I’m a cinephile who’s always had a love/hate relationship with the Seattle International Film Festival. In the early 1990’s when I first started going to the festival, it was devoted almost entirely to foreign films, which made it a paradise for those of us who hunger for films not made in Hollywood.
But even back then, there were problems with the way the festival was run. It was almost entirely run by volunteers, and it showed. Morning screenings often started late because the volunteers had slept in. You had to wait—sometimes for hours—in a long line to buy your tickets from a single box office. And each venue differed in how efficiently it was run. You might show up at 6:30 for a 7 pm film and find yourself standing in the rain until 7:30 while the volunteers went through a shift-change.
Sometimes even the films suffered. I recall one memorable screening of a Russian World War II film that switched halfway through to a scene of Polish teenagers climbing through a bedroom window in modern-day Gdansk. (The projectionist apologized by saying that the reels must have gotten mixed up at the office because Russian words looked exactly like Polish ones to him.)
Over the years, the little foreign film festival with sparse audience attendance has evolved into a behemoth that screens documentaries, foreign blockbusters, independently made US films, and the rejects from major Hollywood studios. It’s easier to obtain tickets and the screenings start on time, but you still have to wait an hour in line at each screening in order to get a good seat. And if you find a foreign gem, it’s only after much sifting.
Yet I still attend the festival, every year, with the hope of finding one or two (or maybe a few more) really good films that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. This year, I’m focusing on documentaries and foreign films with a political subtext.
Here’s a list of the documentaries I’ve seen so far:
Queen of the Sun – an artful film about the honey bee and everything it does for the human race. This film examines the state of the American honey bee and various threats to its existence, including commercial agriculture, monoculture crops, pesticides, the use of antibiotics in commercial bee hives, and Colony Collapse Disorder. But the film is uplifting, with its focus on independent, organic beekeepers, whose ranks include aging hippies, retired scientists, and a third generation beekeeper engaged in urban guerrilla beekeeping on the rooftop of her New York apartment building.
The Oath – filmmaker Laura Poitras, who directed My Country, My Country which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, interviews Abu Jindal, the brother-in-law of Guantanamo detainee Salim Hamdan. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Abu Jindal, who works as a cab driver in Yemen, knows more about the inner workings of Al Qaeda than 90% of the detainees being held in indefinite detention at Guantanamo. The film reveals the complexities of the US war on terror by going inside the mind of a man who was once, and may still be (despite his protestations to the contrary), a true believer in jihad. I found this film fascinating because I couldn’t definitely pin down who Abu Jindal is and what he truly believes. Whether that’s a reflection of the man himself or the limitations of the medium—a film made by a Western woman—is still a question I’m asking myself days after I saw this film.
Gerrymandering – a worthwhile topic for a film, but first-time director Jeff Reichert has invested more time in making this documentary visually entertaining than in defining his message. Tellingly, the film lacks a coherent historical timeline of gerrymandering in US politics. It sort of resembles…well…a gerrymandered Congressional district: all over the map without a valid reason for how it was cobbled together.
Turtle, the Incredible Journey – billed as a family-friendly film, there’s a lot more in Turtle for adults to enjoy than in most films made for children. It narrates the lifecycle of the loggerhead turtle, which goes on one of the longest migratory routes of any animal on the planet. The filmmakers captured a lot of stunning undersea photography. If you get a chance to see this one on the big screen, go for it.
So during my first week at the festival, I’ve had three good hits and one miss. Not bad so far.