Assessing in advance the biggest and best SIFF to date

THINK YOUR JOB IS a drag? Imagine you're a Seattle International Film Festival programmer who has to sort through more than 1,000 submitted films, only a tiny fraction of which will make it to the screen. "It's very grim. You start hating movies," mutters a weary Carl Spence, SIFF's associate director. "But you go through this whole process and you put in a cassette, you think it's just going to be another piece of crap, and then it blows you away. It's amazing."

That sensation—the Ah! of discovery— is why we go to the festival. The movies vary in quality and kind, but that moment when a kaleidoscope of images and sounds, put together by someone you've never met, translates into a thought or a feeling that you yourself have shared . . . for film fans, that moment is always a thrill.

This year, SIFF offers more opportunities for Ah! than ever before. For its 25th anniversary, the festival is screening more than 200 feature films and shorts, including a drive-in series, late-night erotica, an art auction accompanying the ever-popular poster auction, and even more gala events than usual. And—in a countertrend to recent Hollywood fare—hardly any of the films are more than two hours long.

New venues

There's a lot of excitement around the screenings at the newly renovated Cinerama, but they're only taking place the first four days of the festival. (As Spence dryly comments, "I guess we're not quite big enough to knock out Star Wars.") The Cinerama screenings will include Seattle writer-director Gregg Lachow's new film, Money Buys Happiness; if you want to see some of your favorite local actors with 20-foot-tall noses, there's your chance. The opening and closing galas will be held at the Paramount; other venues include the usual Capitol Hill strip—the Harvard Exit, the Broadway Performance Hall, and the Egyptian—but instead of the U District's Guild 45th, the festival has shifted to the Pacific Place Cinemas downtown. "Hopefully, this will facilitate things for the true aficionados who go running around to see five screenings in a day," says Spence.

Aficionados may feel differently. The addition of Pacific Place, along with the sponsorship of Blockbuster Video (and the exclusion of all local, independently owned video stores except for Scarecrow Video), has sparked grumblings and accusations of selling out. But taking the festival as a whole, the accusations are hard to sustain; this year has fewer American films than usual, more documentaries than ever before, and a spotlight on Canadian cinema—how much less mainstream can SIFF get?

Truth with an attitude

Why so many documentaries? "Because we're crazy!" spouts Spence. "We liked so many documentaries we just started booking them all. We didn't put on the brakes and say, 'Where are we going to put all these?'" As a result, most of the documentaries will be screened only once rather than twice, as is done with fiction films. (This means that many festival-goers might miss some good documentaries, as word of mouth often results in high attendance at second screenings.) It's worth taking a chance on documentaries; in recent years, such films as Crumb, Hoop Dreams, Brother's Keeper, and When We Were Kings have demonstrated that nonfiction films can be as delightful, sad, or disturbing as fiction. One documentary sure to find an audience: The Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders' film about the Cuban musicians discovered and made world-famous by Ry Cooder.

Emerging masters

It's always foolish to predict the future, but one of SIFF's most promising new programs does just that—it's an attempt to spotlight four up-and-coming filmmakers who will be making a mark in the new millennium. This year's international quartet: Fran篩s Girard, a Canadian whose previous film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, was an arthouse hit a few years ago (his current film, The Red Violin, has already won numerous Canadian awards); Polish filmmaker Dorota Kedzierzawksa, whose 1991 film Devils, Devils will be screening along with her most recent, Nothing; Michael Winterbottom, the British director of Welcome to Sarajevo and Jude, whose new film is I Want You; and German Tom Tykwer, whose Wintersleepers screened at SIFF last year and whose new film, Run, Lola, Run, has been accumulating buzz all over the place.

Fly Filmmaking

"Three filmmakers come in for a week, take over the town, shoot a film, and prove their mettle; I love that. I absolutely love that," confesses Kathleen McInnis, festival programmer and filmmaker forum producer. Now in its third year, Fly Filmmaking—a program unlike anything you'll find at any other festival—provides promising directors with a producer, a cinematographer, and just 800 feet of 16mm film. The ensuing frenzy of activity produced, last year, surprisingly accomplished and varied shorts from Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) and Tim Blake Nelson (Eye of God). This year's contenders are Julia Sweeney, who won last year's Golden Space Needle Award for God Said "Ha!"; Adrienne Shelley, who's best known as an actress in Hal Hartley's early films but has become a strong director in her own right, with such films as Sudden Manhattan (SIFF 1997); and Paul Todisco, whose first feature, Freak Talks About Sex, will also be shown in this year's festival. McInnis is enthusiastic about Todisco's debut: "It's one of the smarter looks at the late-twentysomething angst that a lot of guys go through. It's just better written and wittier than what I'm used to, and I love Steve Zahn—he's spot on in this particular film."

An abundance of shorts

"You're going to see a big difference in the quality of the shorts and the diversity of the countries they're from," promises Carl Spence. "In the past, we haven't had someone who's been as focused in that area, so we've fallen back on submissions, instead of going out and finding the best shorts available." New shorts programmer Anne Rosselini has pulled together more than 80 short films from such countries as Brazil, Turkey, and New Zealand. One of last year's shorts, David Fourier's Majorettes in Space, crammed more humor and heartbreak into six minutes of celluloid than most directors can manage in two hours.


In case you missed them the first time around, SIFF is bringing back five films that premiered at previous festivals and went on to worldwide acclaim, including Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal, Lars von Trier's Elements of Crime, Julio Medem's Vacas, Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man (early sleaze from the creator of Showgirls!), and Alan Rudolph's Choose Me. Both Rudolph and Medem have new films screening in the festival as well: Rudolph's latest is his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, featuring Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte (who will attend the screening), and the great Albert Finney; Medem's new film, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, has no big-name stars (well, to those of us who live outside of Spain), but is achingly romantic and fatalistic, telling the story of a 17-year secret love affair that encompasses so many mystical coincidences it'd be unbearable if you didn't want to embrace them all so badly. Fans of The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves may relish the opportunity to see von Trier's earlier work, but Elements of Crime is much cooler and more aloof than his recent films—although it's still got style to burn.

Galas, galas, galas!

Everybody loves a party, so SIFF has decided to hold more of them. The opening-night film was still a secret when this article had to go to print (mostly because the programmers still didn't know what it was going to be; this was two weeks before the opening . . . ), but the closing-night film will be the groooovy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. No word on whether stars Mike Myers or Heather Graham will attend, but since it's closing night they ought to at least get Robert Wagner. In between these two star-studded affairs will be more star-studded affairs, including screenings of An Ideal Husband (again, attendees are unconfirmed, but the movie stars Minnie Driver and recent Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett) and Limbo, the new film by John Sayles (writer-director of Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish). The publicists at the festival were pleased to say that Sayles himself will attend, and will speak before or after the film.

The archival presentations include a rare, one-of-a-kind screening of Otto Preminger's 1959 film of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, and Sammy Davis Jr. This 70mm print was found in a private archive in Germany; it was the closing-night film at the Berlin Film Festival, but is unlikely to be screened again any time soon. Not only are the rights to the material held in conflict between the original studio and the Gershwin estate, the original 60mm negative is lost. There's only one catch: Because the print is from Germany, it has German subtitles.

It's striking that this year's festival will be competing with The Phantom Menace; a glance back at Return of the Jedi makes clear how quickly corrupted the series became—love them or hate them, it's undeniable that the Ewoks were inspired by their potential as plush toys, not by the story's integrity. In contrast, the ambitions of the first film were touchingly modest: to recapture the simple pleasure George Lucas felt when watching the adventure serials of his childhood. The original Star Wars has more in common with the films you'll see in SIFF than with its multimillion-dollar special-effects-stuffed sequel.

Next week, Bret Fetzer and a cadre of the Weekly critics present an annotated critical guide to the entire festival.

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