Festival Diary: the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival

June 27, 2016


by Anne Brodie


As coffee and tech lovers know, Seattle is Oz. And its long-running film festival is a big part of the Emerald City’s appeal.

Because Seattle is the home and heart of some global companies, everyday mom-n’-pop stores like Starbucks and Amazon pitch in to keep the festival buzzing. The event is a sprawling, well-attended twenty-five (!) day celebration of independent, foreign and documentary film. More than 400 films from around the world fell into imaginative, non-competitive slates like Culinary Cinema, the Secret Festival, and Northwest Connections showcasing films set and made in the area.


The FIPRESCI Jury, including myself, Marietta Steinhart from Austria, and Marco Lombardi from Italy determined the best of the twelve film section New American Cinema in the last week of SIFF.

The films on our menu appeared to be uniformly low-to-extremely-low budget, made with a singular focus and passion. Several made their world premieres, and they all had their own unique flair, raison d’etre and style. With the exception of Middle Man and The Architect, a comedy starring Parker Posey and Eric McCormack, the films were, across the board, brooding and violent psychological dramas. I’m not sure what the trend says about the state of things today—whether it’s a coincidence of independent film abroad, or just the influence of American cinema—but it was notable.

The Night Stalker (dir. Mega Griffiths), starring Lou Diamond Phillips, one of the most anticipated films at SIFF, is based on the grisly true story of serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer interviews him in prison hoping he’ll confess to a murder of which her client is accused. She is unprepared for the power of his personality.

A still from “The Night Stalker.”

Transpecos (dir. Greg Kwedar) reflects the US immigration dilemma at a Mexico / US border station where guards with varying moral stances decide who gets into the States and who doesn’t. The blistering white sun and parched ground affect our sense of balance.

Free in Deed (dir. Jake Mahaffy) is a provocative (and extremely powerful) drama about a storefront church in the Deep South attempting to free an autistic boy from his “demons” through faith healing. The camera rarely shoots straight on, instead peering around corners, through windows, or towering over the top of the action.

Claire in Motion (dir. Lisa Robinson, Annie J. Howell) follows a woman whose husband doesn’t return from a hike in the mountains.  He was a beloved professor in the same college where she teaches. His disappearance brings her in touch with students who raise the possibility that he may have been living a double life. Again, the camerawork is key to understanding. It hovers over her like a dark cloud and in time, a trap.

The winner of the FIPRESCI prize was Ned Crowley’s insanely terrific Middle Man, a darkly funny, bloodthirsty fable about an accountant desperate for a career as a stand-up comedian in Vegas. He hires an ideas-man who may or may not exist and finds his comic footing even as he pays the highest price. It is exuberantly witty and worthy. Jim O’Heir’s performance as the comic is nuanced, hysterical and physically awkward. Think Fatty Arbuckle and you’re close.

A still from "Middle Man."
A still from “Middle Man.”

SIFF’s good reputation is well-earned. Like Toronto, it’s a cultured city that’s crazy for films. A woman sitting in front of us at a screening told us she travels the American festival circuit every year as a private citizen and that Seattle is one of her favourites—I understand. Our jury managed to catch this attractive Seattle vibe thanks to our driver, a Microsoft employee volunteering with SIFF who took us to “the office.” Between screenings at the Uptown, one of two theatres SIFF owns, we crammed into the Cafe Mecca Bar, a place I’ll never forget. Its sign boasts that they serve “the medicine the doctor ordered” and claims to be the oldest family restaurant in the city. Family, my eye: it was basically a 19th century sailor’s bar come to grimy, glorious life. The staff was excited to serve wine but had to find it first, right after they kicked that guy out.  We went back the next night.

SIFF was a revelation. At 42 years old, its attitude is still fresh… and youthful. Its passion for the arts is inspiring.

And the coffee’s good.