SIFF 2018 Edition: Final Thoughts

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On June 10, SIFF 2018 ended. During the 25 days of the festival (plus press screenings, which add 10 more days to the total), I saw 19 feature-length films (including one archival), 2 collections of shorts (and yes, I count the Found Footage Festival as a collection of shorts), and a handful of VR. That’s out of 433 films (168 features, 4 secret films, 66 documentaries, 10 archival films, 164 shorts, and 21 VR/360 works). Out of those films, I sat through two world premieres, one North American premiere, and one U.S. premiere. That’s out of 35 world premieres (6 features, 29 shorts), 46 North American premieres (32 features, 14 shorts), and 25 U.S. premieres (16 features, 9 shorts). I haven’t seen so few films since my days of volunteering for the festival (in my first year of volunteering, I saw 10 feature-length films, no shorts, and parts of films that played during my shifts. My second year, I saw 18 feature-length films, no shorts, and parts of films that played during my shifts). If I were to add in the films I’ll be seeing after the fest that played during fest, however, that number would increase astronomically. It might even clear 25.

BEST AUDIENCE

Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems

What’s better than watching some of the wackiest shows and videos ever put to VHS? Watching some of the wackiest shows and videos with an appreciative audience. I’m sure there were some people in the audience who didn’t laugh and gasp and cheer during the onslaught of public television and safety video gold, but they were drowned out by those who did.

BEST SATELLITE VENUE (i.e. not the Uptown, Egyptian, or Film Center)

Shoreline Community College

To be fair, I didn’t go to any of the other satellite locations this year, barring AMC (though I have in the past). Shoreline’s theater is a good size, sells concessions at decent prices, has the calming effect of being out in the middle of nowhere, offers plentiful parking, is easy to get to by bus, and doesn’t draw huge crowds of people (or at least didn’t on the night I was there). And while I love large audiences for their participation, sometimes it’s nice to see a movie where there are several seats between you and the person next to you.

BETTER AT THE BEGINNING THAN THE END

Mutafukaz

This animated movie had so much promise. The main character starts discovering he has special powers. Aliens seem to be hiding in plain sight. There’s a chase scene with an ice cream truck. A gang member recites Shakespeare as he lays waste to his enemies. Mexican wrestlers are really superheroes in disguise. And yet the execution as the film nears its conclusion is static, and the only female character is a deus ex machina plot device. Perhaps some character development and more innovative camera techniques would’ve made the conclusion as enjoyable as the commencement.

BETTER AT THE END THAN THE BEGINNING

My Name is Myeisha

Based on the play Dreamscape, the transition from movie to stage play adaptation is goofy — so goofy, I thought the film wouldn’t recover, yet it did, even creating poignancy at its shocking end. Much of that has to do with the main character, played by Rhaechyl Walker in an excellent performance in what is, for the most part, a one-woman show (she was first runner-up for Best Actress at the Golden Space Needle awards).

LONGEST APPLAUSE

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Director Morgan Neville was in attendance, so one would expect the audience to hoot and holler when the movie ended. They didn’t really do that here. Instead, they just kept applauding. And applauding. And applauding. I’ve heard applause crescendo into roars, seen people stand up and cheer as the house lights turn on, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such steady, continuous clapping before.

BEST SURPRISE/BEST FEATURE FILM

Tigers Are Not Afraid

I’d heard nothing about this movie before I saw it at the festival. I picked it because it fit in with my schedule, the title was cool, and the program compared it to a del Toro work. To be honest, I almost didn’t see it, as I’d already seen two films that day, the second of which (Mademoiselle Paradis) was very good. In the English-speaking world, there’s hardly any mention of it on the web. That is a travesty. Del Toro says he’ll produce writer/director/executive producer Issa López’s next film, but someone needs to distribute this film for her. It narrowly missed being my top pick of the fest. And that’s because…

BEST OVERALL/BEST DOCUMENTARY

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

…this movie played the same festival. Unlike Tigers Are Not Afraid, I knew going in that this was going to be a good film. It’s about Mr. Rogers and his Neighborhood, it’s by the same director who won an Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, and the trailers looked great. But this film kept on giving in the selfless way that Fred Rogers did. Only a book could’ve included more information, and not even a book would’ve had access to all the home movies and archival material that this documentary did. If you don’t cry at least once during this film, you might want to check your pulse. I knew I was a goner when I started tearing up ten minutes in.

IN CONCLUSION

Each year of the festival holds its own charm. The first year I volunteered, everything was new and exciting. The second year, I knew that I’d be part of the last crew to volunteer at the Neptune. In 2012, I was part of the first crew to work the Uptown as a main venue (it was a satellite venue the first year I volunteered in 2010, but closed soon after). In 2013, I dedicated my posts to the late Roger Ebert, who had passed away only a month before. 2014 saw my first year covering the festival as an accredited reporter, and SIFF celebrated its 40th festival!* In 2015, I became one of the last staff members to work the Harvard Exit (that was the same year I saw six films in a row: a feat that led to my scaling down my movie-watching experiences the past two years. It’s also the first year I was rejected for a press pass). In 2016, I went to my first secret festival — and was sick on the day they apparently showed the best movie out of the four! And finally, I didn’t cover the festival at all last year (though I went), due to professional and personal reasons.

So what was the charm for me this year? It actually ties in to last year’s announcement that I wouldn’t be covering the festival. People actually cared. I had a couple of interactions with people who were shocked that I wasn’t doing it, and several disappointed people online. It was by no means a large swath of the population, but they were people I knew and were on friendly terms with. And that’s the thing. As a writer, I never know who’s reading these blogs (unless they comment or share), but more importantly, I only rarely get to glimpse how my writing impacts others. This was one of those times. So this year, the charm was that I got to cover it again, on my own terms, and see that I still have something to say.

Next year will be my tenth Seattle International Film Festival, so I plan on doing something special for the occasion. All I’ll say is that it’ll be a celebration that looks back, as well as forward. And for those of you who’ve been here since the beginning, since halfway in, or just joined this year, thank you.

 

*The first Seattle International Film Festival ran from May 14-31, 1976 [Source: historylink.org]. There was no 13th film festival.

 

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Get in the (VR) Zone

SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place

In 2016, SIFF dedicated a part of its festival to emerging virtual reality work. Held at Seattle Center, the event was a mini-festival-within-the-festival dubbed SIFFX. Last year, it transformed into 360 Storytelling, which was offered by WonderTek labs every weekend of the festival, and a “PlayTank” at the Film Center the last day of fest. This year, the virtual reality experience was rebranded as the SIFF VR Zone and was housed on the ground floor of Pacific Place. On the last day of SIFF 2018, I decided to investigate this emerging medium and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for the future of film in particular and visual media in general.

The VR Zone was open for 90 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes where the exhibit was closed. During those 30 minutes, people lined up in the waiting room. Once the exhibit was ready for ticket holders and passholders, a staff member came out and explained what’s about to happen. Basically, the room we were about to go into would be filled with individual stations. Each station would be equipped with a Samsung Gear VR headset. Some exhibits would sport interactive controllers, as well. Swivel chairs would be provided for the features so as to fully experience the 360 degree visuals and sound. The features would involve sitting, while some of the interactive exhibits would involve standing. We were also warned to take breaks, as people prone to motion-sickness might be affected by the VR (I was warned in advance about one called Uplift VR: Maiden Flight, which takes place in a hot air balloon, but I didn’t have time to try it). Each exhibit would have the name of the exhibit and its run time written near the exhibit, usually on the wall.

With that, the blacks curtains were opened and we were let loose on a long, black-lined room that narrowed near the back (and shifted a bit to the right). Near the walls rested several swivel chairs with headsets and headphones (in other exhibits, the headsets and headphones were combined). Toward the middle of the space was a balloon basket (for Maiden Flight). Past it were more interactive exhibits, then a hallway perpendicular to the rest of the room. If you took a right, the hallway led past two exhibits into Where Thoughts Go. To the left were two more exhibits on the way to the restrooms.

The Zone included different VR experiences. Interactive VR involved more of the viewer, 360 Out of Africa and 360 Out of Space are what they sound like in their respective focuses, while 360 Experimental jettisoned narrative for different uses of the medium. Youth 360 were projects created by youth, while 360 Narrative, 360 Documentary, and 360 Art & Music are self-explanatory. In all, there were 28 exhibits of varying length, with most exhibits lasting under 15 minutes in length.

Since I had limited time, I went on my coworkers’ recommendations, with one exception. My first VR experience was Rone, an 8-9 minute documentary about the street artist by Lester Francois. This man paints huge portraits of women in buildings and other spaces designated for destruction. I used the swivel chair to good effect on this one.

The next exhibit was not recommended to me, nor would I recommend it to others. That was the experimental The Cabiri: Anubis by Bogdan Darev and Fred Beahm. Taking the shape of a play and coming after the true 360 world of Rone, this 180 staged work didn’t utilize all that VR could offer. Plus, it was boring in its telling of a man in ancient Egypt traveling to the Underworld to await judgement. Much of that had to do with the choreography, which wasn’t that impressive. Titles over the visuals were the only dialog included; music and gestures told the rest.

Then came the calming and wonderful Where Thoughts Go by Lucas Rizzotto, the first of two interactive exhibits I was able to experience. The exhibit, complete with a gauzy entrance and cushions to sit on, utilized controllers that allowed me to manipulate tiny spheres of light. In each “level”, you’d be asked a personal question, usually having to do with love, loss, or memories. You could manipulate the spheres to hear how other people answered, but the only way to move to the next question was to record an answer, then send your “answer sphere” to join the other spheres. It says something when an employee had to come in and tell me to wrap it up (due to people waiting for the exhibit outside), but I answered at least three of the questions and heard multiple answers to them. If it’s back next year, I may just spend all my time there.

The final exhibit (and final interactive exhibit) I experienced, I had to wait for. Called Queerskins: A Love Story (by Illya Szilac and Cyril Tsiboulski), the exhibit space was filled with mementos and testimonials of gay people who’d been rejected by their parents. The exhibit also had controllers that allowed me to manipulate items in a box as I sat in the back seat of a car. In the front were parents of a son who has died of AIDS. The box contained items that belonged to their son. The items changed every so often, depending on what was happening in the story at the time. While the narrative was powerful, I wondered if the VR Experience was necessary. Sure, you see the son as a person through interacting with the items in the back seat, but you aren’t holding physical items, which would create more of an impact. Also, the story is meant to make a point (which it does), but a short film could delve deeper into the subject with more complexity.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the exhibit. Just like 3D, however, the forced perspective gave me a headache, even after just one exhibit. Imagine if the exhibits were feature-length! If anyone figures out how to make the holodeck a reality, I’m there, but for now, virtual reality will remain a novelty, or one confined to the shortest of run-times.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week Three — The Taste of Betel Nut

Ren Yu, Bai Ling, and Li Qi. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

In the opening scenes, we see Li Qi (Shen Shi Yu) put on clown makeup and perform with a seal. We then see him after the performance, alone except for his animal partner. He washes off his makeup and cleans his clothes in the sink with soap. He pauses to look at the soap bar, almost finished. The next day at the market, he sees someone he recognizes. He follows this person, hiding something behind his back that looks like a machete. After attacking him (the attack isn’t shown: the screen fades out as the machete comes down, and then reappears with Li Qi covered in blood), he marches around the corner to face the group of men who were with the man he killed.

The movie then travels back in time, and it is in these past moments that The Taste of Betel Nut shows itself to be directed by a steady hand. We meet Ren Yu (Zhao Bing Rui) receiving a flashy jacket. Ren Yu works the beaches as a karaoke singer, charging for people to sing and take photos with him. He gets a haircut and next is getting a blowjob and fucking the hair dresser behind a curtain at the hair salon. Li Qi and he are a polyamorous couple, though Li Qi seems to have no flings.

Ren Yu doesn’t have a permit for his line of work. Neither, too, does the older woman who operates the food stand where Li Qi and Ren Yu hang out after his gigs. During the summer, her niece Bai Ling (Yue Ye) comes to help out. The duo of Ren Yu and Li Qi soon become a trio. After trying betel nut at a friend’s wedding, the three of them have sex in a scene that effectively uses double and triple exposure. The problem is, Bai Ling eventually decides she just wants to be with Ren Yu, but he doesn’t want to be steady with anyone, and Li Qi likes her and Ren Yu equally.

This is only director Hu Jia’s second feature film (his first was 2014’s Dance With Me, which doesn’t even appear on IMDB), but based solely on it, I expect him to have a long and successful career. I only have a couple caveats. The biggest one is that Bai Ling is treated more as a plot device than as a person. Outside of being someone for the two main characters to love and for setting up a conflict later in the film, she doesn’t do much besides look at them with longing. She talks about going back to school after the summer, but that is all we know about her, besides being a pretty face. The other criticism is a recurring scene in which Li Qi walks in the water in slow motion (the camera follows his legs). I understand the mood Hu is going for, but I’m not sure why this motif. Perhaps a second viewing would clarify it for me.

On the plus side, Yue’s chemistry with Zhao and Shen is excellent, as is Zhao’s and Shen’s with each other. And the feel of the film reminds me of Hou Hsiao Hsien, but with room for comedy (perhaps Edward Yang is a more accurate comparison).

But what about the man Li Qi kills? We know he will appear again in the scenes that take place in the past, and though we sense the impending tragedy the first time he appears, it doesn’t lessen the blow on his second appearance. The tragedy, when it comes, is not something that the characters deserve due to personality flaws, but something that comes as a result of the flaws and meanness of others. And yet the last shot is of someone smiling. A happy ending, or the memory of a happy summer, before that happiness was destroyed?

SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of SIFF, Week Two — Tigers Are Not Afraid

The young cast. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

Tigers Are Not Afraid starts in fact and ends in myth. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film follows a girl (named Estrella and played by Paola Lara) who uses fantasy to deal with a grisly reality. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality was Franco’s Fascist rule of Spain. Tigers Are Not Afraid deals with a more recent nightmare: the drug wars in Mexico (title cards at the beginning of the film point out that no one knows many children have been murdered or orphaned during these wars). Like del Toro’s great film, Issa López’s mixes fantasy with reality. And like del Toro, the fantasy world is not a place of light, but of darkness.

While Pan’s Labyrinth dealt with the world of adults as well as children, however, Tigers Are Not Afraid focuses exclusively on the children, all of whom have been orphaned by the drug wars which killed their fathers and sold their mothers. In addition to Estrella, there’s Shine (Juan Ramón López), the leader of a group of orphans: Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro, who is mute and carries around a stuffed tiger.

The movie begins with Estrella writing a story about a prince who became a tiger, but has forgotten that he is a prince. And tigers are not afraid. As she narrates her tale, we see Shine steal a pistol and cell phone from Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a member of the local Huasca cartel, while Caco is drunkenly pissing in an alleyway. He points the gun at Caco’s head, but can’t pull the trigger. We then return to Estrella, where bullets ring out and the students dive under their desks. The teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk while she is on the floor and says, “These are wishes.” When Estrella gets back to her house, her mom isn’t there. We assume she hasn’t been home for some time. Estrella uses one of her wishes to wish that her mother would come home soon. Her mother does, as a frightening apparition out of Crimson Peak. But, like that terrifying ghost, she has some wisdom to impart to Estrella, though it’s cryptic. With nowhere to go, she joins Shine’s gang, who are soon hunted by Caco, wanting his phone back. This leads to a rooftop chase. While the gang agrees to take Estrella with them, their condition is that she kill Caco. She agrees to try, but once inside his house, she uses her second wish to find a way not to kill him. It comes true when she discovers he is already dead.

Who killed Caco? And what is on that phone? To reveal the answers would be to spoil the movie. Just like Estrella’s wishes, the resolutions in this film are unpredictable, but they are resolutions, and a large part of why this film is great is how tidily it resolves everything without resorting to clichés. Another part is the locations. Much of the action happens at night, in abandoned buildings, which cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia gives the right look for a film filled with ghosts and violence. And finally, there are the actors, particularly leads Juan Ramón López and Paola Lara, who are completely believable in their roles. For that, one must thank the director/writer/executive director Issa López. Ms. López is also smart in not trying to thrust a love story on us. Estrella and Shine grow to care about one another more as the movie progresses, but they are never lovers, and the friendship blossoms out of shared circumstances. Estrella’s mom was kidnapped by the same gang that burned down Shine’s house and gave him his facial scar. He wants revenge, but unlike tigers, he is afraid, and so is the audience for these kids.

When Guillermo del Toro saw this film in 2017, he put it on his top ten list for the year (at number 8) and offered to produce López’s next film. So far, however, this movie has no international release date, something that its distributor, Videocine, should rectify. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a minor miracle, and heralds a major new talent in the world of cinema.

Shorts at Shoreline

For the third straight year, Shoreline Community College (SCC) was one of the satellite venues for SIFF. This year, however, was the first year I attended a screening there, and the screening I attended launched the first-ever Episodic Content category: WebFest at Shoreline (this was the only screening of this content during the festival).

Besides having ample parking for people with cars, SCC boasts a leisurely bus ride for people who rely on public transportation. Of course, sometimes the buses don’t cooperate:

Normally, they’re 15 minutes apart.

Being out-of-the-way means that there isn’t a fight for seats, like can sometimes happen at other venues. For example, I saw no lines outside by the time I arrived. Inside, I saw few passholders and plenty of empty seats. If I’d stayed for Virus Tropical, the only line I would’ve seen is a short one for ticket holders. And the campus has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere to it. One feels they’ve escaped the city for the countryside.

The theater reminded me of the one SIFF used for years at McCaw Hall, in that there’s no middle aisle and the rows are long. Being a bit hungry, I hit the snack bar, where I was happy to discover that they had Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Also, their popcorn bags are guaranteed not to make noise during the screening.

A cup of corn

While Shoreline upgraded their theater in 2017 to include a digital 4K projector and 7.1 surround sound, one of the trailers before WebFest sounded screechy in the high treble range, either meaning that the sound stretched the capacity of the speakers, or the volume was too high (there’s a possible third option: that the audio wasn’t formatted right). During the shorts (a mixture of pilots and webisodes), however, both sound and image quality weren’t a problem. Still, I’d love to see how the space handles a movie meant to be shown in theaters, rather than on a laptop.

Before the shorts began, Beth Barrett, Artistic Director at SIFF, introduced the 95-minute program and told us that multiple people involved in these episodes would be appearing afterward for a Q&A. In addition, Randi Kleiner (Chief Executive Officer) and Caleb Ward (Late Night Programmer), who run SeriesFest in Denver, would be joining them. Before the exclusive content of this program, we got to see a wonderfully amateurish promotional video for Shoreline, which looked like it was made by students at the college.

Beth Barrett, Artistic Director at SIFF, introducing WebFest

You can check out my capsule reviews for my thoughts about specific webisodes (unlike the feature films listed, they are listed in order of viewing, not alphabetically). In general, I enjoyed all of them, as they covered a diverse range of topics and genres, from slice-of-life humor (Apartment) to drama (Otis) to sci-fi (The Big Nothing, Strowlers) to thriller (Unspeakable). The Passage had the longest episode at 22 minutes, while Arun Considers had the shortest at 2 minutes.

(l-r) Strowlers: Claudine Nako (actress), Lisa Coronado (actress), Lindy Boustedt (producer), L. Gabriel Gonda (co-director, writer), Otis: Alexander Etseyatse (actor, director, writer, producer, film editor), Arun Considers: Arun Narayanan (actor, writer, co-director), The Passage: Philip Burgers (actor), Unspeakable: Kate Chamuris (producer)

The Q&A revealed interesting details. For example, the reasons behind developing these projects as web series were varied. Burgers (The Passage) said they just wanted to tell a story, born out of director Kitao Sakurai’s connection with various communities, while Narayanan (Arun Considers) said they did it as a web series for practical reasons (the series originally started as stand-up), as they needed to make it cheaply. For Otis, Etseyatse said the series was originally conceived as a movie.  He thought about making it into a short, but then decided to do a web series, instead. With Strowlers, the creators want to make an entire universe that encourages audience participation, which allows them to set stories in different places and different times (one of them pitched a story set in Nigeria). It also allows them to expand into different media, such as literature and comics. Finally, Chamuris said Unspeakable director Milena Govich wanted to do a series centered around an anti-hero.

Some of these series have multiple episodes up already (Arun Considers, Unspeakable), while others have only one episode shot (The Passage) or don’t have them online yet (Strowlers, which will have episodes up in the fall).

Then it was time for Kleiner and Ward to take the stage and explain what SeriesFest is. Basically, it’s a film festival that only shows web pilots, but they also bring network execs in to watch the pilots so that these series can receive financial backing. This year, the fest runs from June 22-27. Unbeknownst to the filmmakers in WebFest, Kleiner and Ward were judging their pilots, and Unspeakable won the honor of appearing at their festival.

Next year, I hope to visit this gem of the north more often when the 45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival begins. And I hope more people will join me.

A very special thanks to Beth Barrett for furnishing me with the names of all the guests for Strowlers.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week One — Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of SIFF

Most people would be daunted by the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just the archival material alone, from all the shows of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that aired (920 episodes, according to director Morgan Neville), would give a lesser man a headache. Luckily, Morgan Neville is not a normal man, yet the story of this documentary started out curiously (which Neville explained during the Q&A following the film). Like many things today, it started with YouTube. Neville started watching all of Rogers’s speeches on that channel. Then, when making The Music of Strangers, which is about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, he asked Ma who helped him deal with his fame, and he said, “Mr. Rogers.”

Fitting, then, that the film starts in 1967 with Fred Rogers  talking about music (while playing piano). In particular, he’s discussing modulations. In music, some modulations are easy, while others are hard. He feels life is the same and mentions how he feels his mission is to help kids through life’s modulations.  He stops at one point and wonders if he’s being too philosophical, but then he checks himself and says, “Well, it makes sense to me.”

To make sense of the man and the show, Neville didn’t shoot it like a normal documentary, where you film footage first and then cut it to an acceptable length. With all the archival material they had, they cut the essential ideas of the doc first…and found themselves with a 90-minute film (the film is 94 minutes, including end credits). And yet, the films runs chronologically, even as it stops and focuses on what made the show and the man so special, and radical.

For starters, Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who wished to used television to evangelize. The first show he was a part of played short films for kids. Unfortunately, the films had often been played numerous times beforehand and would often break on air, and since the episodes weren’t taped, the host had to fill time. One time, Rogers stuck an owl puppet above the clock and said, “It’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.” That was the first time he used a puppet on TV.

In addition, he was part of the group of scientists (Dr. Spock being one of the most famous) focusing on childhood development and how kids weren’t just miniature adults. Rogers connected to that group through his teacher, Margaret McFarland. He was horrified by what passed for children’s television in those days. Then, as now, it included lots of loud noises, fast action, and violence. His show, which premiered in February 1968 in Pittsburgh, was a gentler show, though the first episode not-so-subtly dealt with the Vietnam War in King Friday XIII’s erection of a wall and orders to kill any foreigners who come into the kingdom. Other episodes dealt with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, suicide, divorce, and other topics one wouldn’t typically find in a children’s show. For example, when he heard, in 1968, about a man throwing chlorine muriatic acid in a pool because he didn’t want black kids swimming in it, he filmed an episode where he shared a kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons, who is black, and mentioned how nice it was to share a pool on a hot summer day.* In another episode, he set a timer for one minute so that the audience could experience how long one minute felt like.

People knew there was something special about Mr. Rogers and his show when a meet-and-greet, scheduled that same year, translated into huge lines of parents with their kids.

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Believe it or not, the line to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shorter than the line that greeted Fred Rogers in 1968.

When Neville came to Joanne Rogers for her blessing on the project, her one bit of advice to him was not to make her husband a saint. Indeed, Rogers was accused (by narcissists) of creating a generation of narcissists by telling kids they were “special,” a charge refuted by Rogers himself in one of the many commencement addresses he gave, where he explained what he meant by saying kids were perfect “just the way they are.” Richard Nixon even tried to gut Public Television (created under the previous administration). The Senate Subcommittee on Communications held hearings in 1969 to decide whether to cut $20 million in funding for PBS under the pretext that it was needed to fund the war. The man in charge of the committee, Senator John Pastore (a Democrat), ran on these cuts, and early on it looked like PBS wouldn’t get its funding. Then, Fred Rogers spoke. They got their funding.

In addition to archival footage, the documentary includes interviews of people who worked on the show, were on the show (like Yo-Yo Ma), and who knew him best (e.g. his wife Joanne). One person they don’t talk to is Jeff Erlanger, who made a memorial appearance on the show right before he was going to go in for surgery, and discussed with Rogers what it was like to be in a wheelchair. We know from the documentary that he survived the surgery, but the interviews are only with his parents. I discovered Jeff died in 2007, which is why he wasn’t interviewed for the film, but his sister lives in Seattle, and she was present at the Q&A after the movie with her daughter to talk about her brother and how much Rogers cared for him. The first night they met, he cut up Jeff’s food and fed him, but without any trace of condescension.

Besides Erlanger, the other person who had a touching story (among many touching moments in this documentary) was François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). He discovered he was gay, and one night, he visited a gay bar. Rogers heard about it and told him he couldn’t go there anymore, as he was worried the sponsors would stop funding a show with a gay man on it. Eventually he came around, but the touching moment was when Clemmons confronted him and said (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “You say, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ Were you saying that to me, too?” His response was along the lines of, “I’ve been saying that to you for the last two years and you’ve only now just figured it out.” Clemmons tears up at that point, for he’d never heard another man say that to him, not even his own father. From that point on, Rogers was like a father to him.

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Look at all those neighbors!

In addition to archival footage and interviews, the documentary incorporates animation to show some of Fred Rogers’s fears from when he was a child and how they stayed with him as an adult. A great argument is made that Daniel Striped Tiger was Rogers’s alter ego, and so an animated tiger plays the young Fred in these animations. Later in life, the cast agrees that he became more like King Friday XIII.

The masterstroke, though, comes at the end. In the spirit of Mr. Rogers, several of the interviewees are asked to take a moment and think about who has helped them. They all do, and at the very end is Joanne Rogers, who after reflecting for a moment, looks out through the camera, locks eyes with the audience, and says, “Thank you.”

One studio exec once said that if you do everything wrong on television, you end up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you do everything right, you end up with this documentary.

Stay for the credits.

Now playing at SIFF Uptown

* CORRECTIONS: Discussing this event, one of the interviewees says that bleach was thrown in the water (not chlorine, which I initially wrote, but which makes no sense), but it was actually muriatic acid (undiluted hydrochloric acid). The swim-in that led to the motel manager throwing acid in the pool occurred in 1964. Since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the episode aired at least four years after this event occurred.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Three

Here are all the capsule reviews for week three in alphabetical order, including the entire final weekend of SIFF. Release dates are included where applicable. Again, my rating system:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

  1. Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems: A collection of unintentionally hilarious, bizarre, or downright gross clips from the heyday of VHS. With explanations between curated clips and some live commentary. I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterwards. 4 (Presented by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher)
  2. My Name Is Myeisha: Sandwiched between two movie bookends is an adaptation of the play Dreamscape, which uses hip-hop and spoken word to juxtapose the events leading to Myeisha’s (Rhaechyl Walker) death at the hands of the police (and the subsequent coroner’s report) and brief glances at her life and world. It humanizes her, to be sure, but what works in the theater doesn’t always work onscreen (the transition from movie to adaptation is pretty goofy), and while this one gets better as it goes, the event itself creates more of an impact and a sense of how tragic and unnecessary her death was than the means used to flesh out her story. Still, films reach more people than plays do, and that’s enough of a reason to be glad it was made. Plus, the home movie footage and ending are powerful stuff. (d: Gus Krieger)
  3. Naila and the Uprising: An important, informative, and necessary documentary about the first (and purest) intifada and the women who were a huge part of it, but were pushed out of their positions of power once the PLO returned to power.(d: Julia Bacha)
  4. The Silk and the Flame: A gorgeous-looking black and white documentary about a young gay man (Yao) from a small town in China trying to hold up against pressured from the community to follow familial tradition and marry. (d: Jordan Schiele) US Premiere Release date TBA.
  5. The Taste of Betel Nut: This movie begins at the end, then loops back in time to when polyamorous couple Li Qi and Ren Yu (Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao, respectively) allow a young woman, Bai Ling (Yue Yue) into their lives for a summer. A few questionable decisions (which might be answered by a second viewing) can’t mar the fact that this is one of the stronger films I saw at SIFF, though I would’ve given it higher marks if Bai Lung were fleshed out more as a person, and less as a plot device. 4 (d: Hu Jia) North American Premiere
  6. VR Zone: With 28 short subjects to cover in 90 minutes on the last (and busiest) day of the SIFF VR Zone, I didn’t have time to view all the recommended titles by friends and coworkers, let alone all 28. I ended up experiencing four of them: one documentary, one experimental, and two interactive. All used Samsung Gear VR headsets (with adjustable focus) and headphones (either attached to the headset or separate), a couple used controllers.
    1. Rone: A documentary about the street artist of the same name, who draws large portraits of women’s faces in abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas. He explains that he chose women’s faces because most of the street art he saw was masculine, and he wanted to counteract it. By far the best use of VR; everywhere you looked, there was something to see. The swivel chair helped. (Lester Francois)
    2. The Cabiri: Anubis: While waiting to see a recommended exhibit, I decided to try this one, which follows an ancient Egyptian man’s journey to the underworld, where he is judged by a dance troop (I mean, they’re playing roles, but it’s a dance troop). Oh, and acrobats. This film could’ve been effectively done on a front and rear projection screen, or on stage. Most of the time, it didn’t incorporate the immersive experience that the other exhibits did, as you sit on a bench and merely look in front or behind you. Also, with no dialog and occasional sentences grafted on the screen that seemed culled from abandoned movie trailer slogans, it failed to keep my interest. (Bogdan Darev & Fred Beahm)
    3. Where Thoughts Go: Boasting the longest run-time of all the exhibits, I only got partway through, due to demand. Like the other interactive exhibits, instead of a chair or a bench, you sat in a room which was decked out as part of the exhibit, this one with cushions, and manipulated two controllers to listen to previous people’s answers to deeply personal questions. To continue to the next question, you had to record your own answer, and then set the recording free. To give you an example, the first question was: Why did you fall in love for the first time? As this is an ongoing project, I hope to visit it next year (on a less busy day) and listen to (and record) more responses. Simple, yet rewarding. (Lucas Rizzotto)
    4. Queerskins: A Love Story: Another recommended exhibit, which also had its space built up, complete with a table, photos on the walls, and a bench to sit on as a stand-in for a car seat. In this exhibit, you sit in the back of a car as a devout Christian couple discusses their gay son on the way to visit his grave. As they talk, objects appear in a box next to you, which you can pick up and look at. While the views from the car were nice, the objects didn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the short, which would’ve been just as powerful as a feature film, rather than an interactive VR Exhibit. Still, it is powerful. (Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski)

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Two

Here are my capsule reviews for the second week of the festival. None of these films have release dates outside of the festival, except for some of the web series. Again, my ratings are:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Being There: This satire from Hal Ashby follows Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers, in a Golden Globe-winning performance), who finds himself homeless and unemployed when his employer dies. Having witnessed the world only through television and the garden he tended, his simplicity and rich clothes (formerly belonging to his master) are mistaken for profundity and untold wealth as he ends up becoming a guest at the house of an old rich man (Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning role) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and even influences the President (Jack Warden).  And then there’s that final shot in the film. Helps that the audience was in tune with each joke. 5 Archival

Love Education: Huiying (Sylvia Chang) wants to bury her mother (Liyuan Wang) next to her father (Xiang Jia). Problem is, her father was originally married to someone from his home village (Yanshu Wu), and she won’t allow his “mistress” to be buried with him, or for his grave to be moved to the city. Huiying’s husband (Zhuangzhuang Tian) meanwhile, might be having a fling with one of his driving students. Her daughter Weiwei (Yueting Lang), in turn, starts having issues with her boyfriend Da (Ning Song) when his old flame comes to visit…and brings her son with her, who may or may not be his. Poignant, funny, and ironic, the real love here is how director/writer/actress Sylvia Chang handles the three generations of women, and the men in their lives (and the other women in theirs). 

Mademoiselle Paradis: Based on the novel Mesmerized by Alissa Walser, this is the true story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (Maria Dragus), a blind prodigy at the piano who was temporarily cured of her blindness by Dr. Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow). A great, non-sentimental view of how disabilities and women were treated in the 18th century. Gorgeous cinematography, costumes, and music. (d: Barbara Albert)

Mutafukaz: Props for including a high-speed chase with an ice cream truck and a gang leader who quotes Shakespeare, but this fun and strange film about a boy named Angelino (Tay Lee) who starts seeing shadowy tentacle creatures attached to humans and must escape mysterious government agents becomes less and less fun as the movie continues. While visually stunning, it also feels incredibly static in its framing. (d: Shoujirou Nishimi,Guillaume Renard)

Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA: The man and his music are fascinating, the movie less so. The main issue here is that we follow Sakamoto through his daily routine, but the most interesting moments concern his career, or are in the studio, when his face lights up when he hears the perfect sound. Otherwise, it’d be better to do a traditional documentary on the man, or one with more of a focus (like on his activism, which begins the film). (d: Stephen Nomura Schible) Plays on Friday, June 8

Tigers Are Not Afraid: This film, which follows kids orphaned by the drug war in Mexico, mixes reality and fantasy ala Pan’s Labyrinth in a creepy, violent, and ultimately wonderful film in which fairy tales literally help our heroine in a world where the reality is too gruesome to bear. Story, acting, cinematography, humor, and visual storytelling are all used to masterly effect. No wonder Guillermo del Toro places this film 8th in his top ten movies of 2017 and offered to produce director Issa López’s next film. 5

WebFest at Shoreline: To quote from siff.net: “SIFF launches its new Episodic Content category with this exciting, diverse collection of outstanding new pilots and webisodes.” Based on the quality of these episodes, it won’t be the last. In order, they were:

  1. Other People’s Children (Episode 1: The Common Corpse): From the USA. A six-minute parent/teacher conference between a teacher (Atra Asdou) and the mothers of a gifted daughter (Brooke Breit, Sara Sevigny) who first refuse to believe she’s that smart and then don’t want to put her in the “gifted” program because they’d have to help with more homework. (d: Brad Riddell, Anna Hozian)
  2. Arun Considers (“Arun Considers Heroin”): From the USA. Arun (Arun Narayanan) thinks about how heroin might be worth trying in a short, two-minute episode. (d: Dave Dorsey, Jordan Ledy)
  3. ApartmentFrom Argentina. In this episode, Ramon (Ezequiel Campa) has to deal with shitty customers at an insurance job and then finds out at the end of the episode that he’ll no longer be able to afford his apartment under his new lease. (d: Jazmin Stuart)
  4. The Passage: From the USA. Phil (Philip Burgers) spends the episode escaping from two men. In 22 minutes, he interacts with people who speak Spanish, Japanese, French, and Norwegian(?). No subtitles, which I first thought was a mistake and then realized was a feature. Clever, funny, and absolutely bonkers. Particular props to the drumming gag, where he drums faster the closer the men get to him. (d: Kitao Sakurai)
  5. The Big Nothing: From Australia. A sci-fi whodunit in which a detective is sent to investigate the mysterious death of a captain on a mining outpost in space. Shows promise. (d: Lucy Campbell, Pete Ninos)
  6.  Strowlers: Pilot (half): From the USA. According to the Q&A afterwards, Strowlers is an entire universe in which magic is regulated by the government. In the first episode, we see a kid who is believed to have magical abilities being collared. The magic user is kept until all emotions are ripped out of them, then are released. (d: Ben Dobyns, L. Gabriel Gonda) Available in the fall.
  7. Otis (Episodes 1: After the Party & Episode 2: Six Months Earlier): From the USA. In the first episode, we meet Otis (Alexander Etseyatse) with one of his friends and find out he’s just been released from a mental institution. Walking near where he ex-fiancee now lives, he decides to visit her, against the advice of his friend. In the second episode, he’s in the mental institution, where he rebels against the strictures place against him. I preferred the first episode to the second one, which seemed a bit cliched. 3,2 (d: Alexander Etseyatse)
  8. UnspeakableFrom the USA. A young woman (Laura Vandervoort) who’s escaped from sex traffickers assumes the identity of a woman who was in captivity with her, but died. In the first episode, she’s having second thoughts about becoming this woman, but then is in danger of being picked up by the police, and so blurts out the lie. Can’t wait to see where this one goes. (d: Milena Govich)

 

SIFF 2018 Edition: How to SIFF

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The SIFF Lounge: a great place to hang out in between films.

I probably should’ve posted this earlier in the festival, but these tips will still help you out through the final week of the festival.

  1. Take care of yourself first, your movie-watching needs second.

    This took me years to understand. If you’re filling all of your free time watching movies, you’re going to run your immune system ragged, especially if you’re also working a full-time job. So, get plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, and if you’re feeling worn out, GO HOME.

  2. Remember: they’re just movies.

    Feel like yelling at the box office staff for messing up your ticket order? Deciding to argue with a venue manager because they won’t seat you late? Feel like your experience was ruined because it was too cold/too hot/too uncomfortable in the theater? First of all, yelling at people working for free (volunteers) or for less than a living wage (most everyone else) is a great way to look like an asshole. Second, it’s just a movie, folks! Sure, it sucks when the men’s room is out of paper towels, but in a world where kids are getting shot in school and immigrant children are being separated from their parents, I’d rather be out of paper towels. Which leads to –

  3. Be considerate.

    Everyone in the theater bought a ticket or paid a lot of money for a pass. Don’t be the person talking to your neighbor (a little known fact: whispers travel farther than the ear of the person next to you) or looking at your cell phone while the film is playing. Don’t be rude to the staff or volunteers. Don’t be rude to your fellow patrons. If you can’t go out in public without being an asshole, stay home. And referring back to number two, yes, you can bring up issues with your theater experience without being an asshole.

  4. Got some time between films? Hang out at the SIFF Lounge.

    In the past, SIFF had a bar where movie patrons could mingle. This year, they have the SIFF Lounge, which is available to all passholders for free and to everyone else for a $10 day pass. Besides comfy couches and camaraderie, there’s booze and ice cream (separately, of course). And WiFi!

  5. Refer to tip one.

  6. And finally, have fun!

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week One

Here are capsule reviews for all the films I’ve seen so far at the Seattle International Film Festival. Reviews are alphabetical by title. Included is my rating of each film. As per Golden Space Needle ballots, films are rated on a scale of 1 to 5:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Ava: Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a teenager who lives in Iran. When she goes out with Nima (Houman Hoursan) under the guise of practicing music with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), her mother discovers the lie and sets in action a series of events that slowly transforms Ava from a model student and daughter into a rebel. Director, producer, and writer Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature is a solid film, but needs to be tauter. Non-actor Jabbari, who was 16 at the time the film was made, is a find. Opened April 27 in limited release.

Blaze: Ethan Hawke directs this biopic about songwriting legend Blaze Foley (actor and musician Ben Dickey). Based on the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by his lover and muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), the film focuses on the relationship between Foley and Rosen, even after they split ways. The chemistry between them is wonderful and mirrors that of a real couple; that and Blaze’s songs are strong reasons for seeing this film. Playing as part of A Tribute to Ethan Hawke on Friday, June 8, and the following day as a stand-alone film. Release date TBA.

The Bookshop: The Opening Night movie about a woman (Emily Mortimer) trying to open a bookshop in a town resistant to it seems strangely abridged. (d: Isabel Coixet) Opens August 24 in limited release.

The Devil’s Doorway: This solid horror film (originally shot on 16mm!) would benefit from a slower build in its terror and more character development (particularly Father John). Having said that, it’s scary as fuck, and knows how to include both unsettling images at the corner of the frames and jump scares. And since Magdalene laundries were horrible places, anyway, it’s not difficult to imagine greater evils taking place there.(d: Aislinn Clarke)  No release date set. World Premiere

Disobedience: Sebastián Lelio’s latest deals with a closed Jewish community and the lost sheep (Rachel Weisz) who returns home when her father (the much-beloved rabbi) dies. We soon find out she left due to a scandal with another woman (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to their best friend and the rabbi’s best pupil (Alessandro Nivola). Now playing. Full review  

The Faces of Zandra Rhodes: The world-famous fashion designer is given a documentary as eclectic and vibrant as her fashion sense. We get some biography, but not until a lengthy opening concerning a fashion show she’s putting on while simultaneously being asked to design the costumes for Seattle Opera’s The Pearl Fishers. We also get some repetition in her saying that she always wears the clothes she designs (mentioned three times), one slight title card spelling error, and many interviews with the fashion models, artists, and other people she’s worked with over the years, including Angelica Huston. Somehow, it all works and gets better as it goes on, but it’s dense, which one would expect from a project that began in 1982 with a fashion show in La Jolla, California.(d: David Wiesehan)  No release date set. World Premiere

Love, Gilda: A solid, lean documentary about the late comedienne, with readings from her audio book, It’s Always Something, a generous portion of clips from SNL, TV interviews, and home movies, and present-day interviews with the people who knew her best, and those who followed in her footsteps on Saturday Night Live. If you’re a fan, you’ll love this film; if you know nothing about her, this is a great place to start. (d: Lisa D’Aplito) Release date TBA.

Sadie: Megan Griffiths’s film about a 13-year-old girl (Sophia Mitri Schloss) whose dad is overseas in the military and whose mother (Melanie Lynskey) has started dating the cute neighbor (John Gallagher, Jr.) that just moved in. Unfortunately, Sadie has feelings for him while angry that he’s trying to take the place she feels is reserved for her dad. Even worse, she’s at the point where she’s more intelligent than she is wise. Playing as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey and as a stand-alone film on Wednesday, June 6. No release date set. Full review

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: This wonderful documentary shares the life and philosophy of the late Fred Rogers through archival footage, interviews, and cartoons, expertly edited together. It resists turning him into a saint, but still reveals him as an extraordinary human being. Bring tissues. (d: Morgan Neville) Opens June 15.