SIFF 2018 Edition: Final Thoughts

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

BEST AUDIENCE

Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems

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

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

Shoreline Community College

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

BETTER AT THE BEGINNING THAN THE END

Mutafukaz

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

BETTER AT THE END THAN THE BEGINNING

My Name is Myeisha

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

LONGEST APPLAUSE

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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

BEST SURPRISE/BEST FEATURE FILM

Tigers Are Not Afraid

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

BEST OVERALL/BEST DOCUMENTARY

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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

IN CONCLUSION

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Fred Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of SIFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look at all those neighbors!

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

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

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

Stay for the credits.

Now playing at SIFF Uptown

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

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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