Serious in Seattle: A Look at the SIFF
by Cal Godot
Midway through the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF to locals),
it's difficult to avoid 'movie-burnout.' The coordinators of SIFF can
boast that their festival is the best-attended or longest-running. But
the real achievement is the sheer number of films that can be seen.
SIFF schedules over 170 feature films and 70 shorts, runs from May 21 to
June 14, with four screens and few empty seats. Some might call this
But the festival, now in its 24th year, is one of the few defining
events for a city that is known more for espresso and grunge than for
being a "film town."
The fact that three commercial theaters devote prime screen time
(5 p.m. - midnight weekdays, noon to midnight weekends) to films that are
almost guaranteed to never be shown here again is just one piece of evidence
that Seattle takes the festival seriously. More evidence may be seen in
the hundreds of volunteers, thousands of tickets sold, and the amazing
sight of people standing in line, in the rain, to buy tickets. (Coordinators
plan the festival for the time of year that weather is most likely to be
pleasant, but in Seattle the weather is never a promise, only an offer.)
The Talk of the Town
A friend of mine from St. Louis once told me that during baseball
season, you can hear talk of the Cardinals and their latest game all
over town. "You end up in a highly technical discussion about pitching
while waiting to buy beer," he said. During SIFF, Seattle is much the
same except the conversations you hear are about the movies:
"Did you see 'Smoke Signals?'" "What did you think of 'War Zone?'" "Are
you going to the awards ceremony?" "It's day five and I've already seen
20 movies." "Have you heard anything about the Secret Festival?" "Did
you think that 'Conceiving Ada' was about the feminization of
technology?" "Are you going to 'The Kingdom' marathon?"
And the audience is serious about its movie-viewing: During the U.S.
premiere of Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco," the ambience of
the theater was interrupted by the shrill song of a cell phone. Boos and
hisses erupted, prompting the unfortunate owner to simply turn off the
phone without answering, apologizing to those around him. Had the phone
rung once more, he probably would have been stoned to death.
Lots of Choices, Little Time
There's not enough time to see everything the festival has to offer.
Choosing which films to see is as esoteric an art as picking horses at
the track. Veteran festival attendees each have their own science, their
own ways of reading between the lines of the descriptions in the program
guide. Most films have two screenings, but if you wait to hear the buzz
from the first showing, you might find that the second showing conflicts
with something else you want to see. And since many of the films are
from first-time directors, there's no oeuvre to go by.
There are some sure bets this year, of course. "The Last Days of Disco"
made its U.S. premiere at the musty Egyptian theater on the second night
of the festival. For many Seattle fans, Whit Stillman can do no wrong.
Adam Rifkin's latest, "Denial," will be making its world premiere, as
will John Irvin's WWII film, "When Trumpets Fade." And of course the
closing night gala, where Aidan Quinn and his brothers will screen and
discuss their promising family effort, "This Is My Father."
The real delights are, of course, the little discoveries that one can
make. Most of these are found in the work of unknown directors and films
that aren't likely to be shown anywhere else. A significant number of
films being shown this year are from first-time directors. Director
Julie Lynch offers a very personal and powerful view of a woman's
sexuality in her film, "Remembering Sex." Lynn Hershman Leeson presents
what some have called 'feminist sci-fi' in the deeply felt "Conceiving
Ada." Actor Vincent Gallo ("Palookaville") is almost a one-man
filmmaking team with his directorial debut, "Buffalo 66" (being released
by Lions Gate in July) -- Gallo also wrote the screenplay, composed the
music and stars in the film as a recently released prisoner who concocts
a tall-tale to explain his five-year absence.
In addition, SIFF planners have scheduled an impressive array of
documentary films. Under the banner "Truth With An Attitude,"
controversial films such as "War Zone," 'Frat House" and "Waco: The
Rules of Engagement" will no doubt have audiences talking and arguing
for days after the screenings. "Frank Lloyd Wright," the latest
documentary from Ken Burns, is sure to tell audiences a thing or two
about the controversial architect. Also featured in this series is the
U.S. premiere of "Sex/Life in LA," a study of the male porn industry in
Awards and Special Events
What would a film festival be without awards? While SIFF's awards may
not carry the clout of a Palme D'or or a Sundance Audience Award, they
are nonetheless highly sought and hotly debated. New this year to SIFF
is the Short Film Competition and Award, sponsored by film.com and
RealNetworks. This juried competition will pick the best short film from
over 30 such films being screened at the festival. Entries to this
competition are also being shown in a special 'on-line short film
festival' at the sponsors' web sites, film.com and real.com (special
browser plug-ins are required for viewing).
This year's American Independent Award, sponsored by the Independent
Film Channel, will go to one of thirteen "directors who have made
exceptional films with smaller budgets" -- eight of these are
feature-film debuts. The prize package for the juried award includes
nearly $70,000 worth of goodies, donated by Seattle film professionals.
Among the directors competing for this prize are Guy Ferland, Adam
Rifkin, Thomas Michael Donnelly and John Irvin.
The New Director's Showcase features a dozen first-timers from ten
different countries, all competing for the award. The jury for this
prize is enjoined with the difficult task of selecting the director
"whose work represents the most promising directorial talent and
Among the many special events is the annual Filmmakers Forum. Three days
of seminars and panels devoted to the practice of filmmaking, this event
gives local folk the opportunity to get tips on screenwriting,
fundraising, acting, producing, editing, and of course directing. The
forum finishes with "Fly Filmmaking:" three filmmaking teams, comprised
of well-known directors (Miguel Arteta, Michael Engler and Tim Blake
Nelson) and local crews, are challenged to script, shoot, edit and
screen a short film during the last week of the festival.
Another special event that has many people talking with fear and awe is
the marathon presentation of "The Kingdom," Lars von Trier's horror
epic. SIFF will devote the entire day of Saturday, June 6, to showing
both "Kingdom I" and "Kingdom II." The work of von Trier's is well-loved
in Seattle; last year's showing of "Kingdom" was sold out, and this
year's marathon is expected to be a full house. (In addition, as part of
the documentary series, the festival is showing "Tranceformer," a film
about the world and work of von Trier.)
Finally, there is the Golden Space Needle, SIFF's audience award. Awards
are given in several categories, including Best Film, Best Director,
Best Actor & Actress, and Best Documentary. Past winners of this award
have gone on to receive a great deal of critical acclaim and other
This is of course only a part of the goings-on at SIFF. [For a full
schedule, check out the web site at www.seattlefilm.com.] The
variety of films available is mind-boggling, and you might find yourself
wishing for the ability to stop time so that you can see films with
"This festival is like a box of chocolates," one attendee told me as we
waited in line. "You really never know what you're going to get. But
it's usually pretty tasty."
[Cal Godot lives in Seattle, where he spends most of his time watching movies
and writing. His life is not unlike a Noah Baumbach film.]