SIFF 2019: Final Weekend, Final Thoughts

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (USA 2019, 115 min)

Digital Screener, Sat 6/8 and Sun 6/9

Despite plans to see multiple movies over the final weekend of SIFF, I ended up seeing only one film, at home, and fell asleep for half of it (note: I fell asleep because I was tired and the music in this documentary is wonderfuly soothing, not because of the quality of the film). So I watched the part I’d slept through the following day.

Using talking heads, voice-over, archival video, rhythmic cutting of archival photos, and the music of Miles Davis throughout, this is a wonderful documentary and celebration of the man who changed the face of jazz several times. By focusing on his life, loves, and music, this is as rounded a portrait of the man and his craft as you could want. Don’t be surprised if you want to go out and buy his albums afterwards. A great documentary.

Final Thoughts on SIFF 2019

The Year of the Screeners

In past years, I’ve occasionally grabbed a screener for films I couldn’t see due to my work schedule, but nothing like the number of screeners I saw this year. Out of the 25 films I saw, nine were screeners (for comparison, I saw seven press screenings), and several of them were films I could’ve seen on-screen, but was too lazy or too tired to make the attempt.

Best of SIFF 2019

Best Actor: Rady Gamal, Yomeddine

Playing a man afflicted with leprosy as a young man, Rady Gamal gives a great performance as Beshay, helped by a good script and strong supporting work from multiple people. I did feel the dream sequence which shows him looking in a mirror and seeing a healthy-looking man was a cheap way to show that the actor isn’t disfigured, especially since the performance would’ve been great, either way.

Best Actress: Damla Sönmez, Sibel

Like Gamal, but to an even greater extent, no one came close to Sönmez in this category. In Sibel, she plays the titular character, communicating through a whistling language. If I were to nominate a supporting actress award, however, it’d be for Elit Iscan, who played her younger sister Fatma, and almost did as much without words as Sönmez did.

Guilty Pleasure: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers

To be fair, this was my only guilty pleasure movie during the Fest, but it earned its guilty pleasure status as a whacky, over-the-time, 80s infused Japanese musical that was also surprisingly good in terms of having a solid narrative structure, proving that director Makoto Tezuka might’ve been young when he made it, but he was also incredibly talented.

Best Music: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Yeah, it’s really hard to have a soundtrack better than what Davis did on his seminal work from the 1950s through the 1980s. I even went out and bought Birth of the Cool after seeing this movie.

Best Cinematography/Best Archival: I Am Cuba

Yomeddine had some great visuals for the non-archival films, but nothing was going to touch the justly-famous cinematography of this movie. If you ever want proof that film is primarily a visual medium, watch this film, preferably on the largest screen possible. It also was the best of the archival films I saw.

Best Script: 3 Faces

No one film stood out for its script (and the best lines were in the Molly Ivins documentary, which wasn’t scripted). While Non-Fiction has the most intelligent script, it also was a vehicle for ideas rather than the people speaking them (and see the point above about film being a visual medium). Yomeddine was a strong contendor, but in its use of humor and its naturalness, director Jafar Panahi’s latest gets my vote. Written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar.

Best Documentary: Maiden

From its editing to its music to its research, this films knows exactly what it’s about and tells a story worth telling. Best to watch if you know nothing about Tracy Edwards, The Whitbread Around-the-World Race, or sailing.

Best Director: Ying Liang, A Family Tour

Like Maiden, everything about A Family Tour is top-notch, though unlike Maiden, you’re not noticing as you’re watching it how great the individual components are because they all work together so well as a whole. How it can be so subtle and yet so bold is one of the joys of this film, and is a tribute to how seemlessly Ying Liang directs everything.

Best Narrative Film: A Family Tour

A Family Tour could’ve shown Non-Fiction a thing or two about burying ideas in a film, instead of burying a film in ideas. Plus, you never forget that the actors onscreen are people, rather than points of view. The fact that Liang could make such a personal film and yet not let the autobiographical elements overshadow the narrative is an accomplishment: the fact that it’s so good is an even rarer achievement.

Best Overall: Maiden

Maiden was only the second film I saw during the festival, but it made such an impact on me that it remained my favorite film throughout, even though I saw some really great movies later on. It’s one of those documentaries where you think it can’t get any more thrilling or emotional, and then it tops itself.

Final Thoughts on 10 Seattle International Film Festivals

The spread at this year’s press launch

Best Guilty Pleasures 2010-2019: Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2013), The Astrologer (2015), Bad Black (2017), Legend of the Stardust Brothers (2019)

Best Overall: The Astrologer

The sweetness of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the zaniness of Bad Black, the cohesiveness of Legend of the Stardust Brothers: none of them can compare to the side-splitting, WTF did I just see concoction that is The Astrologer. “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” is one of my favorite lines from any movie.

Best Archivals 2010-2019: 25th Hour (2010), La Dolce Vita (2011), The Pawnbroker (2013), The Apu Trilogy (2014), The Marseille Trilogy: César (2017)

Best Overall: La Dolce Vita, The Apu Trilogy (tie)

So many great films in this category! All are favorites of mine, but I saw a restored print (yes, I said “print!”) of La Dolce Vita on Memorial Day at the Harvard Exit and sat enraptured for 3 hours, while I took a day off from work to see all three movies in The Apu Trilogy. The other films on this list are also masterpieces, but these two viewings offered something that transcends cinema.

Best Documentaries 2010-2019: Garbo the Spy (2010), How to Survive a Plague (2011), The Act of Killing (2012), Tower (2016), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), Maiden (2019)

Best Overall: How to Survive a Plague

All of these films are great, and The Act of Killing is astonishing, but if I had to pick one film from this list, it’d be How to Survive a Plague. Using mostly VHS recordings taken around the time that the AIDS epidemic reached its height in the U.S., the film is informative, entertaining, emotional, and expertly edited. It also has the distinction of laying claim to the best post-film Q&A I’ve attended out of all 10 festivals.

Best Narrative Films 2010-2019: The City of Life and Death (2010), The White Meadows (2011), Wolf Children (2012), Boyhood (2013), Our Little Sister (2016), Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018), A Family Tour (2019)

Best Overall: Wolf Children

Like La Dolce Vita, this film was on film when I saw it on a lazy Saturday morning at the Uptown. I recently rewatched it on Blu-ray, and while nothing beats watching it projected on 35mm on a huge screen, the film is still a masterpiece.

In Conclusion…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through 10 film festivals. Looking back, it amazes me how much I wrote on the previous 9. Time and interest has often dictated how long and in-depth my posts are, but even in the shorter entries, I hope I’ve given you a good idea of the films I’ve seen and the experience of attending, working at, and volunteering for SIFF.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a rundown of how many features and shorts I’ve seen:

2010: 12 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2011: 18 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2012: 20 features, 0 shorts

2013: 34* features, 2 shorts packages (18 shorts total), 1 TV pilot

2014: 30 features, 2 shorts, 1 shorts package (4 shorts)

2015: 48 features, 0 shorts

2016: 30 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2017: 22 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2018: 19 features, 2 shorts packages (8 shorts, 15+ found footage groupings), 4 VR exhibits

2019: 25 features, 0 shorts

*My SIFF 2013 wrap-up says 37 features, but I believe that erroneously counts the shorts packages and the Twin Peaks pilot as features.

While I’ve missed seeing shorts in other years, this year is the first year I didn’t attend any screenings with Q&As, nor did I attend Q&As separately (which is one of the reasons I did the interview via email with David Shields — my first interview for any of the festivals). This also means I took fewer photos than in past years. And, since I only did capsule reviews for the films I saw, I decided not to include movie stills in those posts. Therefore, as this is my final post from this year’s festival, I’m leaving you with some of the photos I did take.

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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.