The Seattle International Film Festival is, as its organizers are proud to trumpet, the biggest and the longest film festival in the United States. It is also the most well attended in the country. Some of that is due to its size, of course, but SIFF is also a festival pitched to the hometown audience rather than attracting visiting film critics.
The thirty ninth edition of SIFF kicked off on Thursday, May 16, with a screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and complete its twenty five-day run on Sunday, June 9 with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring as the Closing Night Film. Over 270 feature films (fiction and documentary) and 175 short films will play over twenty five days and more than 600 screening events.
Last year, the festival set an attendance record. This year I believe it set a record of another kind. Tickets for Much Ado About Nothing sold out in less than six hours after going on sale, and you can bet that the Whedon fans were largely responsible for that course record. The crowd visibly skewed younger than the usual SIFF event regulars and there were plenty of Whedon-themed T-shirts and costumes on view. This may be the most popular opening night selection in SIFF’s history.
I like Whedon’s take, a lark of a Shakespeare comedy dropped into a 21st century suburban villa (Whedon’s own home) with modern dress and Shakespeare’s language intact. The talk of power and politics aside, the movie plays like a days-long party with friends and colleagues trading quips and lobbing witty insults in verse and highfalutin Elizabethan stage English. The group camaraderie, the joshing and affection of comrades in arms, is Whedon at his best and Reed Diamond stands out for his effortless sense of confidence and his rare gift for speaking Shakespeare’s words with an ease and rhythm that makes even obscure phrases easily understandable. Go with it. These guys do, and quite nicely.
SIFF doesn’t have an identifying specialty—it is by design trying to please everyone with a little bit of everything—but it does commit itself to a few worthy sidebars, notably documentary, and specifically the Face the Music programming.
Her Aim Is True is technically not a part of the latter but spiritually it fits right in. The documentary portrait of Jini Dellaccio received its world premiere at SIFF, and fittingly so. In the early 1960s, at age forty, self-taught fashion photographer Ms. Dellaccio snapped her first rock photo (of Seattle garage rockers The Wailers) and began a new career. She took bands out of the studio and into the distinctive northwest light of Washington State’s great outdoors, anticipating the mod style of A Hard Day’s Night with a distinctly American character and energy. I wish director Helen Whitehead offered a wider array of shots (the same iconic photos repeat throughout) and more context on how her work influenced the character of rock photography in the industry, but the film is nonetheless a vital tour through a most unusual, creative and fulfilling life, and Ms. Dellaccio’s voice guides the portrait. She’s still alive and taking photos at the age of ninety six.
The Punk Singer, which also has a Pacific Northwest connection, is a portrait of Kathleen Hanna, singer/songwriter/creative mover of Bikini Kill (formed in Olympia in the early nineties) and Le Tigre and founder of Riot Grrrl movement. Along with her story is a portrait of the punk music culture of the nineties and the transformation of it to embrace and empower women, led by the outspoken Hanna. Like the best documentaries, Hanna’s story takes us through a distinctive culture, a musical moment that she helped define, and then redefine, and director Sini Anderson takes us beyond biography to explore her creative life and her interaction with the culture.
Moving from music to movies, SIFF presents the world premiere of Finding Hillywood, the debut short documentary feature by Seattle-based filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Christopher Towey. Hillywood isn’t Rwanda’s answer to Bollywood, but a travelling film festival that brings films made by, about and for Rwandans to rural villages that have no theaters. Projected on an inflatable screen in community centers and stadiums, these are first films that many of these viewers have seen in their own language. With a memorable cast of real-life characters who keep the festival rolling through the hills, it’s an empowering and uplifting film that makes the case for cinema as social activism.
It’s remarkable how Iranian cinema continues to produce works of social and political commentary in the face of censorship and punishment. Jafar Panahi is still legally forbidden from making films, yet it hasn’t stopped him. Closed Curtain is his second film made under house arrest, co-directed with Kamboziya Partovi and shot in his villa on the Caspian Sea. It’s all very allegorical, with a writer in a police state hiding out with his dog, now outlawed under Islamic law, a suicidal young woman and Panahi himself. The filmmaker’s entrance sweeps these characters into the realm of fiction, like the ghosts of films unmade rattling around his imagination. The film feels more like a sketch or an internal debate than a fully realized film, but it’s still remarkably effective, and it’s no coincidence that even as Panahi steps outside of his home, the camera never leaves the villa.
Also from Iran, A Respectable Family is another remarkable and unexpected commentary, this one in the guise of a dark family melodrama that twists into a conspiracy thriller. Filmmaker Massoud Bakshi makes a more than respectable debut, appropriating the conventions of the contemporary western psychological thriller for a bitter critique of the accommodation of Iranian capitalism and political corruption. Under the nicely-turned tangles of the genre is a sour look a corrupt business culture profiting from a pose of patriotism and piety and a gut-punch of a wicked crime drama.