A large part of why I fall off the map each late spring and early summer is the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). 2017 was the festival’s 43rd year, and featured over 400 films from 80 countries. While I have attended a few films every year since I moved to Seattle two decades ago, in the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have a Full Series Pass which lets me see as many regular or press screenings as I can—within mental and physical limits. This year I saw about 40 films, but I’ve narrowed the list down to ten I found significant and worth recommending. In alphabetical order:
Band Aid: A couple having marital difficulties decide to turn their fights into songs as a better form of therapy than couples counseling. Fortunately they are both somewhat musically talented, and they take to the open mic circuit with reasonable success. However novel an approach to therapy this may be, it is indeed merely a Band-Aid and the deeper issues eventually resurface. The songs are catchy, though, and the deadpan performance of Fred Armison as the band’s sex-addict next-door-neighbor drummer is a thing of beauty to behold.
Chavela: The story of the titular character is a fascinating film on a number of levels. The music and Chavela’s courage in being true to herself were both really moving. An amazing artist and singer and definitely one of a kind, she was with Frieda Kahlo for a while. Knowing the little I do about Kahlo’s life and work, their relationship had particular poignancy. The documentary was clearly filmed over a significant stretch of time, and gives an intimate look at Chavela the stage performer, Chavela the private person, and the women in her life and their influence on her and her work.
A Date for Mad Mary: Mary is a bit of a street tough, with a reputation cemented by a jail stint for assault. She is released just in time to be the Maid of Honor at her childhood best friend’s wedding, but the friend has been social-climbing and Mary struggles a little to keep up with the expectations of the bride’s newer friends. Everyone assumes Mary won’t need her plus-one since she won’t have a date. But despite the facts the assumptions are true, she lies and insisting she has a boyfriend proceeds in a search for someone to play the part by speed dating and picking people up in bars. Mary’s actions and choices have tangible consequences and she deals with them realistically, and the ending was both hopeful and genuine.
The Death and Life of Martha P. Johnson: I remember when Martha was killed; she was such a vivid presence that the ripples of her death reached all around the world. The film follows the efforts of Victoria Cruz, a member of the New York Anti-Violence Project, as she works to bring some closure to the case. The police ruling of suicide was perfunctory and did not fit the circumstances or the evidence. Cruz is truly diligent, and by following up discrepancies in the reports, she is finally able to shed some light on what really happened. The interviews are one of a kind.
A Dragon Arrives! My absolute favorite of the festival, this Iranian film was a complete surprise and surreal journey through magic, noir, and flash-back. A coroner is called out to a prison camp to investigate a supposed suicide, and circumstances lead him to spend the night in what the locals insist is a haunted graveyard, where the earth quakes and opens its mouth to receive the dead. His skepticism is challenged when an earthquake does occur, so he enlists the help of two friends, a geologist and an audio technician, to investigate. The secret police may also be interested, investigating, or involved; the story may or may not be true. The soundtrack is amazing, the visuals are a love letter to 1970s noir films, and I truly recommend this film if you see nothing else on the list.
A Dragon Arrives! My absolute favorite of the festival, this Iranian film was a complete surprise and surreal journey through magic, noir, and flash-back.
Endless Poetry: Highly symbolic, blithely ignoring the line between reality and fantasy, full of profoundly personal emotions and experiences, Jodorowsky’s films are true Surrealist art, and he is one of the last living members of the movement. Endless Poetry is the second in a series of autobiographical films, and covers his life from late adolescence to early adulthood, as he moves away from his birth family and finds the beginnings of his artistic family. Full of spectacular imagery, with Jodorowsky’s part played by his son Adan and his father played by his son Brontis, the film is a beautiful exhortation to live and to love.
Ethel & Ernest: Sweet but not cloying animated feature about how artist Raymond Briggs’ parents met and married and lived thru the World War II era, including when Briggs was sent to the country during the Children’s Evacuation. The art style is reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, and is perfect for the story, which is heartwarming while acknowledging everyone’s flaws and foibles. Beautiful animation, solid narrative, and a nice blend of the personal with the historical.
Give Me Future: A quasi-documentary about the EDM group Major Lazer, the film showcases the group as the first U.S. musicians to do a show in Cuba after the embargo was lifted. Not only did they use all local labor and materials for setup and construction, they chose to make the concert admission-free because they knew so much of the potential audience would not have extra money to buy concert tickets. If it was half as impressive as it seemed in the film, it was an AMAZING event, a great experience for everyone involved despite occasional issues with the Cuban bureaucracy.
Roberto Bolle—The Art of Dance: Bolle brings talent, dedication, and physical beauty to his choreography, and the result is gorgeous and moving. He is personable but driven, and the various world monuments he chooses to stage as the backdrop for the troupe’s performances are perfection. I would recommend this film to dance patrons and anyone else who has a keen appreciation for aesthetics and the juxtaposition of what is moving and what is still.
Wallflower depicts the events surrounding a mass shooting that took place in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood at a rave after-party in 2006. Again, I remember hearing about the actual events, and while I didn’t know anyone involved personally, there were friends-of-friends among the casualties. I was only ever on the fringes of the club scene but the film had numerous scenes that were achingly familiar. The Q&A session with the directors and cast after the screening was informative, and addressed in part the local controversy over the level of focus the film seems to have on the killer. In my opinion the film’s contrast of the vibrant group of Link, Strobe Rainbow, Ranma and the rest of the regulars with the nondescript nameless killer they attempted to befriend was a sincere attempt to acknowledge there are no easy answers.