFF opens with either a film by a former festival director ("The Whole Wide World," directed by SIFF founder Dan Ireland, who also managed to get "The Velocity of Gary" screened at the Secret Festival two years ago) or some big commercial monster from Hollywood.
This year's opening night gala was no exception to this: Kenneth Branagh's musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost." Any fans of Shakespeare who groan that Branagh has once again managed to lower the bard to new depths of commercial crassness would be more than offended by the sight of a giggling Alicia Silverstone yammering about her vegan meal at a local restaurant.
Like most things in life, SIFF is not all bad. One move that amounted to a virtual coup this year was the local premiere of "Just, Melvin." This harrowing documentary about generations of sexual abuse in a northwestern family was recently picked up by HBO for its American Undercover documentary series. First-time director James Ronald Whitney created the disturbing film, the reality of which was brought home by the attendance of eight of the women who are the subjects of the film. The family arrived in a limo, greeted by a small clutch of photographers (the director wanted things low-key) and astounded the audience with their courage and directness. Since the film features graphic descriptions of sexual abuse, you can bet money it will never be rented from Blockbuster.
There were plenty of other things to write about, of course. Lots of parties this year. SIFF wants to be like Sundance, and it shows like a run in a pair of fishnets. There's no chance it will ever achieve that status, of course. SIFF lacks any form of tangible identity.
SIFF is perfect example of the smug, self-satisfied attitude that permeates this dot-com city. With this kind of festival as the big fish in the small pond that is Seattle Film, it's only a matter of time before someone with a little extra cash from their Amazon.com options decides to start a new festival. Anyone game for the Seattle Independent Film Fest?
[Cal Godot is a Seattle-based writer; he covered the Seattle International Film Festival for indieWIRE in 1998.]