Local Sightings Film Festival: Seattle Directors Take Their Cameras to New Orleans and the Gobi Desert

Mossy navel-gazing is too often the first impulse of Northwest indie filmmakers. After cadging money from family and friends, maxing out their credit cards, calling in favors, and begging for free labor, they produce angsty tales about young, sensitive, artistic, urban-dwelling filmmakers struggling to express their inchoate, innermost feelings. Mumblecore soon becomes Mumblebore. And we've seen enough of those movies at the Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings Film Festival over the past nine years. In its 10th iteration, which includes eight features, 35 shorts, and various panels and parties (see the NWFF Web site for details), it's good to find some directors stepping far from that familiar terrain.

One example, which premieres before the opening-night party, is The Church on Dauphine Street (7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4), co-directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Ann Hedreen and Rustin Thompson. The documentary follows Seattle volunteers down to New Orleans, where they join with local union workers to help rebuild a church annex after Hurricane Katrina. The pair were initially invited by members of the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, which led the efforts.

Then, Hedreen explains by phone, "We thought there might be a lot more to the story. It broadened out." Instead of making a short, church-sponsored video, they self-financed a feature documentary that encompasses the diverse parishioners (black, white, Hispanic, and deaf) and the union tradesmen who quickly shared their own tales of loss.

"We kept uncovering all these layers," says Thompson. The brick parish building, damaged but largely intact, was "nothing compared to the Lower Ninth Ward." There, he learned, "People in New Orleans have no problem telling you their stories." He explains that the union workers were donating time they might've spent repairing their own devastated homes, several of which we visit in the film. Meanwhile, the Seattle volunteers were buying their own airline tickets, then carting waterlogged Sheetrock and tossing debris in Dumpsters.

Much work, though, remains to be done in New Orleans. "These people still have a huge struggle," says Thompson, "but these people don't piss and moan about it." Hedreen, who will conduct a Q&A following the Thursday screening, adds, "They do feel abandoned by the federal government. And that crosses party lines."

Indeed, there's a moment in the film when a soundly conservative pipe fitter and good ole boy, surveying his still-ruined home, confesses, "I've had some liberal thoughts."

At the other end of the documentary spectrum is Brian Short's All My Love (premiering at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 8), which has no narration, no plot, and little more structure than its three themed movements. It's very much a landscape/trance film in the tradition of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. It's also perhaps the last film produced by the Film Company, the production outfit affiliated with the NWFF and launched late in 2004 to great fanfare. Short was on staff there as a sound and motion graphics designer through completion of its highest-profile work, Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! (which concludes the fest and which we'll review next week).

He was lucky, he recalls by phone, to finish financing All My Love (for all of $12,000) through the Film Company, which underwrote his cinematic expeditions to the American Southwest and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. "I'm schlepping around the world with low-format cameras," says Short. "That's not exactly a commercial film."

He started in southern Colorado in late 2004 after buying an oil-leaking, used VW with no door handles on eBay for $1,500. With his tiny Super 8 format camera, "I just drove all over, filming all I saw. A lot of it was Zen and happenstance." Short mainly filmed what looked interesting from the road, determined to use every frame he shot. "There wasn't a lot of waste; that was kind of a rule that I set myself."

The film's middle section (shot on mini-DV during 2005) takes place mainly in the old East Berlin. "That was where my feet took me," Short recalls. He had no map, only a general schema of contrasting West with East, like two hemispheres of the brain, with Berlin the "interface" between them.

East, of course, is represented by the Gobi Desert, in a country he'd never before visited. "I was a bit apprehensive," he recalls of his 10-day visit during 2006. Yet filming (now on 16 mm) in the sparsely populated country, he discovered that "it was so unbelievably wide and open and flat. I'd never really seen a horizon like that." The light and atmosphere foreshortened and folded objects into the plains, he found, to the point where distance and size couldn't properly be measured.

Short doesn't seem too concerned about how others will receive his very personal film, initiated after "a pretty significant personal shake-up" of divorce and bankruptcy. "It's a hypnosis," he says of the picture; "it's a very benevolent manner of hypnosis."

Since he answers his 206 area code phone in upstate New York, I ask about his next project. Not another movie, but culinary school, he answers. "I'm hoping to make a career change." Which, of course, may be a comment on the Seattle film scene.


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