By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 8, 2009 at 3:48AM
It traveled the globe from Sundance to Cannes, but "Humpday" finally came home on Friday night. As the Centerpiece Gala at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), Lynn Shelton's unequivocal crowd-pleaser about two straight guys attempting to make a gay porn undoubtedly fit the surroundings. Shelton, a native Seattlite, hung the plot around a real amateur porn festival that takes place in the city under the auspices of local alt-weekly The Stranger. The situations and characters embody a distinctly northwest vibe.
Beyond the setting, however, Shelton's third feature -- an immediate sensation after its lively Sundance premiere, paving the way to a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures -- highlights the current activity of Seattle's thriving independent film scene as the festival barrels through its thirty-fifth year (it wraps on June 14).
Among the 17 Seattle-based entries in the sprawling program of 257 features, David Russo's "The Immaculate Conception of Little Drizzle" and Craig Johnson's "True Adolescence" arrived at SIFF after premiering at other high profile festivals. Both of those movies can be traced back to Shelton's circle, since "True Adolescence" stars "Humpday" actor Mark Duplass, while "Little Drizzle" contains a cameo by Sean Nelson, the star of Shelton's last feature, "My Effortless Brilliance." Just by watching these movies, one can easily connect the dots of Seattle's modern cinematic universe.
"There's been a great community developing here, making films not for export to Hollywood, but just making the films they want to make," said SIFF artistic director Carl Sence. "In some ways, it's been happening within its own sort of microcosm. People haven't been noticing it until recently." He credits Robinson Devor, the director of "Police Beat" and "Zoo," as one of the first filmmakers to usher in Seattle's current visibility to a widespread audience. Shelton's success continues that trend, although like many in this town, she's been at it for awhile.
The director returned to her old stomping grounds ten years ago after attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she found the competition too her intense for her needs. "I immediately felt the sense of community here -- and saw the advantages of being a medium-sized fish in a smaller pond.," she said during a conversation with indieWIRE in Seattle last week. "In a place that's just crammed with people doing the same thing you are doing, there are only so many resources to go around. I'm so happy I'm not there anymore. I have no plans to leave."
Speaking on the eve of her big premiere at the Egyptian Theatre, Seattle's indisputably grandest movie venue, Shelton bubbled with excitement. "Everybody I love most, respect and want the approval of [will be] in that audience," she said. "It's the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. I grew up going to these theaters. No matter where else I take the film, I'm just excited to show it here."
Beyond adoring the city's preexisting theaters, Shelton has joined countless others by lending her support to the development of the SIFF Film Center, a new headquarters for the festival set to open in 2010. The fresh space will contain a 100-seat screening room, educational facilities and a library, all located in heart of the downtown's Seattle Center, where 12 million out-of-towners flock each year. The festival is about halfway to reaching its goal of raising the $3 million it needs to complete the SIFF Center. Capitalizing on the thirty-fifth anniversary, the festival inaugurated the "35 Club" for anyone willing to contribute $35 or more to the project. Introducing various screenings, programmers amiably pushed audiences to give back. "Feel free to add a zero after the thirty-five," more than one of them joked. "Add another zero, and we can talk."
Which doesn't mean they really need to beg. Despite coping with the same troubled economy that has left all festivals with fewer sponsors this year, SIFF expects to outsell last year's total of 150,000 purchased tickets. The epic twenty-five day gathering has been called "the never-ending film festival" for the massive space it occupies on the calendar, but Spence said that while the lengthy proceeding makes it tough to maintain consistent momentum, he's hesitant to curtail it. After all, people still come to the movies. "I don't want to radically change something that works so well," he explained. "With the economic times, it doesn't doesn't make sense to change something that works so well -- at the risk of failing."
Additionally, SIFF's prolonged schedule allows room for a balance of stars and upstarts alike. The festival honored Spike Lee last week, and expects Francis Ford Coppola to attend for a screening of his new movie "Tetro" on Wednesday. But SIFF also contains ten below-the-radar world premieres, thirty-six North American premieres and thirteen U.S. premieres. The world premieres include several impressive non-fictional titles, such as "Pop Star on Ice," an engaging portrait of flamboyance skater Johnny Weir. The U.S. premieres include Emir Kursturica's "Maradona by Kursturica," and the North American premieres includes "Little Joe," a look at Andy Warhol muse Joe Dallesandro that first screened in Berlin.
While these and other features drew audiences interested in provocative material, a lot of the big crowd enthusiasm could be found at screenings of locally-oriented movies. Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi's "Sweet Crude," a scathing expose on the pratfalls of the Nigerian oil industry, received a homecoming on Wednesday that had clear emotional resonance. Cioffi, whose project made national headlines last year when Nigerian authorities arrested her and confiscated much of her footage, screened a work-in-progress cut of the movie at SIFF two years ago. The completed version, which premiered at Full Frame earlier this year, has an impressively polished feel, and an epilogue about Cioffi's arrest. The director narrates her admission into the troubled world of her subject, but avoids forcing her personal endeavor into the story. Carried by luscious visuals and a logically constructed call to action, "Sweet Crude" contains undeniable immediacy. Predictably enough, Cioffi received a standing ovation after the Seattle premiere.
Seemingly hailing from another world -- and yet geographically next-of-kin -- Kevin Hamedani's "ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction" also received a similarly warm welcome from genre-hungry Seattle audiences. Set in the quaint Washington city of Port Townsend, "ZMD" certainly offers the bloody mayhem implied by its title. While sloppy in parts, the movie does reach its outlandish intentions by remaining more or less in synch with horror conventions. First time director Hamedani cleverly injects racial humor that occasionally elevates the experience.
That Seattle's film industry can produce a muckraking docu-journalist of Cioffi's caliber and someone with an edge for B-movie gore like Hamedani testifies to the range of work being produced in the area, and its constant expansion. Even locals have a rough time getting a handle on it. "I get to this plateau point where I feel like I know everybody in Seattle," Shelton said. "Then I hear about some project, and I'm like, 'Who are these people?' And I have to expand my circle to include these new people."
But Shelton, the first local filmmaker to receive a gala slot at the festival, seems to have a decent grasp on her surroundings. At the packed afterparty following the "Humpday" premiere, she eagerly made the rounds as her friends and colleagues showed their support. "Seattle has always had a great reputation as a film-going town," she said. "It seems like it's a perfect setting for filmmakers to fulfill that demand."