SIFF 2016: Highlights and Observations

IMG_0943

Opening Night Gala (Thursday, May 19)

IMG_0886For the first time in the seven years I’ve attended the festival, opening night didn’t have great weather. It also didn’t have any guests from the opening night film, which makes me wonder if there was a Q&A after the movie ended (the cast were still enjoying the society in Cannes, possibly at a cafe). If SIFF had held it a week early, the weather would’ve been gorgeous, but on Thursday night, it rained, though since the rain didn’t start until after 7 in North Seattle, I’m hopeful that everyone was inside the venue before it began.

It turned to a light drizzle by the time I arrived for the gala proper, and had dissipated by night’s end. As happens with movies made by people with the last name of Allen or Polanski, controversy followed the selection of Cafe Society as the opening night film (and led to an article here from the executive director of Reel Grrls), but it did open Cannes, and it did put butts in seats. Since the only thing I’m privy to at SIFF is how to make a good latte, I can’t tell you why it was chosen over other films, and speculation is for cable news.

Since I had a big dinner, I didn’t have much of the food at the Opening Night Gala, though it looked delicious. The music was great, too, and since I always find myself directly in front of the speakers, I remembered to bring earplugs this time, which means I could hear the day after. The only mishap involved using a cheap bottle opener to open bottles of sparking water for some lovely ladies, cutting my finger on one of the bottle caps. When the bleeding stopped, I went back to dancing, though I missed the conga line.

Best Films of the Festival (That I Saw)

Best Overall: Our Little Sister (Kore-eda Hirokazu)

OurLittleSister_KeyArt

Photo courtesy of SIFF

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film employs genius Kanno Yoko’s touching compositions with a story that is lighter and funnier than most of Kore-eda’s other films, but just as profound. In fact, I’d put this one up there with his best (Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows,  possibly I Wish). The plot is simple: three grown sisters discover they have a younger step-sister at their father’s funeral and invite her to live with them. Kore-eda deals humanely with each sister, and while the dramas they deal with are small, there is such warmth in the film that only people who confuse darkness with depth will mind.

Best Documentary: Tower (Keith Maitland)

TOWER_Still10

Photo courtesy of SIFF

This intense film uses actors and actresses to recount the first person experiences of several people affected by the first school shooting in U.S. history, which took place when a sniper climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and began firing on the people below. The filmmakers use the same kind of animation seen in Linklater’s Waking Life, along with actual footage, to give the audience the sense of the extreme heat, heroism, cowardice, and fear that people felt on that day. No explanations are given as to why the sniper did what he did; his name is not even mentioned. This film is about the people who were affected by the gunman, not the gunman himself. And while a late segue into more recent school shootings fumbles a bit in linking together all of these tragedies as stemming from the same cause, it is the only stumble that the film makes. One could argue that the epilogue drags on too long, but I welcomed the breather after the intensity that preceded it.

Best Archival: Dragon Inn (King Hu)

DragonInn_KeyArt

Photo courtesy of SIFF

While Chimes at Midnight is the better achievement in film, it still has issues with the sound quality, something that may play better on speakers with less punchy bass, where Welles’s lines tend to turn into rumbling gobbledygook. Plus, while I admire Shakespeare and this film, particularly the images that now have a clarity to them lacking in other incarnations, Dragon Inn is more fun to sit through, with an equally excellent picture restoration and flat, monaural soundtrack that doesn’t temper the shrieky highs, but luckily doesn’t have many shrieky highs to contend with. Both are great archival restorations, but Dragon Inn edges out Chimes at Midnight for watchability.

Most Thought-Provoking: A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Iwai Shunji)

photo courtesy of SIFF

Photo courtesy of SIFF

I’m not sure if this film belongs in such exalted company as the films listed above, but it will make you think during its three hours, and no shot is superfluous. My one issue is with an act of cruelty that occurs within the first hour, when a man who is supposed to be the friend of the female protagonist secretly frames her for cheating on her husband and ruins her marriage. No explanation is given for his behavior, unless he thought he was doing her a favor. There are hints that he’s in love with her, but those hints are dropped once the main story begins. Then again, if we are to take the work as satire, he is more deus ex machina than person and doesn’t need to be logical. Part of the fun in the film is seeing where the plot goes, so I won’t spoil it for you here, other that to say that there’s delightful ironies throughout, such as when a group of strangers playing family members act more like family toward each other than actual family members do. But the film stays in the memory, and the ending is perfect.

Director Iwai Shunji with translator (l) and moderator Eddy Dughi (r)

Translator, Iwai Shunji (director), Eddy Dughi (SIFF moderator)

Other great films: The Bacchus Lady, Beware the Slenderman, Chimes at Midnight, Tickled, We Are X

Male Directors, Female Leads

Many of the films I saw this year starred female protagonists in female stories directed by men. In each one of them, I thought how different the film might’ve been if directed by a female. Even Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, while a sensitive portrait of family life among sisters, includes romantic angles that are less out-of-place due to the conservative nature of Japanese domestic life, but less progressive than what the characters of Take Care of My Cat experience in South Korea. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has a main character who’s a porn star, Where Have All The Good Men Gone included discussions about boyfriends (briefly) in a film about finding a lost father and escaping an abusive one, The Bacchus Lady is about an elderly prostitute. And yet, the films center on multi-faceted women, most of whom are independent from men or had boyfriends but didn’t rely on them. And neither The Bacchus Lady nor A Bride for Rip Van Winkle are meant to titillate, but focus on society’s ills against women and how women carve out their place in the world, regardless.

Secret Festival

One of the reasons I attended Secret Festival this year was that, a few years back, the Fools picked Secret #2 as the best film of the festival. Not wanting that to happen again this year, I went to each screening, only missing Secret #3, due to illness. When the ballots came out this year, Secret #3 was the Fools pick for best film. *Sigh* All that I can tell you about Secret Festival is that Dan Ireland’s spirit was evoked during it, there were lots of bananas, and we witnessed Richard Gere dancing to a song from Flashdance.

Q&As

Unlike previous years, I decided not to write about the Q&A’s, except to post photos and maybe a few interesting sound bites on Twitter (search @litdreamer #SIFF2016). The tweets didn’t include much information about the guests, however, so here’s a picture from each one I attended, with identifying information included (excluding Iwai Shunji’s, which is above).

IMG_0894

Where Have All the Good Men Gone: SIFF moderator, Rene Frelle Petersen (director), Jette Sondergaard (actress),Marco Lorenzen (producer)

IMG_0911

First Girl I Loved: SIFF moderator, Kerem Sanga (director), Ross Putnam (producer)

IMG_0912

The Eyes of My Mother: SIFF moderator, Nicolas Pesce (director), Jacob Wasserman (producer)

IMG_0927

The Final Master: Xu Haofeng (director), Xia Li (producer), SIFF translator, Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)

IMG_0931

Beware the Slenderman: Sophie Harris (producer), Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)

IMG_0936

Shortsfest Closing Night: Alexander Lewis, Artemis Shaw (directors, “Single Room Occupancy”), Ofir Klemperer (composer, “The Apartment”), Yotam Wax (director, “The Apartment”), Patrick Haggerty (subject, “The Saint of Dry Creek”), Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)

IMG_0946

Tower: Megan Leonard (SIFF moderator), Keith Maitland (director), Sarah Wilson (cinematographer)

IMG_0959

The Bacchus Lady: SIFF moderator, E J-Yong (director), translator

 Remembering Dan Ireland (Sunday, June 12)


IMG_0969

The tribute for Dan Ireland, festival co-founder and director of one of my favorite movie experiences from the 40th Seattle International Film Festival (The Whole Wide World), occurred on the afternoon of June 12, the final day of this year’s festival. While SIFF treated it like its Secret Festival in that it didn’t announce what was playing and would disavow any official account of the program, it did not require signing statements of secrecy, so I’ll tell you what the tribute entailed and then there’ll be no way to verify what I write. 🙂

I entered the theater to a slide-show onscreen, with photos taken throughout Ireland’s life and career, as well as a weepy soundtrack (“We’ll Meet Again” played during the segment that showed slides of Ireland growing up and hanging out with friends). Then Artistic Director Chief Curator and Festival Director Carl Spence said a few words. He first met Ireland when he (Spence) was 23. Reading from a note written by Darryl Macdonald, who co-founded the festival with Ireland, Macdonald mentioned sneaking out with Ireland to see films when they were seven and their first year at the Moore Egyptian Theatre (1975), as well as their first SIFF (the following year). He wrote he’d miss “Dan’s constant positive energy” and his “twisted sense of humor.” In the background showed the banner seen above. Then came a highlight reel (which Ireland put together) showing clips from all of his feature-length movies: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, The Whole Wide World, Living Proof, Passionata, Jolene, and The Velocity of Gary. Then we heard from his sister Judy and younger brother Tim — briefly from the former, at length from the latter.

Tim wondered why Seattle claimed Ireland as “Seattle’s own” when he grew up in Vancouver and also lived in Portland, though he realizes now that Seattle has as much of a right to claim his as the other two places, since he left such a mark here. Also, before his death, he didn’t know the depth of his brother’s relationships. At least ten people told him at the memorial service in L.A. that “Dan Ireland is my best friend.”

“Without a doubt, Dan Ireland really loved people,” he said.

Despite this, he mentioned that Ireland was bullied when younger. One year, he only received two Valentine’s Day cards from his classmates! The story I enjoyed the most, though, was that a young Ireland used to call a movie theater in Vancouver to see if the films being shown there were in Cinemascope or Panavision.

After his siblings spoke, the lights glowed less and the screen filled with clips from some of his favorite movies, including All About Eve and Lair of the White Worm, followed by a “Trailers from Hell” sequence in which he talks about helping to bring John Huston’s The Dead to the screen. It finished with Richard Gere, as King David, dancing to “What a Feelin'” from Flashdance (see Secret Fest above).

We ended with a 35 mm reel of clips shown for the directors guild called “Precious Images” — the first time this reel had been run — and the movie Pillow Talk, which was one of Ireland’s favorite movies, also on 35 mm. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it, though seeing Rock Hudson pretend to be gay during one sequence in the film (when he was actually gay in real life) was interesting, and Doris Day putting on her stalkings was sexier than most woman taking off their clothes. Still, the highlight of the remembrance was hearing his brother speak, and the highlight of all my Ireland experiences remains seeing his personal 35 mm print of The Whole Wide World two years previous.

In Conclusion

I’d hoped to have this post up by the end of June. Here we are in August, and it’s finally up. To be honest, this post was mostly finished, but I kept procrastinating on posting the photos of all the Q&A guests I took, though when it came time to actually post them on the blog, there ended up being not as many as I feared.

Of all the festivals I’ve worked, covered, and volunteered in, this one ran the smoothest, though that may be because I didn’t observe any movies occurring at the new venues that appeared this year, such as Majestic Bay and the Arc Lodge (for brief runs). It could also be because most of the people running the venues have been doing this for years.

Also, this was the first year since I’ve worked at SIFF that I didn’t go to the Closing Night Gala. I did go to the Super Secret Staff Party, but since it’s super secret…

Finally, I thought the festival trailer this year and accompanying song kicked ass:

Until next year!

Thoughts on LIFE ITSELF

I have now had a night to sleep on Life Itself.  I remember more of the film as I reflect on it, for much is covered in the film.  This review will not cover everything, just as the film did not cover every aspect of Roger Ebert’s life.  Yet I hope it will retain the essentials, as the film did.

Despite some pauses during the film when my slow-as-crap browser was having trouble streaming it, I have few things to complain about.  Indeed, the film addresses one of my main complaints about the book, which is that there isn’t enough information about Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel.  He got one chapter (and a lovely chapter, at that), a few mentions, and that’s it.  With this film, director Steve James is able to interview Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow, as well as others who knew Siskel and Ebert, resulting in a better and more complete portrait of their complicated professional and personal relationship (and includes the clip where Siskel got angry at Ebert for giving Full Metal Jacket a thumbs down in the same program that he gave a thumbs up to Benji the Hunted).  Just as their relationship was the center of their careers, so it forms the center of the movie.   The viewer learns that Siskel was terrified every time their contracts came up for renewal that Ebert wouldn’t renew his, which would put him out of a job (one of the reasons he didn’t tell Buena Vista Television how sick he was when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor is that he didn’t want to be replaced on the show), and how incredibly happy he was when Ebert got married, because that meant he would have a mortgage and bills to pay and so would never leave the show.  Also, since the film can’t interview people who are dead, it spends more time covering those filmmakers whose careers Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert by himself, helped — a list that includes Martin Scorsese (executive producer of this film), Errol Morris, and Ramin Bahrani.  In this way, it makes the film more personal, and cuts out interesting stories in the memoir that gave great portraits of  famous people in Hollywood, but did not strengthen the reader’s understanding of Ebert.

I must mention his eyes.  Robbed of his ability to speak, Ebert speaks with his eyes in this film, where more is expressed than his computer voice, or the notes he scratches on his notepad, can provide.  They are often bright, happy, filled with joy and mirth, but sometimes –as when his throat is suctioned — they close in pain.  This is something the written word can convey only imperfectly, which shows that perhaps, for Ebert, a movie better conveys his life than a book can.  When he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ebert said,  “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”  In this way, the film helps us empathize with Ebert in a way that a book cannot.

Of course, a movie just shy of two-hours can’t show everything, and so nothing is mentioned of Ebert’s stay in South Africa while in college, or much about his parents, or what happened to Ebert & Roeper after Ebert left (which probably would have added another half hour to the run time).  His childhood is likewise glossed over, though I got a better sense of him as the student editor of The Daily Illini than I did from his memoir, mainly due to the people in the film who remember him from his college days.  So what sense do we get of the man?  That he could be stubborn, but that his stubbornness may have been how he persevered through his multiple battles with cancer.  That marrying Chaz helped him to become a better person.  That he and Siskel were like brothers caught in a perpetual state of adolescence, who discovered only late in their relationship that they really did like each other.

The real question, however, is this: did James manage to show the man, apart from the movie critic?  Yes, in a way that isn’t revealed in the book.  Sure, Ebert bared his soul in his memoirs, but the problem with memoirs is that only one point of view is revealed, and it’s one that only one person shares, whereas in a biography or a documentary, many different viewpoints help flesh out the entire person, and since everyone except you sees you from the outside, these perspectives give a better portrait of who that person actually was, and how they appeared in life.  That is the treatment Ebert gets here, from fellow critics (Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott), directors (Werner Herzog, Gregory Nava, Ava DuVernay, plus the ones mentioned above), coworkers (John McHugh, Thea Flaum),  friends (Bill Nack, Bruce Elliot), and family (Chaz Ebert, Raven Evans), to name just a few.  We find out about his newspaper days, his drinking days, his TV show days, and his final days.  There are excerpts read from his memoir, there are quotes lifted from his reviews, there are clips shown from his TV appearances, and there are photos shared from private collections.  And, at the center of it all, there is Roger Ebert, who answers — one-at-a-time — the questions that James emails to him, until his final illness begins to overtake him, and his replies become short and sad, none more heartbreaking than his simple reply of “i can’t.  Cheers, R”

I cried two times during the film.  The first time was when Raven Evans, his step-granddaughter, tears up when talking about time spent with him.  The second time was at the end of the film, when I cried almost as hard as I did the day he died.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”  This film has revealed someone who lived that way: a man who had flaws and overcame the worst of them, had ambitions and met the greatest of them, had loves and shared the majority of them.

SIFF, Week Three: Last Train Home (China/Canada-Quebec, 2009, 87 mins)

Along with A Tribute to Edward Norton, this movie was supposed to be a Seattle Cinema Club Meetup, organized by me.  Three other people had said they were going.  When I checked after the movie had played, two of them had canceled.  I never saw the third person, maybe because he didn’t see my Starbucks hat (which I said I’d wear, but only held in my hand until I was inside the theater), or maybe because he didn’t bother trying to find me.

In any case, Grace’s tweet must have worked (you have to scroll down to 1:15 pm June 12th), because the movie was on rush only, and, in fact, all of those tickets may have been sold, as well.

To compensate for my miserable organizational efforts on behalf of the Seattle Cinema Club, I ran into some friends at the theater–the only time that’s happened at the festival (I have run into Alan at other screenings, but always after the film has ended, and always with one of us volunteering).  They were all from my Japanese Meetup Group, which I haven’t been to in awhile because I’ve been doing census work and SIFF volunteering.  I had met all but one before, and got to hang out with them after the movie, as well (in fact, I will now be contacted by them when they want to see a film, which is good news for me).

Anyway, Lixin Fan, the director of this documentary, arrived that morning from China.  He had a 15 hour flight from Beijing to here, with a stopover in Tokyo.  Before the film began, he told us a little bit about it.  I should mention that his English is quite good, though he occasionally would correct a word that he used in a sentence (and the corrections weren’t always correct).  He is also quite young, but, then again, this is his directorial debut.

The film was finished last October, after he had worked on it for four years.  It played at the International Documentaries Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009, where it won the top prize.  To prep the movie for us, Fan said, “This is a story that happens on the other end of the world.”

The only review I read before writing my own review (and this was several months ago) was Grace Wang’s wonderful review, redone here for Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents page.  I am not going to attempt to top it.  Rather, I am going to review it in my own way.

Last Train Home starts off by documenting the plight of migrant workers by focusing on one family, the Zhangs (mother Suqin Chen, father Changua, daughter Quin, brother Yang, and their grandmother), and ends by documenting the growing pangs of an entire country.  When I read Grace’s review, I got the impression that Quin’s flight to the factories happened much later in the film, but it happens early on, after a tearful chat with her deceased grandfather, who we find out, later in the film, is the one who raised her.

The sad truth of migrant workers is that they only get to go home once a year, during Chinese New Year. They send money home to their children the rest of the year, but are strangers to them.  In Quin’s case, she feels resentful that her parents keep harping on her about doing well at school, but all they seem to care about is making money, instead of staying home with her.  The parents, for their part, tell how difficult it was for Suqin to leave Quin at one year old (and Yang as a baby) and go work with her husband in the factories.  Changua also tells of the time, before they got factory jobs, that he had to go to his sister to borrow money.  The silence that occurs in the middle of his telling of the tale is one of the saddest things I have seen on film.  Watching someone hold in tears is much sadder than seeing those tears fall.

Of course, Quin sees the situation differently.  She wants independence from these strangers whom she only gets to see once a year. And so, in a wonderful scene, with Quin and Yang sitting on a hill, looking across the landscape, she tells her brother to make sure that he visits their grandfather’s grave while she’s gone.

Quin drops out of school and gets a job at a factory that one of her friends works at.  One of my favorite scenes in the film shows her with her friend and another girl, acting like the teenagers that they are.  Changua goes and visits her, but we can see that he doesn’t know what to say in order to get her to go back to school, other than telling her that she now sees how hard it is to work in a factory.

The family goes home together that year, but they get stuck at the train station when a blizzard shuts down most of the train lines (600,000 people got stuck in the railway station that year, according to Fan).  From here on out, the movie becomes much more powerful, and begins to transform from its singular focus on one family (which it continues to follow) to a broader commentary on China and the generation now coming of age over there.

Besides the scenes described above, three other scenes stand out.  In the first scene, one of the family members stares right at the camera (the only time in the film that anyone does that).  The result is stunning.  I’ve never felt as if someone in a movie were looking right through me before.  In the second scene, the camera observes three people watching the lighting of the Olympic torch in Beijing.  In that scene, pay attention to the expression on the middle person’s face, and you’ll discover all you need to know about how Chinese people viewed those Olympic games.  In the final scene, Quin is dancing in a nightclub.  The camera looks up at her from the dance floor, as the strobe light catches her form in motion.

One caveat: this film shows beautiful vistas and a sea of humanity at the train station, both of which would benefit from clear images, yet the film being projected onto the screen was anything but clear, particularly in the background (though the subtitles seemed to be in focus).  If this movie chain (AMC) is purposely dimming its bulbs during these films (which it did during the SIFF previews, noticeable during Garbo: The Spy as well), shame on them.  If they just have shitty projectors, or aren’t threading the films correctly, shame on them, too.  Strangely enough, I didn’t notice this problem while watching Garbo (in the same theater), and I sat farther away from the screen then.

A Q & A session followed.  Fan said that he and his crew followed the family for three spring festivals (Chinese New Years), originally finding them in 2006.  At that time, he was meeting with many of the migrant workers working in Guangzhou.  What attracted him to the Zhangs was the mother’s story, of how she had started working in the factories with her husband fifteen years ago, after having spent only one year with her daughter.  Her worry over her daughter spoke to something very real and very human inside of Fan.

As the beginning of the film notes, and as Fan pointed out (though he said “130,000” by accident), there are 130,000,000 migrant workers in China, and during the holidays, they all want to go in one direction, making the logistics of such an operation difficult at best (as one can see from the scenes involving the 600,000 stranded passengers).

Now, if you don’t want to know the fate of the Zhangs, I suggest that you skip the following two paragraphs. [LAST WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]  Fan is still in contact with members of the family. They are still apart.  Suqin, the mother, lost her job during the financial crisis (as shown in the movie) and decided to go back home.  Last year, the economy picked up, so she decided to go back to work.  During the year that she was home, her son Yang became #1 in his class (during the film, he’s #5).

[SPOILERS CONTINUE]  The star of this movie, however, is Quin.  When Fan started filming Last Train Home, Quin was sixteen.  Now twenty years old, she is fully asserting her independence as a young woman of the world.  Last time they talked, she had moved back to Guangzhou in search of a job, but was currently unemployed (she had been working elsewhere, but had been laid off).

[NO MORE SPOILERS.  SAFE TO READ AGAIN.]

Questions from the audience followed.  As to why people don’t just stay in the countryside, Fan explained that “everyone wants to leave, find job, get rich.”  In fact, he doubts that China is still a communist country, since everyone is after individual wealth these days.

The second question had to do with a line that Quin’s parents deliver to her while she’s being disobedient: “We tolerated you for so long.”  Fan explained that the translation is not at fault: rather, that Quin’s parents had put up with her antics before and had tolerated them, which is how that line should be read, not that they “tolerate” her existence.

One of the most important components in regards to the success of a documentary such as this is in gaining the subjects’ total trust.  Fan said that the Zhangs didn’t open up entirely that first year, but that he helped build their trust by encouraging his three man crew (the cameraman, the soundman-who is Fan’s older brother-and an assistant) to hang out with the family, even when not filming them.  For the scenes at the train station, he’d buy tickets separately for the crew, on various days.  If the Zhangs couldn’t get a ticket for that day, he’d return those tickets.  Since they are always in demand, he said it wasn’t that big of a problem.

The final question had to do with whether or not he paid the subjects of his film.  Since it’s a documentary, he did not, beyond basic necessities that the family sometimes needed (like oil and rice).  Now, however, he’s trying to raise money for them, particularly to pay for Yang’s education.  Eye Steel Film, the company that produced this movie, also distributed the movie Up the Yangtze, in which they raised enough funds to keep three of the children in that film in school.

After the Q & A session was over, Fan made his way into the theater lobby, where I met up again with my friends and got one of them to take a photo of me and the director.  It didn’t quite work out as planned.   I got to shake his hand and thank him for coming to Seattle (at least, that’s what I think I said: I really have no idea if the words that came out of my mouth made any sense at all), but as soon as I asked for a photo, a Chinese girl came over and asked for the same thing.  And then a whole group of Chinese girls moved in.  Realizing that I wasn’t going to get a photo on my own with Fan, and realizing that the girls didn’t mind if I was in their photo with him (though I was nudged out of the way so that they could all be seen), I posed alongside them:

You’ll notice that I’m not in the center of the picture.  One of the friends I had run into, and the only Caucasian, yelled out while we were posing that I should stand in the middle of all of them, which got a laugh from Fan.  I told my friend later that I had been pushed out of the way.

“You moved out of the way!” he retorted.

Anyway, this doesn’t even show all of the Chinese girls who were in the photo.  This one does, though I like the first one better:

Though I gave this film a 5 out of 5 on my ballot, I immediately wondered if that were so.  Strangely enough, this film was the hardest film of the festival to rate, perhaps because I went into it with such high expectations.  The middle two-thirds of the film was great, but I was thrown by the arc of the beginning, mainly because events happened quicker than I had been led to believe.  And then I felt disappointed at the ending, but mainly for the same reason that I felt disappointed when Hoop Dreams ended: I didn’t want it to end.

So, it was certainly better than a 4 (especially with such powerful scenes as the ones I’ve listed above), but the pacing and climax didn’t quite make it a 5.  Of course, these numbers are arbitrary, anyway, and I may end up seeing this movie again and deciding that it deserves a 5.

Here, then, is my final assessment: this is a damn good film.  Whether or not it’s better or worse than any other film or documentary that I saw during the festival is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that I would see it again in a heartbeat.  On a big screen.  With a brighter bulb.  In focus.

For now, I give it a 4.5 out of 5.

Note: Grace Wang’s review of the film can be found here and here.

SIFF, Week Two: Garbo: The Spy (Spain, 2009, 89 mins)

When I saw My Year Without Sex, I almost missed the beginning of the movie.  With this film, I almost forgot to bring my ticket.  And then the bus almost forgot to stop for me.

Apparently, it was a good day for movies, as there were a lot of people, both at this screening and at the screening for 25th Hour, which I saw later that night.  Heck, it was a beautiful day for anything.  Maybe Edward Norton did bring the sun out.

The AMC (aka Pacific Place Cinema) is on the fourth floor of Pacific Place, a shopping mall in the middle of Downtown Seattle.  Once inside the theater, I got a pretty good seat about halfway down the second grouping of seats.  I had one empty seat next to me.  A man and a woman came in as the theater was filling up.  He decided to sit in back, where one seat was available, and she decided to sit next to me.  I spent a moment or two looking behind me to see where the man was sitting, then sat in thought for a bit before putting away my notepad and pencil and asking the woman next to me if she wanted to sit next to her boyfriend/husband, since I was here by myself and didn’t mind moving.  She said she’d ask him.  A few minutes later, he came down with her from his seat against the back wall, she thanked me, and I went up to claim my seat in back.  The two older women (seventies?) whom I sat next to both said what a nice thing it was that I had done.  I just thought it made sense.

Documentaries depend, above all, on their subjects.  If the subject is interesting, then half of the documentarian’s work is done for him or her.

Garbo: The Spy deals with a very interesting subject: Juan Pujol Garcia, the greatest double agent of World War II.  The movie starts with an introduction from Eisenhower during the war, explaining how “teamwork wins wars.”  We then cut to Nigel West, a historian and former Conservative MP, who explains the role that deception has in winning wars, with references to the D-Day Invasion at Normandy.  Through a combination of clips from old spy movies, propaganda films, and WWII footage, and interviews with several people (including a former spy), the rest of the film uncovers details about this most interesting of men.

The spy known as Garbo was born Juan Pujol Garcia on February 14, 1912 (Valentine’s Day), in Spain.  To understand why a man who lived in a neutral country during WWII would want to become a double agent, one must look, as the movie does, at the world in which he grew up in.  The rise of Fascism in Italy.  The Japanese invasion of Manchuria.  The rise of the Nazis in Germany.  Most of all, however, the events surrounding the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

Originally, Juan Pujol went into hiding rather than fight for the Nationalists or the Fascists in Spain.  Eventually, though, he ended up fighting for the Nationalists, telling them that he knew Morse code.  He did not, and so they had him lay down wire for their communications, which meant that he often went behind enemy lines.  One night, he used this opportunity to escape, but instead of defecting to the Fascists, he went the wrong way, telling the Nationalists that he was defecting from them!  They fired upon him, but he miraculously wasn’t hit, and he went into hiding.  Even more amazingly, he was not discovered the next morning, either.  He waited until the Nationalists had left, then headed in the correct direction and went over to the Fascists.

I should point out that he did this out of necessity.  He hated the Fascists, which is why when WWII broke out, he went to the British Embassy to offer his services as a spy.  They kicked him out.  Undaunted, he went to the German Embassy.  They were more willing to listen.

He was supposed to go to London and gather intelligence for the Germans.  Instead, he stayed in Lisbon and made up all of his correspondences.  In fact, he made up all of his sources, too.  To the Germans, he was known as Arabel.

The British, who rejected his help four times before accepting it, only did so after, on one occasion, Juan Pujol convinced the Germans that a large British force was leaving Liverpool to relieve the Siege of Malta.  Of course, there was no such force, but the Germans sent out a fleet to intercept it.  At the time, Cyril Miller was the head of the British Intelligence Agency.  The agent who interviewed Juan Pujol, to discover what his motives were, was an agent named Rousseau.  The British were the ones who named him Garbo, for “they believed him to be the best actor of the war” (I believe Nigel West said that quote).  They also brought him to London for real.

Originally, Garbo’s case officer was Miller, but then Thomas Harris took over.  Harris spoke fluent Spanish, and he and Garbo created more fake agents, which eventually numbered 22 in all (even killing off one that would know about the planned invasion of Africa before the invasion would take place, and recruiting his wife–who also didn’t exist–in his place).  They also tricked the Germans into supplying Garbo with enough funds to pay his network of spies.  Called Operation Dream, the funds from the Nazis ending up funding most of the British Intelligence Service operations in the last few years of the war, to the tune of 20,000 pounds.

Garbo made two significant contributions in WWII.  First, he helped crack the Enigma code, as his case officer would pick up the German relay of Garbo’s intelligence each day and compare it to the original document in order to create a template for other intercepted communications for a code that changed every day.  His second, and possibly even greater, contribution was in convincing the Germans that the invasion at Normandy was a feint, and that the real invasion, led by General Patton, would land at the Pas de Calais.  As for the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower approved the information on the attack to be sent out three hours before the invasion would take place, figuring that the Nazis wouldn’t have time to respond.  By sheer luck, no one was in the booth that day, listening for messages, so the Germans got the message after the invasion had ended.

Even more significant,  he convinced the Germans, even months afterward, that the main invasion force was still coming (and since the Allies had built an entire fake army out of plywood in England, which could be easily seen from the air, the Germans had no reason to doubt him).  This allowed the Western Front to be secured, since most of the Germans were still at the Pas de Calais (and Rommel, on the day of the invasion, was attending a celebration in Germany).  Eventually, however, he told them that the feint had been so successful, the Allies had decided to cancel the main invasion, and the Germans believed him.  In fact, he is the only person ever to be awarded medals by both the Axis and Allied sides of WWII.

So why was he so convincing?  Two things: he had a vivid and active imagination, and he was passionate.  His writing style convinced people that he was telling the truth, so much so that after the Germans surrendered, he received money from them from his Nazi case coordinator back in Spain for all of the “great intelligence” he gave them.

But then, apparently, he died in Angola in 1949 from malaria, though some sources say it was from a snake bite.  Or did he?

Editing is the second most important part of a documentary, and here, each clip was seemlessly interwoven into the entire fabric, along with the interviews and the music.  I would have liked the names of each of the interviewees to have been shown on screen besides each subject (instead of having them introduce themselves halfway through the movie), but that is a small caveat.

The most powerful scenes for me, however, come near the end of the film.  One concerns the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing.  The other concerns a military graveyard, with one of those looks on camera that say what so many words cannot about the tragedy and futility of war.

And what would’ve happened had D-Day failed, or had the Western Front collapsed in the weeks following D-Day?  Certainly, the war would have gone on for another year and thousands more would have died.  As it says in the credits, Juan Pujol saved thousands of lives “on both sides,” “without firing a shot.”

So now we come back to the reason why Juan Pujol became a double agent.  It was his belief that humanity could not stand for the authoritative governments of Germany and Italy.  And so, armed with only his passion, his imagination, and his courage, he helped to put an end to them.

5 out of 5.

Additional information derived from the Juan Pujol Garcia Wikipedia entry (which might ruin some surprises to be found in the film), and, as always, from IMDB.

A related link about the Bletchley Park Archive (kudos to @theangrymick for bringing this to my attention via Twitter)