Volunteering at SIFF — Anniversary Post

My final anniversary post from SIFF 2010 is devoted to volunteering — and literally everything I did while volunteering! Funny how much like a journal this reads. Unlike earlier (and later) years, we had no volunteer t-shirt in 2010, which is why I look more dressed up in this photo than I ever will outside of a Festival Party. I did notice one mistake in looking over this entry: Craig neither owns nor runs a car dealership, but he does work at one. In addition, I’ve removed all the links that no longer work.


Taken at the Neptune Theatre

Now that you’ve read about my movie-going experience at SIFF, I’ve decided to post about my volunteering experience (minus the Opening Night Gala, which you can read about here and here).  All my volunteering was as a venue volunteer, which is what they called “ushers” this year.  All of the volunteers at each venue were under the supervision of a house coordinator, who was himself or herself answerable to the venue manager.  The venue manager stayed the same for each venue (so, for example, the venue manager for the Neptune Theatre was always Lily), but the house coordinators were often different.  In the absence of a house coordinator (which did happen on occasion), the volunteers were under the venue manager’s supervision.  Also, the number of volunteers varied from two to six, depending on how many volunteers the shifts called for, and how many people filled those shifts.

To help you figure out when I was volunteering versus when I was watching movies, I’ve included the dates and the hours that I volunteered for, plus (in chronological order) the movies that I watched.  As for why I volunteered, I had two reasons: 1.) it’s a great way to get acquainted with the festival, 2.) every two hours worked means a volunteer voucher, good for a free movie at the festival (excluding specially priced events, like galas and the Edward Norton tribute).  So, here goes:

Opening Night Gala: Thursday, May 20, Benaroya Hall, 4-8 pm, Venue Volunteer (should have been Line Manager, 4:30-6:30 pm); movies playing: The Extra Man @ 7 pm (more like 7:45 pm)

I Am Love: Saturday, May 22, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm

Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 23, Neptune Theatre, 8:30-10 pm; movies playing: Rapt @ 6:30, Castaway on the Moon @ 9:30

I saw neither film this first official night of venue volunteering, but I did learn an important lesson: when standing in front of a door on a cool night, wear a jacket.  I had placed my jacket under the table in the lobby, but I should have grabbed it while handing out ballots to people for Castaway on the Moon. I also noticed that I did not have a sticker on my SIFF badge, whereas everyone else did.  Most of that night was spent talking to Rei, a college student from China attending UWa.  We mainly talked about Chinese movies playing at the festival that have been banned in China (this came up while discussing City of Life and Death, which I was going to see that Tuesday).  Unfortunately, though she sounded like a really interesting person to talk with about films, I never worked with her again.

City of Life and Death: Tuesday, May 25, Neptune Theatre, 6:30 pm

Winter’s Bone: Friday, May 28, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm

My Year Without Sex: Saturday, May 29, Egyptian Theatre, 9:30 pm

Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 30, Neptune Theatre, 3-8:30 pm; movies playing: Mediterranean Diet (changed to Mediterranean Food) @1:30 pm, Vortex @ 4:30 pm, The Dancer and the Thief @ 8 pm

This was my longest shift, resulting in three vouchers (one for every two hours worked).  This is also where I got one of my fellow volunteers (Haimi is how I think you spell her name, pronounced HI-MEE) to take two pictures of me: the one at the beginning of this post, and this one:

Yep, those stairs go up to the balcony (the Egyptian Theatre has one, too)…and the bathrooms.  At first, I was in charge of going outside and making sure everyone in line was there for the right movie.  As it turned out, I found two people who had tickets for a 4 pm show…at SIFF Cinema.  I directed them to the will call window, where they were able to exchange their tickets from that show to another show (not sure if they changed them to Vortex or not). After that, I was in charge of counting the passholders who came in (I had a counter with me, or as I call it, a clicker).  This task was difficult because, while they were supposed to come in the side door (to the right of the stairs in the photo above), they often snuck in the front, once that door was opened, and I didn’t realize that the person in front was keeping a mental tally of the passholders who came through that door, so all I had to do was to get an accurate count for the back door (at least she did for Vortex.  For The Dancer and the Thief, she thought I was keeping track of them all, since I had tried to do that for Vortex, by positioning myself so that I could see both entrances–which didn’t quite work).

Anyway, I got to see two hardcore filmgoers in action while doing that job.  Both were Platinum Passholders, which means that they gave a TON OF MONEY to the festival (in fact, one of them had a bag with all sorts of passes in it).  So while I waited for other passholders to come in, I watched them open up their SIFF guidebooks and decide on which movies they were going to see.  I met one of them later.  His name was Craig, and I subsequently found out that he owns or runs a car dealership in town.

Once we were done with our duties for Vortex, we had time to go grab food or watch the movie.  The person I had been volunteering with (Haimi) and I decided that food was more important, so we went out on University Ave and found an Asian restaurant.  We returned in plenty of time, which allowed us to watch part of the film.

Vortex is a film from Lithuania, shot entirely in black and white, about one man and his life under Soviet rule.  The part I saw dealt with his “final, fatal love” (according to the free siff GUIDE), a woman named Maska.  The main character’s name is Juzik.  Most of those ten or twenty minutes that I saw dealt with her story, and how she was sexually assaulted by some neighborhood boys.  140 minutes long, this movie isn’t even listed on IMDB, but was directed by Gytis Luksas and stars Giedrius Kiela, Oksana Borbat, and Jevgenija Varencia.  The man working the will call line walked out of the movie near the beginning (hated it), but after the movie was over, I ran into the guy whom I had volunteered with at the Opening Night Gala (Alan),  and he said it was excellent (I also ran into him again at Garbo: The Spy, but with our roles reversed, as he was volunteering for that film).

Once the film ended, it was time to collect and count ballots, and get ready for the next film.  As mentioned, I had the same role as before, Haimi passed out ballots to passholders as before, but this time, I didn’t stick around and watch the film, even a small portion of it.  After all, I had work the next day, and blog entries to write. ūüôā

Venue Volunteer: Monday, May 31 (Memorial Day), Neptune Theatre, 10 am-2 pm; movies playing: Rouge Ciel @ 11 am, The Big Dream @ 1:30 pm

I had a BBQ to go to in the afternoon, so I left right after my shift was over (and they tended to end a little early, dependent upon the house coordinator).  I did, however, get to see quite a bit of Rouge Ciel, a documentary from France about the art brut movement and its practitioners.  Had I stayed around for the whole thing, I might have given the movie a 3 or a 4.  I felt it lingered too long over the artwork, and used too much text on the screen as opposed to interviewees (although the information about Henry Darger’s several thousand-page graphic–and I mean it in both senses of the word–novel was fascinating).  Case in point: one artist they highlighted was Kunio Matsumoto.  Did they talk to his family?  No.  Did they talk to him?  No.  We just get a camera following him around in his daily routine, and words on the screen to describe what his day is like, and what his artwork is derived from.

The movie ended with a Czech artist who sounded interesting, but I had to leave and get ready for the next film.  For both films, my job was to go outside and make sure that people were in the right line for the right film.  Our house coordinator was strict about who had what role and what the chain of command was ( for example, she reserved the right to tell the passholder counter if any passholders had come in through the front door, and didn’t want any of us to tell the passholder independent of her), but, because I had gone outside on a somewhat chilly day, I got a free coffee voucher from her.  Sometimes the most exacting people can be the kindest.

A Tribute to Edward Norton: Friday, June 4, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm

Garbo: The Spy: Saturday, June 5, Pacific Place Cinemas, 11 am

25th Hour: Saturday, June 5, Neptune Theatre, 10 pm

Venue Volunteer: Sunday, June 6, Neptune Theatre, 8:15-10 pm; movies playing: Little Big Soldier @ 7:15 pm, Animation for Adults @ 9:30 pm

Saw brief snippets of Little Big Soldier (with Jackie Chan) through the large peepholes placed in the doors that lead to the theater, but got to see more of Animation for Adults, which I had thought about seeing on its original release date, on Friday, June 21 (but had gone to a work-related BBQ instead).  So glad that SIFF decided to add a screening (then again, tickets had sold out fast for that first showing).

As a volunteer, my job involved helping to clean the theater after Little Big Soldier (lots of popcorn on the floor–had people jumped a lot during the movie?).  I grabbed a broom for that purpose.  Then, I decided to be a ticket tearer for the 9:30 showing.  At about 9:45, all the volunteers were allowed to sit down and watch the movie.

Animation for Adults is actually a series of animation shorts.  I missed all of the first one (“Wisdom Teeth”) and most of the second one (“Dried Up”), but saw the rest, including the one I really wanted to see: “Little Dragon.”  So, of the twelve shorts, I saw ten.  Of those ten, the best were “0 (zero)”, a hand drawn minimalist animated short from Korean with an ironic ending, “The Astronomer’s Sun,” which had no spoken dialogue as it tells the tale of a son who attempts to rejoin with his father, “Kings,” done by students at the University of Washington about a card game unlike any other, and, finally, the aforementioned “Little Dragon,” in which the spirit of Bruce Lee inhabits a rubber Bruce Lee action figure.

Venue Volunteer: Monday, June 7, Neptune Theatre, 3-7:30pm; movies playing: Cell 211 @ 4 pm, Upperdog @ 7 pm

This was my last shift at the Neptune Theatre.  I picked a good time, as I was the only guy volunteering with more than five women.  Funny enough, I didn’t notice this was true until around 7 pm.

I collected ticket stubs again, though they only really needed one person tearing tickets.  Often, in fact, my job was to hand the ticket stubs over to our house coordinator.

I ended up working in tandem with someone who had worked with me the night before.  Her name was Alexis, and as I mentioned in this post, I saw her again at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though she didn’t see me.  We tore tickets for both films.

I got to see much of Cell 211; enough, in fact, to know that it deserved all the Goya awards that it won (Luis Tosar, who played Malamadre, ended up winning a Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actor to add to his other acting awards). Enough to also plan on seeing it tonight, when the Best of SIFF is showing at SIFF Cinema.  What a movie!  In a nutshell, it’s about a prison guard who gets caught in the midst of a prison revolt.  There’s a good synopsis here, except that “Badass” should be replaced by “Malamadre” (which may, in fact, be what the name means).

During a lull, either between movies or between stragglers to the 7 pm showing, I found out that Jean Renoir’s The River played at SIFF–and I missed it!  One of the other volunteers said it’s become quite popular, especially after Wes Anderson remarked on how the film had influenced him.  The funny thing is, I saw that it was playing, but I didn’t connect the title with the title of the movie that I had just read about on this blog and on Ebert’s Great Movies webpage.  Damn.

Also, I was shushed by Lily near the beginning of Upperdog (sound from the lobby easily travels into the theater).  To be fair, she might have just heard a male voice, saw I was talking, and shushed me, since she came out a second time and shushed another guy (another manager?) who was being much louder than me.

Stephin Merritt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Wednesday, June 9, Paramount Theatre, 7:30 pm

Imani: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 4:30 pm

Venue Volunteer: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 8-9:45pm; movies playing: Paris Return @ 7 pm, This Way of Life @ 9:15 pm

After seeing Imani, I walked around Capitol Hill (the neighborhood that the theater is located in), looking for a place to eat.  I finally settled on Bella Pizza, and had a 12″ sub, which didn’t fill me up as much as I hoped, or as much as the waitress said I would be when I finished.  Guess I was hungry.

Still, it filled me up enough to get me through my volunteer shift at the same theater, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a wonderful lobby (which I, er, didn’t photograph), which includes an old movie projector (like, turn-of-the-century old):

Harvard Exit Theatre, in Capitol Hill

The venue manager at Harvard Exit is Sarah (or, perhaps, Sara).  Once again, my job was tearing tickets, which one does outside the doors.  Even better, passholders and ticket holders come through the same entrance, so it’s easier to count both of them.

Last Train Home: Saturday, June 12, Pacific Place Cinemas, 6 pm

Ondine: Sunday, June 13, Pacific Place Cinemas, 11 am

Venue Volunteer: Sunday June 13, Harvard Exit Theatre, 7:15-9 pm; movies playing: Plug & Pray @ 6 pm, RoboGeisha @ 8:30 pm

The last night of the SIFF festival, I volunteered–once again–at Harvard Exit Theatre.  As luck–or fate–would have it, the 8:30 show was an added screening of RoboGeisha, which I had mentioned, partly in jest, as a film “worth a look for the title alone.” For this shift, in addition to helping clean the theater (and we had to hurry, since a Q & A session followed Plug & Pray), and passing out random SIFF fliers in plastic bags to people, I got to count passholders for RoboGeisha (if I remember correctly, there were 18).  The crowd was mostly young, but somewhat diverse in age.  I knew, however, that a film such as this would attract the right crowd, no matter what they looked like, and the right crowd for this film would be composed of nerds, geeks, super otaku, college students, or a combination of the four.  If a crowd of college kids make up the best movie audience, this comes a close second.

As an added bonus, because this was the last night of the festival, and because we showed up, all of the volunteers got double vouchers!  That also meant, however, that I had a dilemma, since I now had five vouchers: would I use it to purchase a SIFF membership (discounts on movies year-round, free screenings, invitations to special events), or would I end up seeing five moves at SIFF cinema this year?  Since I plan on seeing Cell 211 tonight, and since I don’t see that many movies at SIFF, anyway (especially if I have to pay money for them, hehe), I’m probably going to see 5 movies, as it’s a better deal.

Before going in to see RoboGeisha, I partook of the free popcorn and drink that we volunteers are allowed to have, the first and only time that I did so.

For this film (which I watched from the balcony), I figured that I didn’t need to see the beginning to know what was going on.

I was right.

If there were ever a movie that is a guilty pleasure, that movie is RoboGeisha.  Fun and funny as hell, it includes ridiculous dialogue (that it knows is ridiculous), overacting (that it knows is overacting), a giant robot, geishas, assassins, machine gun bustiers, hair napalm, and acidic breast milk.  Really, though, I could’ve told you everything you need to know about this movie using just two words: ass swords.  Stay for the ending credits song, too: the lyrics (translated) include lines about it “snowing in your breasts,” and other such ridiculous images.

Here’s a synopsis of the plot, but I think the trailer that comes with it tells you all you need to know about this film [note: original link no longer exists -5/19/19].  During one scene, where RoboGeisha’s bottom half turns into a tank, I heard the loudest laughter I’ve heard since Ben Stiller’s character got his “pork and beans” stuck in his fly in There’s Something About Mary.  Not as sustained, but just as loud.

*                *                *

I had such a great time during SIFF.  I only paid to see two films (one of which I probably wished I hadn’t seen, but if I hadn’t, Roger Ebert wouldn’t have tweeted my post on it), got to see twelve-plus films for free, attended to four Q & A’s, met two directors, and listened to Edward Norton speak–twice.  Plus, I got to volunteer with like-minded movie lovers, who I hope to run into again. As this picture shows, I started my first film festival with an artsy bore, ended it with a guilty pleasure, and saw a hell of a lot of great movies in between.

SIFF, Week Two: Garbo: The Spy (Spain, 2009, 89¬†mins) — Anniversary Post

Sometimes I choose which movies to see during the festival, and sometimes the movies choose me. Garbo: The Spy was one of the latter. I’d seen the trailer for the film during the festival, thought it looked interested, had that day off, had a voucher, and decided to go see it. It ended up being the archetype of the “gems” that I look for each year at SIFF: movies that almost fly under my radar and end up being some of the best films I see that festival. And while it’s not the first documentary I’ve seen, it’s the one that sparked my love of documentaries to this day.

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)

SIFF Opening Night Gala, Part Two¬†(Text) — Anniversary Post

For my second anniversary post, I give you my first experience as a festival volunteer. Unlike every year since, the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival held its Opening Night at Benaroya Hall. Part One of my post included photos from the event (which you can access with the link below). This post also includes photos, but focuses more on what that experience was like.

Now that you’ve seen some pictures from the May 20th Opening Night Gala, it’s time for the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey would say).

It all started with a transfer.  I had just grabbed an issue of The Stranger, Seattle’s free alternative newspaper, which had a full SIFF guide inside, along with synopses of each movie and (if seen) a ranking of a star if it was good, or MUST SEE if it was‚Ķa must see.  Unfortunately, I grabbed a paper as the bus pulled up, which meant that I didn’t have time to find my transfer (and then was worried because, though I had gotten the transfer with a free ride pass, good for any time, my transfer did not say that I could use it for peak travel times, which would translate to an extra 25 cents).  So I sat down and found my transfer soon after the bus pulled away from the curb, showed it to him, and said, “Do I need–“

He nodded at the transfer, and I put it back in my pocket.

I found the Artists Entrance at Benaroya Hall relatively easily, and checked in at the desk on the second floor.  I then took my camera out of my bag and put it in my jacket pocket, not sure whether or not I’d be outside.  After that, I joined the rest of the volunteers in the green room.  I was supposed to find somebody once I arrived, but I forgot her name, and figured somebody would soon direct me where to go.  I also ended up talking to a guy who had done SIFF many times before.  His name was Alan.  As fate would have it, he had lived in Japan when he was eight years old, but hadn’t been back.  Guess everyone has been to Japan.

Then a woman came into the room, calling out people who had the 4 to 6 pm shift, venue volunteers, and several other things I missed.  But, since everyone got up at that point and followed her, so did I (even though my shift was supposed to be 4:30 to 6:30).

Our first task was putting inserts in the SIFF program guides.  We either grabbed a box of programs or shared one with someone, putting the insert-full programs off to the side where, at uneven intervals, someone would pick them up off the floor.  We continued chatting as we did this, finishing in about fifteen minutes.  As we headed toward the lobby, one of the volunteers heard a rumor that Paul Dano (who was starring in the movie playing that night) would be there and almost started freaking out.

“Why didn’t I bring my camera?” she lamented.

Then, we had downtime, allowing me to take a couple photos of the lobby (the other one is in this post, top of the page:

During the lull, Alan said how disorganized SIFF was when it came to assigning tasks to its volunteers (I imagine he’s talking about the special events, only, as I volunteered on Sunday night and it was very organized).  He said they outdo themselves every year.

Anyway, our next task was to man the doors for reserved seating.  All reserved seat tickets would have an L or R (for left or right side) on it, as well as the seating area (orchestra, first tier, second tier) and a letter (for the row) and number( for the seat).  Also, they would be green tickets.  Since I took the first tier, here’s a picture of what the first tier’s reserved sections looked like:

We were given reserved seating signs to stick to the doors, but alas, no tape.  So while one volunteer went to look for tape, some of us got creative in where to stuff these signs (no, not THAT creative).  I got tape, but Alan missed the tape guy.  I decided to station myself at the door to sections J and M, since there was a somewhat possessive woman sitting in the N and P sections.  Once it was time to man the doors, Alan grabbed sections Q and R.


(That’s my door in this shot.)

But, we had some downtime before the masses would arrive. While we waited, Alan and I sat down and watched part of the movie that would be playing that night, The Extra Man.  Sometimes the soundtrack was played in sync with the movie; at other times, the movie played silently.  And then, dramatic music was cued (not for the movie, but for the opening of the gala) as one of the main characters (played by Paul Dano) opened a letter.  I’ve never seen such a dramatic letter-opening scene, which gives you an idea of how music can play with our emotions.  I also saw a scene in which Dano’s character steals a little black dress from Katie Holmes’s character, and then proceeds to have one of his female friends make him up to be a woman, only to have Kevin Kline’s character walk in on this scene.  There’s also a nice pigeon scattering scene, which should be in Roger’s movie glossary, if it isn’t already:

scattered pigeon scene
pigeons are shown walking around on the ground only so that they can scatter in a later shot

As much as I could tell from watching bits and pieces of the middle of this film, sometimes with sound, sometimes without, sometimes with completely inappropriate sound (like the “dramatic” letter-opening scene), it looked quirky and charming, but not great.


Volunteers watching the movie before the gala began.

At 5:40, we were given our five minute warning (doors would open at 5:45), which I used to use the bathroom, though what I really needed (and what wasn’t there) was a water fountain.  On the way to the bathroom, I passed a window through which I could see the Red Carpet, which I mentioned in my previous post.  Talking to Alan again, he said there was a rumor that some VIPs would be at the screening (though I later found out about the “Red Carpet Experience” that one could pay for).  Here’s another picture of that area:

I mentioned before that I decided to man the door leading to sections J and M (and had to put the reserved sign on the inside of the door, once one of the green jacket people opened all of the doors at around the five-minute warning mark). Now, if you were to zoom in on the reserved map above, you’d notice that J and M are not in the reserved seating area.  When I asked the house manager about whether or not they were reserved (to his credit, he came by before the doors opened to make sure we all knew what was going on), he mentioned something about yellow tickets for Row J.  So I thought that there were other tickets that reserved seats for people, in addition to the green ones.  Therefore, when another usher sent people down to section J with white (regular) tickets, I politely told them to go back up to the front, where they were politely turned around and sent back to me.  So I went to find the house manager.  Apparently, what he forgot to mention was that white and yellow tickets are the same.  So I went back to the couple to apologize, looked at the map again, decided that my section wasn’t reserved, took my sign off the door, and moved down to the last reserved section, S and T.  At least, we all thought that it was the last reserved section.  According to the map, it was.  According to two tickets given to me five minutes after the gala was supposed to start, it wasn’t, as those tickets were for section U.  And there were people sitting in their seats who were (rightfully) pissed off about having to move.

So again, I went to find the house manager, but I found the woman who ushered the main doors (a green jacket person) first.  She said, at that point, that all seats were open.  I went back down to tell the other two ushers the news (“When were they going to tell us that?” Alan asked), and then told the couple with the reserved seats.  Luckily for them, me, and the people who had moved to really shitty seats almost parallel with the screen, there were two empty seats in either section S or T, which the couple with the tickets moved to (after thanking me for finding out what was going on), which allowed the other people to move back to their much better seats, and left everyone feeling happy (and me feeling relieved).

Oh, and territorial woman turned out to be pretty nice.  Maybe she had just been surprised when we had opened the door and interrupted her viewing of the film ahead of time.

Anyway, the gala started soon after that, with multiple honored guests speaking (blah, blah, blah), including the mayor.  Lots of thunderous applause for the sponsors (yay money?).  I thought I grabbed a program with a list of the speakers in it (those inserts that we had stuffed inside), but I can’t find it, so it either fell out, or I misplaced it.  That’s been happening a lot recently (misplacing items).

Since no one told us what to do once the gala began, at around 7:30 the female usher who had been working with us went to go find a seat, while Alan headed off to the lobby to see if there was anything else we should be doing. After a pause, I headed out to the lobby, too, asking the green jacket if she had seen where he went.  She hadn’t, so I decided to head back to the green room, stopping briefly at a TV set up to broadcast the gala.  One of the film’s directors was speaking.  Then the movie began, and I continued on my way.

Amazingly, I remembered how to get back to the green room.  As I suspected, Alan was there, but I noticed the food first.  He had told me, at the beginning of the night, that the volunteers had been fed last year, but he wasn’t sure if we were going to be fed again this year.  Well, we were, with warm burritos, chips, and soda (I grabbed the last one).

When I signed out and got my vouchers, the woman said I had been scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30.  I had nursed a nagging feeling all night that I was not volunteering in the correct place (especially since I had signed up for production, and ushers would have signed up under “venue volunteers”), but this confirmed it.  But, wherever I had been needed, I hadn’t been missed, they did need me as an usher (for that last door), and I got two vouchers instead of one, PLUS I got to eat for free, AND I gave SIFF more of my time than I would have had I actually volunteered in the correct place (checking when I got home, I found out that I should have been a line manager, which meant that I would have made sure that everyone was in the correct line outside).

It’s rare when I make a mistake and it turns out in my favor, so I’m not complaining.

And so began my first film festival.

The Seattle International Film Festival — Anniversary Post

For my first repost in celebration of my tenth festival, I give you my first ever post on the Seattle International Film Festival! It was originally filed on May 15, 2010. That year, the festival ran from Thursday, May 20-Sunday, June 13. In this post, I erroneously state that it’ll start on Friday (it’s possible I posted this after midnight). I’ll comment more about my coverage of the 2010 festival in my next repost, but for now, enjoy where it all began!

373 Films.  Three weeks and three days.  Seven main venues.  Shorts.  Features.  Documentaries.  And Edward Norton.

The 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) starts a week from last night and ends on June 13th.  I will be there, volunteering.  I will be there, watching.  I will be there, at my first film festival, soaking everything in.

The more I look at the movie guide, the more movies I want to see. ¬†Much depends on how long my census job lasts, since its hours interfere with times I can volunteer and times I can watch movies. ¬†Even so, I am planning on watching a lot of movies. ¬†Movies like City of Life and Death, I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, Leaves of Grass (followed by a Q&A session), Ondine, and Last Train Home. ¬†In addition, I may catch 25th Hour, part of SIFF’s tribute to Edward Norton, and Animation for Adults, a collection of short animated films.

And then there are silent films with live orchestral accompaniment, a focus on New Spanish Cinema, galas, parties, a New Directors Showcase, the works of three emerging masters (Mohamed Al-Daradji from Iraq, Ana Kokkinos from Australia, and Valery Todorovsky from Russia), films for families, and alternate cinema (RoboGeisha is worth a look for the title alone).

Now, since I am simultaneously teaching, enumerating, volunteering, and SIFF-attending, my blogs will probably follow the format of the Far-Flung Correspondents who blogged about Ebertfest: they will cram several movies into each post, and they will be late. ūüėČ

My solution? ¬†To be revealed in an upcoming post. ¬†Until then, click here for the entire SIFF lineup, and try not to salivate too much. ūüėČ

Final SIFF Post: Party for Volunteers, Secret Movie, Acknowledgments, and Last Thoughts

The 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival ended on Sunday night, June 13, 2010. ¬†On Wednesday night, June 16, 2010, all of the volunteers were invited to a Volunteer Appreciation Party, catered by Chipotle and Cupcake Royal, followed by a “special surprise movie invitation.”

The fun started at 6:30 at the Alki Room, which is part of (but next to) Key Arena in Seattle Center, and which is the future home of the SIFF Film Center.  I ran into Alan again, and met his friend John. In addition, I saw Karl, who had been in the same training session as me for the census (and therefore enumerated in the same area as me).  After they opened the doors and I got my drink, burrito, and chips, I found Alan again, and sat at his table.

Each table had cupcakes in their center, and every person at each table received a coupon for a free cupcake at any Cupcake Royal location.  While I sat on the lower floor, the Alki Room does have an upper floor, which is where I took this photo from:

At the same time as I took this photo, Amy took the mic to tell us what the secret movie was going to be. ¬†Alan had told me earlier that he heard a rumor that it was going to be The Hedgehog, which won the Golden Space Needle Audience Award for Best Film. ¬†Amy confirmed the rumor, which made me happy because I was planning on seeing it Friday night at The Best of SIFF. ¬†Now, I wouldn’t have to.

Around 7:30, people started leaving the Alki Room and heading over to SIFF Cinema. ¬†I called one of my housemates, who said she might be going to the film, but hadn’t been able to go to the dinner. ¬†I forgot, though, that I get no reception inside the theater itself. ¬†When I didn’t see her with ten minutes to go, however, I figured she wasn’t coming (a voicemail message later confirmed my suspicions).

Ten minutes before eight is also when they started introductory remarks.  This woman spoke first:

We were treated to a slideshow from the festival, featuring SIFF volunteers

She was followed by two guys from the Board of Directors.

The guy in the middle’s name is Brian

And then, the three of them were followed by Monica, who coordinated all of the volunteers.

Monica mentioned some facts about this year’s festival. ¬†For example, we entertained over 300 directors, actors, and industry personnel over the three-week span, and logged over 13,000 hours as volunteers. ¬†She also mentioned that we can trade in our vouchers for Best of SIFF movies, but that we must do so in person.

Then began the awards ceremony. ¬†Keith Yoshida won the Don Chan Award in absentia for going “above and beyond” as a volunteer. ¬†In fact, he volunteered every day of the festival, helping out with all of the movie prints that came in.

Next was the Brian (something) Award, given to a year-round volunteer. ¬†This year, the award went to Katie Parker. ¬†The Volunteer of the Year Award went to Jobe, who gave more than 100 hours of volunteer time to this year’s festival.

After that, Monica mentioned the award-winners specific to each department.  So, the venue manager, production team, membership personnel, promotions team, drivers, and special events personnel all gave out awards.  Finally, the five people who had volunteered the most amount of hours got awards for being the top five volunteers of the festival.  So ended the awards ceremony; so began the film.

The Hedgehog is a charming, wonderful film from France about a girl, Paloma Josse (an excellent Garance Le Guillermic), who decides that she doesn’t want to live in a fishbowl all her life. ¬†So, 165 days from when the movie begins, she is going to kill herself, on her 12th birthday.

She spends the days leading up to her birthday videotaping and commentating on her family and the other people who live and work in her apartment building. ¬†Her mother has been in therapy for ten years and likes to talk to plants. ¬†Her father is a minister “about to lose his post in a cabinet reshuffle.” ¬†Her older sister “wants to be less neurotic than her mother, but smarter than her father.” ¬†Hubert Josse, the fish, was bought 8 1/2 years ago, and is actually in a fishbowl.

At the beginning of the film, one of the tenants dies. ¬†I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that the movie ends with a death, as well. ¬†In between, a new tenant arrives. ¬†His name is Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), and he makes friends with both Paloma and the concierge, Renee¬†Michel (Josiane Balasko). ¬†In a way, Paloma is a female Holden Caulfield, sick of the fakery that she sees around her. ¬†The only two people who strike her as genuine are Mr Ozu and Mme Michel. ¬†In fact, she confides to Mr Ozu that she believes Mme Michel is actually cultured on the inside, despite her outward appearance. ¬†But, like a porcupine (or a hedgehog), she keeps people at bay.

Mr Ozu agrees, and one of the joys in this film is in seeing how, little by little, he brings out the real Mme Michel: a woman who loves Anna Karenina and Japanese film (even asking Mr Ozu if he’s related to THAT Mr Ozu), a woman who has named her cat “Leo” after Leo Tolstoy, a woman who has shut herself off from love since her husband died. ¬†Mr Ozu, too, used to be married, but he has not shut himself off from the world. ¬†In fact, he helps to bring Mme Michel back into the world. ¬†And then we find that there is a second hedgehog in the film.

This is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and one that, while seeming to follow a conventional story structure in hindsight, does not feel so conventional when watching it for the first time. ¬†I suspect that is because the movie is so focused on its characters, and what wonderful characters they are! ¬†Plus, any movie that features French and Japanese, and references Ozu and Tolstoy, is fine in my book. ¬†One convention that the movie follows in regards to its ending I usually don’t like, but it works in this case, because of how it affects the characters, and changes them.

Because so much of one’s enjoyment of this film depends on the three main characters, I feel the need to name them again: Garance Le Guillermic (Paloma), Josiane Balasko (Mme Michel), and Togo Igawa (Mr Ozu).

For what it’s worth, I didn’t think this was the best film of the festival, but it is one heck of a film. ¬†Oh, and bring tissues.

*          *          *

Before I give my final thoughts on SIFF 2010, some acknowledgments. ¬†Thanks to IMDB, Wikipedia, Roger Ebert, and Grace Wang for helping me fill in knowledge gaps while writing these reviews (via their websites). ¬†For leading by example, thanks to Roger Ebert, David Bordwell, ¬†S M Rana, Ronak M. Soni, and all of the Far-Flung Correspondents (¬†Grace, Wael, Michael, Omar, Omer, Seongyong, Ali, ¬†and¬†Gerardo), especially to those who have written about other festivals–you showed me how it was done.

Final Thoughts: In a way, I’m glad that the festival is over. ¬†Writing twelve movie reviews while trying to report on the experience, as well, was tiring (though a great way to keep my writing from becoming rusty). ¬† So tiring, in fact, that I may be getting sick. ūüė¶ ¬†Or that may be the weather’s fault: first day of summer feels like a nice spring day.

Despite the fatigue, I  I loved every minute of the festival (well, maybe not those minutes consumed by less-than-stellar films, which were luckily kept to a minimum).  Loved volunteering, loved watching movies for free, loved getting vouchers, loved seeing Edward Norton, loved meeting Caroline Kamya and Lixin Fan, loved chatting with movie lovers outside and inside the theater, even loved standing in line, waiting to be let in.

But now, it’s over, and while I plan on watching movies in the future, I think I’m going to do something else for a change.

Like read a book.

Volunteering at SIFF

Taken at the Neptune Theatre

Now that you’ve read about my movie-going experience at SIFF, I’ve decided to post about my volunteering experience (minus the Opening Night Gala, which you can read about here and here). ¬†All my volunteering was as a venue volunteer, which is what they called “ushers” this year. ¬†All of the volunteers at each venue were under the supervision of a house coordinator, who was himself or herself answerable to the venue manager. ¬†The venue manager stayed the same for each venue (so, for example, the venue manager for the Neptune Theatre was always Lily), but the house coordinators were often different. ¬†In the absence of a house coordinator (which did happen on occasion), the volunteers were under the venue manager’s supervision. ¬†Also, the number of volunteers varied from two to six, depending on how many volunteers the shifts called for, and how many people filled those shifts.

To help you figure out when I was volunteering versus when I was watching movies, I’ve included the dates and the hours that I volunteered for, plus (in chronological order) the movies that I watched. ¬†As for why I volunteered, I had two reasons: 1.) it’s a great way to get acquainted with the festival, 2.) every two hours worked means a volunteer voucher, good for a free movie at the festival (excluding specially priced events, like galas and the Edward Norton tribute). ¬†So, here goes:

Opening Night Gala: Thursday, May 20, Benaroya Hall, 4-8 pm, Venue Volunteer (should have been Line Manager, 4:30-6:30 pm); movies playing: The Extra Man @ 7 pm (more like 7:45 pm)
I Am Love: Saturday, May 22, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 23, Neptune Theatre, 8:30-10 pm; movies playing: Rapt @ 6:30, Castaway on the Moon @ 9:30
I saw neither film this first official night of venue volunteering, but I did learn an important lesson: when standing in front of a door on a cool night, wear a jacket.  I had placed my jacket under the table in the lobby, but I should have grabbed it while handing out ballots to people for Castaway on the Moon.
I also noticed that I did not have a sticker on my SIFF badge, whereas everyone else did.  Most of that night was spent talking to Rei, a college student from China attending UWa.  We mainly talked about Chinese movies playing at the festival that have been banned in China (this came up while discussing City of Life and Death, which I was going to see that Tuesday).  Unfortunately, though she sounded like a really interesting person to talk with about films, I never worked with her again.
City of Life and Death: Tuesday, May 25, Neptune Theatre, 6:30 pm
Winter’s Bone: Friday, May 28, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm
My Year Without Sex: Saturday, May 29, Egyptian Theatre, 9:30 pm
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 30, Neptune Theatre, 3-8:30 pm; movies playing: Mediterranean Diet (changed to Mediterranean Food) @1:30 pm, Vortex @ 4:30 pm, The Dancer and the Thief @ 8 pm
This was my longest shift, resulting in three vouchers (one for every two hours worked).  This is also where I got one of my fellow volunteers (Haimi is how I think you spell her name, pronounced HI-MEE) to take two pictures of me: the one at the beginning of this post, and this one:
Yep, those stairs go up to the balcony (the Egyptian Theatre has one, too)…and the bathrooms. ¬†At first, I was in charge of going outside and making sure everyone in line was there for the right movie. ¬†As it turned out, I found two people who had tickets for a 4 pm show…at SIFF Cinema. ¬†I directed them to the will call window, where they were able to exchange their tickets from that show to another show (not sure if they changed them to¬†Vortex or not).
After that, I was in charge of counting the passholders who came in (I had a counter with me, or as I call it, a clicker). ¬†This task was difficult because, while they were supposed to come in the side door (to the right of the stairs in the photo above), they often snuck in the front, once that door was opened, and I didn’t realize that the person in front was keeping a mental tally of the passholders who came through that door, so all I had to do was to get an accurate count for the back door (at least she did for Vortex. ¬†For The Dancer and the Thief, she thought I was keeping track of them all, since I had tried to do that for Vortex, by positioning myself so that I could see both entrances–which didn’t quite work).
Anyway, I got to see two hardcore filmgoers in action while doing that job.  Both were Platinum Passholders, which means that they gave a TON OF MONEY to the festival (in fact, one of them had a bag with all sorts of passes in it).  So while I waited for other passholders to come in, I watched them open up their SIFF guidebooks and decide on which movies they were going to see.  I met one of them later.  His name was Craig, and I subsequently found out that he owns or runs a car dealership in town.
Once we were done with our duties for Vortex, we had time to go grab food or watch the movie.  The person I had been volunteering with (Haimi) and I decided that food was more important, so we went out on University Ave and found an Asian restaurant.  We returned in plenty of time, which allowed us to watch part of the film.
Vortex is a film from Lithuania, shot entirely in black and white, about one man and his life under Soviet rule. ¬†The part I saw dealt with his “final, fatal love” (according to the free¬†siff GUIDE), a woman named Maska. ¬†The main character’s name is Juzik. ¬†Most of those ten or twenty minutes that I saw dealt with her story, and how she was sexually assaulted by some neighborhood boys. ¬†140 minutes long, this movie isn’t even listed on IMDB, but was directed by Gytis Luksas and stars Giedrius Kiela, Oksana Borbat, and Jevgenija Varencia. ¬†The man working the will call line walked out of the movie near the beginning (hated it), but after the movie was over, I ran into the guy whom I had volunteered with at the Opening Night Gala (Alan), ¬†and he said it was excellent (I also ran into him again at Garbo: The Spy, but with our roles reversed, as he was volunteering for that film).
Once the film ended, it was time to collect and count ballots, and get ready for the next film. ¬†As mentioned, I had the same role as before, Haimi passed out ballots to passholders as before, but this time, I didn’t stick around and watch the film, even a small portion of it. ¬†After all, I had work the next day, and blog entries to write. ūüôā
Venue Volunteer: Monday, May 31 (Memorial Day), Neptune Theatre, 10 am-2 pm; movies playing: Rouge Ciel @ 11 am, The Big Dream @ 1:30 pm
I had a BBQ to go to in the afternoon, so I left right after my shift was over (and they tended to end a little early, dependent upon the house coordinator). ¬†I did, however, get to see quite a bit of Rouge Ciel, a documentary from France about the art brut movement and its practitioners. ¬†Had I stayed around for the whole thing, I might have given the movie a 3 or a 4. ¬†I felt it lingered too long over the artwork, and used too much text on the screen as opposed to interviewees (although the information about Henry Darger’s several thousand-page graphic–and I mean it in both senses of the word–novel was fascinating). ¬†Case in point: one artist they highlighted was Kunio Matsumoto. ¬†Did they talk to his family? ¬†No. ¬†Did they talk to him? ¬†No. ¬†We just get a camera following him around in his daily routine, and words on the screen to describe what his day is like, and what his artwork is derived from.
The movie ended with a Czech artist who sounded interesting, but I had to leave and get ready for the next film. ¬†For both films, my job was to go outside and make sure that people were in the right line for the right film. ¬†Our house coordinator was strict about who had what role and what the chain of command was ( for example, she reserved the right to tell the passholder counter if any passholders had come in through the front door, and didn’t want any of us to tell the passholder independent of her), but, because I had gone outside on a somewhat chilly day, I got a free coffee voucher from her. ¬†Sometimes the most exacting people can be the kindest.
A Tribute to Edward Norton: Friday, June 4, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm
Garbo: The Spy: Saturday, June 5, Pacific Place Cinemas, 11 am
25th Hour: Saturday, June 5, Neptune Theatre, 10 pm
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, June 6, Neptune Theatre, 8:15-10 pm; movies playing: Little Big Soldier @ 7:15 pm, Animation for Adults @ 9:30 pm
Saw brief snippets of Little Big Soldier (with Jackie Chan) through the large peepholes placed in the doors that lead to the theater, but got to see more of Animation for Adults, which I had thought about seeing on its original release date, on Friday, June 21 (but had gone to a work-related BBQ instead).  So glad that SIFF decided to add a screening (then again, tickets had sold out fast for that first showing).
As a volunteer, my job involved helping to clean the theater after Little Big Soldier (lots of popcorn on the floor–had people jumped a lot during the movie?). ¬†I grabbed a broom for that purpose. ¬†Then, I decided to be a ticket tearer for the 9:30 showing. ¬†At about 9:45, all the volunteers were allowed to sit down and watch the movie.
Animation for Adults is actually a series of animation shorts. ¬†I missed all of the first one (“Wisdom Teeth”) and most of the second one (“Dried Up”), but saw the rest, including the one I really wanted to see: “Little Dragon.” ¬†So, of the twelve shorts, I saw ten. ¬†Of those ten, the best were “0 (zero)“, a hand drawn minimalist animated short from Korean with an ironic ending, “The Astronomer’s Sun,” which had no spoken dialogue as it tells the tale of a son who attempts to rejoin with his father, “Kings,” done by students at the University of Washington about a card game unlike any other, and, finally, the aforementioned “Little Dragon,” in which the spirit of Bruce Lee inhabits a rubber Bruce Lee action figure.
Venue Volunteer: Monday, June 7, Neptune Theatre, 3-7:30pm; movies playing: Cell 211 @ 4 pm, Upperdog @ 7 pm
This was my last shift at the Neptune Theatre. ¬†I picked a good time, as I was the only guy volunteering with more than five women. ¬†Funny enough, I didn’t notice this was true until around 7 pm.
I collected ticket stubs again, though they only really needed one person tearing tickets.  Often, in fact, my job was to hand the ticket stubs over to our house coordinator.
I ended up working in tandem with someone who had worked with me the night before. ¬†Her name was Alexis, and as I mentioned in this post, I saw her again at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though she didn’t see me. ¬†We tore tickets for both films.
I got to see much of Cell 211; enough, in fact, to know that it deserved all the Goya awards that it won (Luis Tosar, who played Malamadre, ended up winning a Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actor to add to his other acting awards). Enough to also plan on seeing it tonight, when the Best of SIFF is showing at SIFF Cinema. ¬†What a movie! ¬†In a nutshell, it’s about a prison guard who gets caught in the midst of a prison revolt. ¬†There’s a good synopsis here, except that “Badass” should be replaced by “Malamadre” (which may, in fact, be what the name means).
During a lull, either between movies or between stragglers to the 7 pm showing, I found out that Jean Renoir’s The River played at SIFF–and I missed it! ¬†One of the other volunteers said it’s become quite popular, especially after Wes Anderson remarked on how the film had influenced him. ¬†The funny thing is, I saw that it was playing, but I didn’t connect the title with the title of the movie that I had just read about on this blog and on Ebert’s Great Movies webpage. ¬†Damn.
Also, I was shushed by Lily near the beginning of Upperdog (sound from the lobby easily travels into the theater).  To be fair, she might have just heard a male voice, saw I was talking, and shushed me, since she came out a second time and shushed another guy (another manager?) who was being much louder than me.
Stephin Merritt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Wednesday, June 9, Paramount Theatre, 7:30 pm
Imani: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 4:30 pm
Venue Volunteer: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 8-9:45pm; movies playing: Paris Return @ 7 pm, This Way of Life @ 9:15 pm
After seeing Imani, I walked around Capitol Hill (the neighborhood that the theater is located in), looking for a place to eat. ¬†I finally settled on Bella Pizza, and had a 12″ sub, which didn’t fill me up as much as I hoped, or as much as the waitress said I would be when I finished. ¬†Guess I was hungry.
Still, it filled me up enough to get me through my volunteer shift at the same theater, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a wonderful lobby (which I, er, didn’t photograph), which includes an old movie projector (like, turn-of-the-century old):

Harvard Exit Theatre, in Capitol Hill

The venue manager at Harvard Exit is Sarah (or, perhaps, Sara). ¬†Once again, my job was tearing tickets, which one does outside the doors. ¬†Even better, passholders and ticket holders come through the same entrance, so it’s easier to count both of them.
Last Train Home: Saturday, June 12, Pacific Place Cinemas, 6 pm
Ondine: Sunday, June 13, Pacific Place Cinemas, 11 am
Venue Volunteer: Sunday June 13, Harvard Exit Theatre, 7:15-9 pm; movies playing: Plug & Pray @ 6 pm, RoboGeisha @ 8:30 pm
The last night of the SIFF festival, I volunteered–once again–at Harvard Exit Theatre. ¬†As luck–or fate–would have it, the 8:30 show was an added screening of RoboGeisha, which I had mentioned, partly in jest, as a film “worth a look for the title alone.” For this shift, in addition to helping clean the theater (and we had to hurry, since a Q & A session followed Plug & Pray), and passing out random SIFF fliers in plastic bags to people, I got to count passholders for RoboGeisha (if I remember correctly, there were 18). ¬†The crowd was mostly young, but somewhat diverse in age. ¬†I knew, however, that a film such as this would attract the right crowd, no matter what they looked like, and the right crowd for this film would be composed of nerds, geeks, super otaku, college students, or a combination of the four. ¬†If a crowd of college kids make up the best movie audience, this comes a close second.
As an added bonus, because this was the last night of the festival, and because we showed up, all of the volunteers got double vouchers! ¬†That also meant, however, that I had a dilemma, since I now had five vouchers: would I use it to purchase a SIFF membership (discounts on movies year-round, free screenings, invitations to special events), or would I end up seeing five moves at SIFF cinema this year? ¬†Since I plan on seeing Cell 211 tonight, and since I don’t see that many movies at SIFF, anyway (especially if I have to pay money for them, hehe), I’m probably going to see 5 movies, as it’s a better deal.
Before going in to see RoboGeisha, I partook of the free popcorn and drink that we volunteers are allowed to have, the first and only time that I did so.
For this film (which I watched from the balcony), I figured that I didn’t need to see the beginning to know what was going on.
I was right.
If there were ever a movie that is a guilty pleasure, that movie is RoboGeisha. ¬†Fun and funny as hell, it includes ridiculous dialogue (that it knows is ridiculous), overacting (that it knows is overacting), a giant robot, geishas, assassins, machine gun bustiers, hair napalm, and acidic breast milk. ¬†Really, though, I could’ve told you everything you need to know about this movie using just two words: ass swords. ¬†Stay for the ending credits song, too: the lyrics (translated) include lines about it “snowing in your breasts,” and other such ridiculous images.
Here’s a synopsis of the plot, but I think the trailer that comes with it tells you all you need to know about this film. ¬†During one scene, where RoboGeisha’s bottom half turns into a tank, I heard the loudest laughter I’ve heard since Ben Stiller’s character got his “pork and beans” stuck in his fly in There’s Something About Mary. ¬†Not as sustained, but just as loud.
*                *                *
I had such a great time during SIFF. ¬†I only paid to see two films (one of which I probably wished I hadn’t seen, but if I hadn’t, Roger Ebert wouldn’t have tweeted my post on it), got to see twelve-plus films for free,¬†attended to four Q & A’s,¬†met two directors, and listened to Edward Norton speak–twice. ¬†Plus, I got to volunteer with like-minded movie lovers, who I hope to run into again.
As this picture shows, I started my first film festival with an artsy bore, ended it with a guilty pleasure, and saw a hell of a lot of great movies in between.

My Final (Complete) SIFF Movie: Ondine (Ireland/ United States, 2009, 111 mins)

I remember when I saw Neil Jordan’s¬†The Crying Game. ¬†In fact, I remember reading the review, which was separated from my viewing of it by several years. ¬†Okay, maybe several several years. ¬†The point is, after I saw it, I thought, “Now THAT is a perfect movie.”

Ondine is not a perfect movie. ¬†Nor is it a bad movie. ¬†In fact, it chugs along at a good pace, and even the strange ending doesn’t unravel the strands of the story, though it somewhat diminishes the magic.

One day, a fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) pulls up a woman in his net. ¬†The woman does not want to be seen, nor does she want to go to the hospital. ¬†Syracuse (known to the people of this Irish fishing village as “Circus,” since he used to act like a clown before becoming sober) decides to bring her to his old grandmother’s house, where she won’t be disturbed.

He then goes to bring his daughter Annie (Alison Barry), to the doctor’s office. ¬†She uses a wheelchair and needs a kidney transplant. ¬†While she’s hooked up to the dialysis machine, he tells her about the woman he caught in the net, but makes it into a fairy tale. ¬†Annie believes she is a selkie, a half-woman half-seal being who communicates underwater by singing, and is soon checking out every book on the subject at the local library.

Circus, meanwhile, has discovered that he has good luck when this woman, who tells him to call her Ondine, goes out fishing with him (contrary to traditional beliefs about women on fishing boats), particularly when she sings in a strange tongue that Circus has never heard before.  And then this lonely fisherman, who is even ridiculed by his boozing ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan), begins to fall in love.

Is Ondine a selkie? ¬†That question isn’t answered until the end of the film, but for those of us who aren’t familiar with this legend, Annie provides us with all the information that we need. ¬†According to legend (or Jordan’s version of the legend), if a selkie buries her seal coat on land for seven years and cries seven tears, she can stay forever. ¬†Annie certainly wants her to stay forever. ¬†Circus does, too. ¬†But then a strange man (Emil Hostina) shows up in town. ¬†Looking for someone. ¬†Looking for Ondine.

Some of the best (and funniest) scenes in the movie are those between Circus and the local priest (Stephen Rea, who was also excellent in The Crying Game).  The priest is the only person whom Circus confides in about Ondine, and may be his only friend in the town, besides his daughter.  When Circus falls off the bandwagon late in the film, it is the priest who recognizes why.

“Misery is easy, Syracuse,” he says. ¬†“Happiness you have to work at.”

Jordan makes us care about these characters, though Annie is a tad annoying (for example, she risks her life in order to prove whether or not Ondine is a selkie, reminding me of the scene with the gun in Unbreakable). ¬†My main problem with the film, however, is the plot. ¬†While the ending ties up all loose ends, one’s enjoyment of the film may be tested by how much “suspension of disbelief” one is willing to handle (Alan, whom I ran into after the movie ended, had even deeper reservations about the ending). ¬†In addition, this movie chooses to reveal more of the darker side of fairy tales and less of their magic, though that is less a criticism than a comment.

Another caveat: this movie suffered from the same low wattage issues that plagued Last Train Home (Boo AMC!), even though it I saw it in theater 8, whereas I saw Last Train Home in theater 11 (which means it’s not an equipment issue). ¬†This time, I could tell that the images looked a little dark.

Arriving an hour before this movie began, I noticed it already had a pretty good line going, though one person who sat behind me decided to fall asleep while waiting for the movie to start (the presenter’s amplified voice woke him up). ¬†One of the women sitting next to me (I had an empty seat to my right) asked if I were a movie critic. ¬†I said I wrote a blog. ¬†When she asked what it was called, I said, “Dreams of Literary Grandeur.” ¬†So, if you’re reading this, woman who sat next to me, you are reading the correct blog. ūüôā

In addition, there were no ballots for this film, since they were being tallied (after all, the Closing Night Gala would be later that night).  After the movie ended, the results would be online.  That allowed me to cheat a little bit.  At best, this film was a 4.  At worst, this film was a 3.

So, I give it a 3.5 out of 5. ¬†Though, as my friend Wael points out in the comments section of my last post, “ratings are overrated.” ¬†The review’s content is what’s important.

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 Three: Imani (Uganda/Sweden/Canada, 2010, 82 mins)

Me and Caroline Kamya, director of Imani.

Not many people were in line when I went to get my will call tickets for the North American premiere of Imani (well, the last of three premiers ;-)). ¬†In fact, I counted seven people total. ¬†Then again, we’re talking about a film that had played twice before, and which I was watching at 4:30 on a Friday, when most people are trying to get home from work, or are at home trying to relax. ¬†I also picked up an official SIFF guide for $10 (includes more info on each film, sponsor information, and the names of the volunteers from last year), which was fortunate, since I had left my free SIFF guide at home.

The director of Imani, Caroline Kamya, introduced the film, one of eight African films to be shown at the festival. ¬†The staff member who introduced her mentioned that, over the course of three days, she had been to several schools, working with teenage filmmakers. ¬†Imani is her first feature film. ¬†In Swahili, the name means “faith.”

A 3-minute short film from Brazil called Human Colours preceded the film, with a voiceover by Fernando Lime (directed by Jose Vinicius Reis Gouveia). ¬†That film is part of the Adobe Youth Voices project. ¬†I will not be reviewing that film. ūüėõ

Before I review Imani, here are some important facts about Uganda:

For more than twenty years, Northern Uganda has been engaged in a bloody civil war. ¬†While a cease fire has been in effect for two years, the toll it has taken on the populace can still be seen, not least so in the children who had been abducted and forced to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army, the remnants of which are now being hunted down¬†(read about current developments¬†here).

That information helps put the opening quote into perspective: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

The quote is from Magnolia, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson. ¬†This aspect of the film is what Kamya would refer to in the Q & A as “colonial hangover,” where different classes of people still exist, based on the old model of stratification that the white British colonialists left behind.

The movie follows three people: a housemaid, Mary (Rehema Nanfuka), a former child soldier, Olwenyi (Stephen Ocen), and a breakdancer, Armstrong (Philip Buyi). ¬†We meet Mary first, and her sister, Ruth, who has been beaten by her husband, Gideon. ¬†Ruth gives her sister a locket that a muzungu¬†gave her¬†(Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary spell it “mzungu”, which is Swahili for “white person”). At first, Mary declines, but Ruth explains that Gideon will never let her wear it.

We then meet Armstrong, who is putting on a breakdancing concert that evening. ¬†We see him making preparations with his wife, who will be making their costumes. ¬†Soon after meeting him, we get our first reminder of the civil war: a headline in a newspaper reads, “368 Days of Peace in North Uganda.”

The next reminder is Olwenyi, who is staying at Hope Alive: Children of War Rehabilitation Center, which houses former child soldiers (note: this center actually exists, and Kamya filmed inside the actual center). ¬†On this day, Olwenyi will be reunited with his parents, whom he has not seen since he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. He is withdrawn and likes to sit in corners and draw, or play an instrument. ¬†He does play checkers with one of the other boys (using bottlecaps for pieces), but the game ends before there is a winner, with Olwenyi retiring to go off someplace by himself.

Each of these characters introduces us to someone else who is important to the story during the course of their day: George works with Mary at their mistress’s house, Simon used to be friends with Armstrong, and Lasty helps run Hope Alive (and accompanies Olwenyi on his journey home). ¬†Only Lefty is a redeemable character: George is sexist (he believes their mistress is single because no man can handle her) and Simon is some sort of low-level criminal, known as “the Gutter King.”

Two crises (and an awkward situation) reveal themselves as the movie progresses: Mary finds out that Ruth is in jail for trying to kill Gideon (and the police want 50,000 pounds for her release), Armstrong has some of his equipment and belongings stolen by Simon’s henchmen, and Olwenyi’s parents worry about how much the person who has come back to them is the son who was taken from them. ¬†In the first story, George agrees to help Mary raise the money by selling her locket. ¬†In the second story, Armstrong confronts his former friend. ¬†In the third story, Olwenyi’s mother decides to see what’s inside the box that Olwenyi carries around with him.

The main problem with this movie is that these crises are resolved too easily, and in a manner that doesn’t lead to growth on the characters’ parts, nor recognition that anything has changed on ours. ¬†[WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD] ¬†Perhaps the most powerful ending is provided by Olwenyi’s story (and even that ending is lackluster, since what is inside the box is not so shocking of a find), but what about the other two stories? ¬†Armstrong has an “episode” after he leaves Simon, but it leads nowhere. ¬†Was he poisoned? ¬†And if nothing happened, how come Simon puts the king in checkmate once Armstrong leaves (which, by the way, is one of the few movie cliches in this film)? ¬†As for Mary’s story, George collects “payment” for a loan he gives to Mary, even though that loan came from the sale of the locket.

What saves this movie from being as bad as, say, I Am Love, is that it knows what it is and doesn’t try to be more than that, or get all “artsy” on us. ¬†This movie is content to show us a specific place and time, and while it doesn’t always succeed (the ending being the prime example), it kept my interest up to that point. ¬†I wasn’t surprised to learn, after the film ended, that Kamya worked on documentaries before making this film, as it certainly has the feel of a documentary to it. ¬†In fact, that is part of its problem, as well. ¬†It educates us about all these facets of Ugandan life without delving deep into the characters or situations that it raises.

In the Q & A that followed, Kamya came across as a very genuine person who has a lot of passion for the people of Uganda. ¬†In this film, she wanted to show that people are moving on from the war. ¬†She also explained one of the rituals used in the film: when Olwenyi returns home, he has to use his foot to break an egg placed between two branches before his mother, or anyone, will embrace him. ¬†This ritual is based on an older one in Uganda, but it has been adapted as a way to readmit soldiers into their families, despite all of the horrible things that they have done. ¬†That, and the water thrown on the roof of the house, which drips down as Olwenyi enters and exits the house twice, are purification ceremonies. ¬†I imagine that the water is symbolic of the blood being washed from the soldiers’ body, the blood that that soldier spilled.

Kamya’s sister, Agnes, wrote the screenplay from notes that Caroline gave her. ¬†Since Caroline worked with all non-actors (found through posters put up at the National Theatre), she didn’t want any improvisation. ¬†She also said that people in Uganda switch back and forth between languages while speaking, as they do in the film, since several languages are spoken there (Acholi, Luganda, and English are used in the film, according to the official SIFF guide, and Caroline mentioned that Swahili was used, as well).

This movie is a result of her frustrations, frustrations in people not knowing what is happening in Uganda, or what has happened there. ¬†For example, one of the reasons that she focuses on a breakdancing group in the film is because she hopes that someone watching the movie will ask about it, since it actually exists. ¬†Called¬†Breakdance Project Uganda, the members breakdance for social change, and the actor who plays Armstrong (Buyi) is actually a member of that group. ¬†One of their “shining stars,” he is now one of their choreographers.

When I went to see Imani, I had hoped that I was going to witness a shining star of a director. ¬†After all, this film did create some buzz at the Berlin Film Festival, which is why organizers in Seattle were so keen to have it here (this from the staff member who introduced the director and partly introduced the film). ¬†Instead, I saw a pretty good film, one that, unfortunately, may soon be forgotten, much like Uganda’s civil war.

3 out of 5.

SIFF, Week Three: Stephin Merritt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (United States, 1916, 105 mins)

I walk into the Paramount Theatre. ¬†Wow! ¬†According to signs on the glass entrance doors, no photography nor video recording is allowed (“strictly prohibited,” it reads). ¬†People take photos, anyway. ¬†I do not, though I could have. ¬†But, unless I could photograph a panorama of the room, and paste it to this post, I would not be able to capture the beauty of this theater. ¬†Plus, it may be too dark for my tiny lens. ¬†Luckily, this photo (from the Wikipedia entry on the Paramount Theatre) does a pretty good job of showing what the inside of the theater looks like:

File:Paramount Northwest 16.jpg

This is looking backwards, though.  I will describe my view looking forward.

The stage includes a huge proscenium arch that must measure fifty feet in height. ¬†Climbing up either side of the arch are two columns of speakers, light brown in color. ¬†On the side walls hang ceiling chandeliers, one on each side. ¬†The chandeliers have looping beads that hang off of them, and a fabricy material that reminds me of the rags that ghosts wear in old horror films. ¬†To either side (and below) these chandeliers hang two more chandeliers, these from the walls (which are adorned with carvings and painted images). ¬†They look more like lamp fixtures than chandeliers, and aren’t as decorative as the full chandeliers (one can be see in the bottom left corner of the photo above).

Below these chandeliers, to either side and slightly in front of the stage, are two balconies. ¬†Each balcony houses an organ. ¬†A real organ? ¬†A fake carved organ? ¬†I cannot tell. ¬†Two more speakers, these black, rest on the balcony’s surface, one on each side of the theater.

On each wing, to either side of the long rows of seats, stand curtained Roman arches. ¬†They stretch from the front side exits to the back side exits (see above), five on each side. ¬†And the upper balcony is even more insanely beautiful (again, see above). ¬†This is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen, more like the Met than an movie theater.

Onstage sits a large screen. ¬†In front of the stage sits a large organ, creamy-white in color, with some gilt lines following its curves. ¬†I keep thinking about taking photos. ¬†Professional photographers are taking photos. ¬†Now and then a flash from the audience proves that they are taking photos. ¬†Why don’t I take some photos?

There are many couples here. ¬†Two rows in front of me, one couple is making out (well, just kissing each other now and then), and the movie has not even started yet. ¬†I see Alexis, one of my fellow volunteers at the Neptune, but she doesn’t see me, and is talking to another volunteer.

About five minutes before the show begins, the organist starts tuning the organ (Daniel Hegarty, according to this article).  Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) is there, too, on accordion.  And, of course, Stephin Merritt, who wrote the score.

The director of the festival comes out on stage.  He thanks the sponsors, also the San Francisco Film Festival, who commissioned this piece from Stephin Merritt.  It premiered there in 2009.

During the movie, chimes, bells, a tuba, voices, and sound and voice effects are used. ¬†Also leitmotifs. ¬†Merritt injects humor into the plot and characters. ¬†Sounds a bit like “Yellow Submarine” and Octopus’s Garden” mated and had a child. ¬†Audience thinks the film is a comedy. ¬†I don’t mind when they laugh at the musical and spoken jokes; I do mind when they laugh at the melodrama. ¬†I don’t want to be reminded of the inherent silliness that is to be found in silent films. ¬†I want to enjoy them as seriously as the artists intended them to be.

The original score prevents that, only letting the movie speak for itself when the first underwater film is shown (courtesy of Ernest and George Williamson, who are thanked at the beginning of the movie, since they invented the technique needed to place the cameras underwater). During that sequence, the music falls away, and only pings of sonar can be heard.  It quiets the audience, too, and I feel some of the awe that those first audiences must have felt upon seeing those underwater sequences for the first time.  True, it goes a bit too long, as if the novelty of the images prevented the director, Stuart Paton, or the editors from cutting any part of it out.

The story: a monster has been sighted at sea. ¬†A crew goes out to intercept it, which includes Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter (Edna Pendleton), and a great harpooner (possibly Neb, played by Leviticus Jones, since Kirk Douglas goes by “Ned” in the Disney classic). ¬†They fall overboard when the “monster” rams their boat. ¬†They are rescued by Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar), and find out that the beast is a machine called a “submarine.” ¬†He has traveled 20,000 leagues to get his revenge against a man whom we meet later in the movie, Charles Denver (William Welsh).

Then we cut to Mysterious Island and a bunch of men landing on the island from a hot air balloon. ¬†To greet them on the island is a “Child of Nature” (Jane Gail, wearing a leopard skin, of course). ¬†Captain Nemo’s submarine is docking off of its coast. ¬†Soon Charles Denver will come to the island in order to calm his conscience. ¬†Years ago, he caused a woman’s death and abandoned her child on the island. ¬†Now he wishes to see if she is still alive.

The movie is in eight parts, each part introduced with a title card and the same irreverent song by Stephin Merritt. ¬†The most loved song of the night is “I Don’t Wanna Wear Pants,” when one of the members of the hot air balloon tries to get the child of nature to wear Western clothing. ¬†When the song ends, people applaud.

In order to tie together the child of nature and Captain Nemo, the movie shows part of the story “which Jules Verne never told” (which also sparks laughter, even from me). ¬†To get to that point, some strange jumps in the narrative occur, as the film eventually encompasses the fortunes of four groups of people–two groups on the submarine, two on the island (remember, modern narrative technique had only been perfected the year before, with the release of Birth of a Nation).

In the middle of the film, I read intertitles explaining Nemo’s new inventions to his “guests.” ¬†His “magic window,” diving suits, oxygen tanks, air guns, and water chamber (for entering the ocean) will all become a reality by the time this movie is made. ¬†I think how far ahead of his time Jules Verne was.

My main thought throughout the movie, though, is whether the annoying woman behind me, who laughs at everything, even when it’s not funny, will laugh if I punch her in the face¬†tell her to shut up¬†be quiet.

The movie ends, the audience raucously applauds the musicians. ¬†They deserve it for the quality of the music, if not for its appropriateness (one commentator on CityArts rightfully calls it “MST3K style mockery” ). ¬†I feel it isn’t that great of a film, but maybe it would have been better with better musical accompaniment, and no dubbed-in goofy lines. ¬†I feel the audience is more a Magnetic Fields audience than a silent film audience, to the detriment of the film, and of my movie-going experience. ¬†Note to audience members: just because it’s a silent movie doesn’t mean you can talk during it. ¬†I rate the whole experience a 3 and the audience a 2.5, but the venue gets a 5.