Seattle Screens

Something for Everyone at the Month-Long Seattle International Film Festival

Featured Photo by Amanda Bedell.

On Thursday, May 16, the 45th Seattle International Film Festival kicked off with Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust. The story of a vintage armament that just may rewrite U.S. history screened before a packed house at McCaw Hall, normally home to more the staid performances of the Seattle Opera company. The always-enthusiastic SIFF crowd displayed their usual excitement, not least because Seattle-born Shelton is a homegrown success story, and the only local filmmaker to have two of her films open SIFF.

The filmmakers exhibited no small amount of consternation. They set their movie in Alabama, a state suddenly in the news because of its new hardline policy on abortion. Birmingham-based Ted Speaker, the film’s co-producer, texted Shelton before the screening, asking her to read the following statement to the audience:

“Hey y’all. I wish I was going to be with you for SIFF. And I especially wish I could be there to help tackle the not-so-great Alabama vibes floating around right now. I think the best thing y’all can do is just to simply reinforce that it’s a rich collection of people and the bad apples are mixed in with a lot of good ones. A lot of reasonable, thoughtful, kind hearted people who respect and revere women and their human rights. And we’re really angry, very angry and very frustrated. And we are not taking it lying down by any means.”

The statement went over well in politically progressive Seattle, and the screening went over well too, with the audience laughing in all the right places. The first party of SIFF 2019 followed. Revelers snacked on potato dumplings and antipasto plates, scrounged for extra drink tickets, and endured a long queue to sample Full Tilt Ice Cream’s delectable “Breakfast Cereal” flavor.

One film down, 409 to go.

SIFF: Not a Sprint, it’s a Marathon

SIFF is the marathon of film festivals. Some may regard it as an endurance test. With 410 films (234 feature length, 176 shorts) screened over 25 days in 10 different venues in Seattle and the nearby suburbs of Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline, it’s the largest film festival in the United States, a veritable bounty of diverse cinematic entertainment. The majority of its featured films, from 86 countries, still don’t have any distribution.

This means you can not only get a jump on films set for later release like Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev or the Emma Thompson/Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night, you can also make your own personal finds, such the Danish thriller Sons of Denmark, a timely political drama pitting white nationalists against Muslim immigrants, or Minuscule—Mandibles From Far Away, a French animated feature about a ladybug. Fly Rocket Fly, which had its North American premiere at SIFF and has no US release date as yet, tells the gripping story of German rocket scientist Lutz Kayser’s private aerospace company Orbital Transport and Rockets (OTRAG), which provoked much consternation when he started testing his rockets in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The story’s twists and turns would rival any fictional political thriller.

Films made in Seattle naturally find a home at SIFF. Good Kisser, which made its world premiere last week, upends the idea of the hot lesbian three-way by having its protagonists complicate what should be a freewheeling romp with their secrets, hidden agendas, shifting alliances, and outright lies.

It also features archival treats, like the silent Phantom of the Opera with a live soundtrack by Austin band the Invincible Czars, and newly restored versions of three of Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts (Not Wanted, The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist). The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is a very welcome rediscovery, a campy treat about the rise and fall and rise of a pop duo that was a flop on its first release in Japan in 1985, later morphing into a bonafide cult classic. Regina Hall will drop by to accept SIFF’s Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award (previous winners have included Edward Norton and William Friedkin), bringing along her latest film, the spunky Support the Girls.


“At a lot of festivals there is a ton of jockeying by industry members to be ‘the first’ to see films, and there’s pressure on the filmmakers to work towards the business side of their films,” says Beth Barrett, SIFF’s Artistic Director. “At SIFF, the vibe is very much tailored to connecting the filmmakers and the audience. And our audiences are so open and interested in seeing films from both in, and out of, their comfort zone.”

Getting audiences out of their comfort zone has always been key to SIFF’s aesthetic. The festival’s programmers delight in being able to serve up a film about which Seattle audiences might otherwise never hear. It’s a big reason that fans regard SIFF as a festival that caters to its audience, rather than an industry event where studios make big deals.

“The important thing about an audience festival is connecting films to audiences,” Barrett says. “And that is at the core of our mission–creating those experiences around film that bring people together.  We believe in the power of film to make those connections.”

Seattle To The Core

The city itself gives SIFF much of its character. Asked what elements make SIFF quintessentially “Seattle” in comparison to other festivals she’s attended, Barrett says, “A sense of adventure and willingness to try new things, combined with an authentic desire to know more about the world around them. Seattleites drink more coffee, see more movies, and are the proud owners of more library cards per capita than anyone else in the US, and that profound curiosity is reflected in their film choices.”

Typically for Seattle, SIFF contains a few quirky touches. Among the festival’s prizes are the Golden Space Needle Awards (for Best Film, Documentary, Short, Director, Actor, and Actress), voted on by the audience, with ballots available at every screening. There’s a “Secret Festival,” where attendees have no idea what they’ll be seeing, and are sworn to secrecy (it could be a sneak preview; it could be a long-unavailable vintage classic).

SIFF even has an unofficial fan club of sorts, the Fool Serious (a play on “full series”) pass holders, who see their mission as “celebrating and supporting SIFF & all things cinema!” The Fools hold their own balloting during SIFF, and wear specially-designed buttons passed out to the favored few each year.

Fool Serious swag from SIFF.

SIFF has likely hit its peak mass. Barrett says that after years of trying to “right-size” the festival, “we hit on 400 films as being just about right.” Domestic movie attendance has varied of late (after sinking to a 25-year low in 2017, tickets sales slightly rebounded in 2018), but SIFF’s own attendance figures (over 140,000 admissions) show that in the Northwest, at least, film buffs are still “going into the dark to see the light,” as a Fool Serious slogan puts it.

“The draw of the couch is strong, there is no doubt of that,” says Barrett, “but we love creating a reason to get into a dark theatre to experience another person’s reality! There is something still so magical about that feeling, and with every screening, we hope to keep reminding people about that unique experience.”

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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