This year’s posts on the Seattle International Film Festival are dedicated to the late Roger Ebert, without whose reports from Cannes and encouragement of my writing I wouldn’t have started reporting about SIFF four years ago.
Thursday, May 16
Opening Night began for me after I left work in a Hawaiian shirt and came back in a button-down. Despite fears that we would have an overflow of 500 patrons that we’d have to siphon off from McCaw Hall to the Uptown, volunteers and staff were able to squeeze everyone into McCaw, meaning that the staff got a private screening of Much Ado About Nothing on Uptown Screen 1. Sadly, we didn’t have Joss Whedon, but we did have Beth Barrett, Director of Programming, introduce the film for us.
And what a film it is! The trick with any Shakespeare adaptation is to honor the language and spirit of the original play, which this black-and-white, modern dress adaptation does. Standouts include Amy Acker as Beatrice and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Alex Denisorf also does a good job with Benedick. Even better for me, one of my friends is in it, and while I’m not sure if I saw her or not ( a blink-and-you-miss-it type role), she is listed in the credits for the film.
Then it was time to party. I had received my tickets earlier in the day, and while I had two tickets, I only used one of them. Actually, I didn’t even use that one, as people at the door were more concerned with checking my ID than they were in checking my tickets. I received a wristband with two drink tickets on it, and used both of them for perhaps the first time in history at a SIFF party.
Since I missed the Gala last year (due to an unfortunate incident where my email address wasn’t added to the staff list that everyone during festival was emailing to), I was very excited to attend it this year, work the next day be damned! I even went out with my coworkers to a bar after the gala was over. My drinking ended when the gala did (after all, no need to be tired AND hung over for work), but I’m glad I was able to hang out with my fellow SIFF staffers for those extra two hours.
Friday, May 17
I worked down the street from where I was to watch my first SIFF film during the festival proper, and my work had extra food that I was able to pack for dinner and eat across from the Egyptian Theatre. The only film I saw today was Goltzius and the Pelican Company, but Peter Greenaway was there to introduce the film and to give a Q & A afterwards. In line, I stood in front of a board member charged with discovering why Much Ado About Nothing had sold out quicker than any other opening night film in SIFF’s history. His theory was that all of the actors were from TV, and so the audience was familiar with them. I wanted to turn around and say that he was half right, that the fact that Whedon has a cult following for shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Firefly is the main reason people came out, especially as he uses some of the same actors for all of his projects, but I didn’t. No use talking sense to people who are unfamiliar with the pop culture landscape of the young.
Goltzius and the Pelican Company is the first Greenaway film I’ve seen (his most famous film is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, starring Helen Mirren). Beth Barrett introduced Greenaway to us, who then introduced his film. Like Herzog, he has the rare gift of making everything sound interesting, but while Herzog does it due to his enthusiasm and awesome accent, Greenaway does it due to his theatricality and awesome accent. A Greenaway introduction is a performance in itself, one that I cannot accurately capture here, though I did take some notes during the Q & A, which consisted mostly of A.
As for the film itself, it takes place in the 16th century and involves Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr) and the Pelican Company re-enacting scenes from the Old Testament (and one from the New) for Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham), a wealthy benefactor, in order that he may finance Goltzius’s printing press in the hopes of printing copies of the Old Testament and the works of Ovid. Each of the scenes depicts one of the six sexual taboos (original sin, incest, adultery, rape, prostitution, and necrophilia) in order to titillate the Margrave. After each scene is depicted, the court argues over the interpretations of these stories. As the movie continues, the line between the play and real life is erased.
During the Q & A, Greenaway explained that the film is all about interpretation (and, I would argue, censorship). After detrimental remarks made about religion, he said, “If God wants to throw stones at me, now would be the time.” He believes religion should be about creativity and life, but it’s really about death. According to him, all art is only about two subjects: sex and death.
Because he went on at length about his film, religion, sex, and death, there was only time for two questions from the audience, followed by one from Beth. One person asked him why he dealt only with the Judeo-Christian framework in this film. He said that while all religions treat women despicably, he is most familiar with what he grew up with. The second asked why homosexuality was not depicted as one of the sins, to which Greenaway replied that it was depicted throughout. Beth asked him what he is working on now. At the moment, he is working on a film about Eisenstein’s visit to Mexico, to which he added that the Russians have long known that their greatest composer, Tchaikovsky, was gay, but now they would discover that their greatest director was, too.
Saturday, May 18
Only one film today, as well, as not much was playing that I wanted to see. Plus, I had a birthday party to go to in the evening. In retrospect, it’s a good thing I only saw one film today, as The Act of Killing is one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen, yet it only reaches that point right at the end. The rest of the documentary is a slow-build to a realization that makes the last shots of the film so harrowing.
While Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, could not be at the screening, nor do a Q & A via Skype (due to time differences being so great), he did give Beth something to read by way of introducing the film. After apologizing for not being there, he wrote:
The entire tradition of cinema is dominated by movies about good versus evil, good guys versus bad guys. But good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality, all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings, and we have very few films about how we commit evil, why we commit evil, and the effects of evil on ourselves, and on our societies. The Act of Killing is such a film, but it’s also a film about what it means to be human, about what it means to have a past, about how we come to create ourselves and our world through storytelling, and how, as a crucial part of this, we use storytelling to escape from our most bitter and indigestible truths. I won’t say enjoy the film – it’s not that kind of movie, although you are allowed to laugh, of course. Instead, I wish you a powerful, even magical experience.
He then told us to stay through the end credits “because they contain the final piece of this story.”
The film begins with the following quote by Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” The film allows a bunch of gangsters, responsible for the huge purge of communists that took place in Indonesia from 1965-66, to tell their story of what happened by making a movie about it, using any movie genres they wish. In particular, it follows Anwar Congo, who personally killed hundreds of people, and Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group and one of the worst perpetrators of the killings. As these gangsters make the film, they discuss what they did and how to show what they did onscreen.
What is so fascinating about this documentary is that they come to realize that the truth they want to portray in the film is much different from the truth that the film portrays. What they thought of as heroic comes off as sadistic and cruel. The most powerful moments of the film come right near the end, when Anwar Congo begins to feel remorse for acts that still give him nightmares. In fact, the final scene is so powerful that Oppenheimer allows the camera to linger for several seconds on a door before fading out, so that the audience can be given time for reflection before the credits roll, where many of the people who helped with the film are labeled as “anonymous,” for fear of reprisals in Indonesia.
Speaking of which, here is a fascinating article I came across about screenings of the film in Indonesia.
Sunday, May 19
A farmer finds an ancient tool in his fields. It reminds him that people have lived there for 20,000-30,000 years and cultivated the land for 1,000-3,000 years. So opens After Winter, Spring, one of the cutest movies I’ve ever seen (and I saw Rent-A-Cat at last year’s festival). The documentary follows farmers in the Périgord region of France as they deal with changing times, adverse weather conditions, and the joys of farming, such as when calves are born. As we discovered during the Q & A which followed the film, the director, Judith Lit, grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and lived with the inhabitants of this farming community for 10 years before asking them if she could film them, even though some of them don’t even have photos of themselves. She found it most difficult to find a woman who would take a main role in the film (until she found an older woman named Nanou). The first official screening in France will take place on June 6th, with the cast and crew present. All except Alfred, a farmer in his late 80s who died in February 2012 and to whom the film is dedicated.
Because two of the three composers who wrote music used in the film were in the audience, Clinton McClung allowed the credits to finish before introducing Judith Lit to us. Embarrassingly, I had forgotten to turn off my flash after taking photos at the party I went to the following night, and so the flash went off. Considering that the resulting photo is the best one I’ve taken at the Harvard Exit Theatre, I’m glad for that happy accident.
Next up: Week One!