The 31st International Seattle International Film Festival Does It Again
by Brandon Judell
This year lasting 25 days and showcasing over 230 full-length films (55 of which are documentaries) plus 110 shorts, it's no wonder why the Seattle International Film Festival is always a haven for cinemaphiles. Thank heavens then that Seattle is overpopulated with flick fanatics who adore a challenge. Even experimental, esoteric and extremely trashy films will garner a warm embrace here.
On top of the celluloid offerings, the fest proffered an afternoon with Joan Allen, an evening with Peter Sarsgaard, a conversation with director Miranda July, plus seminars on such matters as "The Art of Film Financing" and "The State of Seattle Filmmaking."
Carl Spence, the ever-increasingly suave director of programming, noted that SIFF is "a well-oiled machine in many ways, but also every year we're also creating something new. It's not like we just find some films and throw them into the mix. SIFF runs very well mainly due to the dedication of the staff."
"Since we don't employ our staff year round," he continued, "every once in awhile you have a large turn over of the operational staff. This year we had a new publicity staff and a new guest-relations staff, but we hired great people, and so it's all working without a problem."
Spence then added, "As far as the film selection, it's a very specific progress we go through every year." Besides checking out other fests around the world, there's what comes in the mail. "We actually jumped from 1300 submissions last year to 2100 this year which made our jobs much more difficult in trying to give every film an equal opportunity to be considered, which we did. That's a very painful process to go through."
Surprisingly, these unasked-for contributions often get on the screen. "Of the short films we program, probably 80 to 90 percent are from the submissions. Documentaries: probably 50 to 60 percent. Of the features, it can be as high as 30 percent. There's probably some fuzzy math in there," Spence calculated.
As for what he's most proud of? "We have the perfect opening and closing nights for a festival. Miranda July's "Me And You And Everyone We Know" is such a perfectly-realized vision: from the sound design to the acting to the direction. For a first film, I was astounded. I couldn't find anything to dislike about it. Then to do the North American premiere of Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," which is all about the final moments of Kurt Cobain. Who could really choose a better film to close a festival in Seattle?"
Equally enthusiastic was the highly personable ex-Brit, Helen Loveridge, the festival director, who was holding court at a dinner for directors mid-festival: "SIFF is doing fantastically well thanks to the public. We have a lot of good will going in from the previous years."
As for SIFF offering up some marketing opportunities: "Of course, it's very important for a reputation of festival if deals are made. Unfortunately, sometimes deals are concluded elsewhere even though the first contact is made here, so it's really hard for us to claim glory for them, but deals do happen."
The only downer for Loveridge was the money-raising problems, which first began after 9/11. "It's been tough. It's been a challenge this year also because our new development director came aboard a little after the optimum time for sending out sponsorship applications."
However, if there was a lack of cash flow it wasn't apparent to the public, the directors, or the press. There were parties, plus daily breakfast and dinner soirees at the W Hotel, travel arrangements went smoothly, and everyone was constantly congenial.
Just ask the grinning Douglas Crapo of IDP Films: "I'm here to check out the festival, to check out the films, and see our films in the festival. To note the audience reactions. We have four: 'Ladies in Lavender,' 'Saint Ralph,' 'Lila Says,' and 'Pretty Persuasion.' We just opened 'Ladies in Lavender' this weekend after its festival screenings, and it opened very well. SIFF played a good part in making the film successful in the market."
Greek writer/director Constantine Giannarsis was just hoping his film "Hostage" would one day open anywhere in any U.S. market. His tough, vital feature about a hunky, young Albanian construction worker who holds up a bus after he's raped and tortured in a Greek prison by the powers-that-be has added resonance thanks to our own current travails in Iraq. "I'm very pleased to showcase in a very good festival," he said.
As for the dearth of Greek films on our shores, Giannarsis explained: "There's been a kind of crisis in terms of production, in terms of funding, but there's also a real problem in terms of the younger generation filmmakers getting out of the shadows of people like Angelopoulos and other filmmakers of the sixties and the seventies."
Director Billy Rose was still peppy here after a year on the fest circuit with his documentary "The Loss of Nameless Things." "It's great to be at such a highly visible film festival; certainly it's thrilling to have the traction that a festival like this can provide. Of course, after all the festivals I've been too, I've got a bucket full of reviews. We're also close to signing a TV deal. It's kind of like I'm in a different space than I would have been previously."
His doc chronicles the life of Oakley Hall III, a genius playwright and director, a man's man, and a female magnet in the seventies. Then at the age of 28, he's either pushed off or jumps off a bridge, smashes up his face, and his IQ drops into the 50-range. So what happens to such a soul? Think of "A Beautiful Mind" with sex appeal, and buy up the remake rights now!
As for the films themselves, France's Gaël Morel's "Three Dancing Slaves" is a visually homoerotic tale of three dysfunctional brothers coping after the death of their mother. Apparently influenced by Claire Denis' "Beau travail," no woman shows until shortly before the end credits. It's just a bunch of rough-and-tumble Abercrombie and Finch models trying to find love, survive, sell drugs, kill a dog, or come out of the closet.
The Israeli offering "Metallic Blues," directed by Danny Verete, is a hard-hitting black comedy about two down-and-out Jewish car salesmen who buy a luxury limo from an Arab and then try to sell it for a profit in Germany. Visions of the Holocaust interact here surprisingly well with standard road movie mishaps, and it is terrifically acted.
From Peru comes Josué Méndez's superb "Dias de Santiago," a look at an ex-soldier, who after "six years of battling terrorists, the Peruvian drug mafia, and a nationalist war against Ecuador," finds out there's no place for him in civilization. There are also no funds available for 23-year-old Santiago to take computer lessons, his father is molesting his younger sister, and his brother is a sadist. What else is there to do but turn to crime or drive a taxi? This is existentialist fare at its best.
Wunderkind François Ozon, critically acclaimed for his "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" and "Swimming Pool," revealed his latest effort, "5x2." This is a look at Marian and Gilles' marriage from divorce to their first meeting. Yes, it travels backward in time in five scenes, and once again Ozon proves he is a master. There are homosexual elements here, of course, as there are in almost all his features. Gilles has a gay brother with a much younger, unfaithful lover. And at a post-dinner chat, Gilles reveals he allowed himself to get screwed at an orgy in front of Marian so he could experience what his sibling feels during sex. Now that's a nicely liberated straight brother.
Michael Winterbottom's "Nine Songs" proved that nonstop sex intercut with alternative music can be exceedingly boring.
Jim Tushinski's masterful "That Man: Peter Berlin" is a fascinating look at gay porn icon Peter Berlin, a blond god of the seventies whose crotch became an international cause worshipped by the likes of Andy Warhol. This is how Berlin manufactured his persona and then eventually receded into an apartment in San Francisco decades later -- an rousing, arousing work.
Susan Kaplan's "Three of Hearts" is a documentary about a threesome: two "bisexual men" and a woman. Can they get married and have children and live happily after? They do for 13 years before all hell breaks loose. Here's another doc with feature possibilities.
Also worthy is Luc Jacquet's magnificent look at the survival of cold birds: "The March of the Penguins."
The film that caused more buzz than it deserved was Scott Coffey's "Ellie Parker." This low-budget effort about a struggling, shallow L.A. actress who has nightmare auditions, gets rear-ended on a side street, and whose date discovers he's gay after copulating with her stars a sensational Naomi Watts. But she's basically the only great thing in this highly uneven flick. So why did she make it? Ask her agent who must be crying.
Other worthies: Arsen Anton Ostojic's Croation, violent, drug-filled ode to Tarantino, "A Wonderful Night in Split"; Maarek Hob's potent "In the Battlefields": a young girl's coming of age in an embattled Lebanon; and Susanne Bier's emotionally commanding "Brothers," in which another soldier, this time a Danish one, falls apart after being tortured.