By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2017)
It’s nearly time for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 18th to June 11th). SIFF is showing 400 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities on my list after obsessively combing through the 2017 SIFF catalog (so you don’t have to).
Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries and feature films with a sociopolitical bent. Dolores (USA) is a documentary about influential American labor & civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who has been given short shrift by the history books. Another political doc, The Reagan Show (USA) assembles archival footage to illustrate how the “original” showbiz president sparked the transformation of American politics into the post-modern theater of the absurd we’re watching now on the nightly news. White Sun (Nepal/USA/Qatar) is a drama set against the backdrop of post-civil war Nepal about a Maoist rebel trying to reconnect with his politically antithetical family.
More politics…The Young Karl Marx (France/Germany/Belgium; North American Premiere) is a promising biopic focusing on the early days of Marx and Engels. Nocturama (France/Belgium/Germany) is a drama about “a group of young, multiracial radicals with no stated ideology” who hole up for the night in a mall after committing terrorist attacks in Paris (The Breakfast Club meets Fassbinder’s The Third Generation?). I’m especially interested in seeing This is Our Land (France), which involves an idealistic nurse who is approached by a far-right party to run for mayor. Claiming to be a study on “…how populist ideology can quietly but decisively contaminate ‘good’ people”, the main character is also said to be based on Marine Le Pen. Talk about timely!
I’m always on the lookout for a good music documentary, and SIFF offers an eclectic assortment to pick from this year. Bill Frisell, A Portrait (Australia) takes a look at the elusive, genre-defying Seattle-based “guitarist’s guitarist”, one of those artists who most people have never heard of, yet (paradoxically) has worked with seemingly every recording artist that everybody has heard of (in addition to releasing 35 of his own albums to date). I am intrigued by Chavela (USA), as I admit to being previously unaware of Mexican “rabble-rousing, cigar-smoking lesbian iconoclast” Chavela Vargas.
More music: A Life in Waves (USA) is the first feature-length doc to profile the esoteric yet wildly successful electronica/New Age music pioneer and entrepreneur Suzanne Ciani. Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada) purports to be exactly what its title infers; a celebration of Native Americans (Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and many others) who have left an indelible mark on modern music.
Speaking of indigenous peoples, SIFF is spotlighting several more indigenous-centric films this year. Angry Inuk (Canada) looks to be conversation-starting documentary that gives a voice to the Inuit side of the controversies that have been raging for years regarding subsistence seal hunting (the director herself is an Inuit activist). Searchers (Canada) is “an indigenous take” on John Ford’s revenge tale The Searchers, centering on an Inuk hunter’s pursuit of a band of marauders who have taken his family (Inuk hunters have a very specialized set of skills!). The icy north also figures into the doc Dawson City: Frozen Time (USA), billed as “a haunting chronicle of the transformations in a Yukon Territory Gold Rush town” (I spent 2 weeks there one night on an Alcan trip).
I have a soft spot for road movies, and several have caught my eye. American Folk (USA) is a drama starring two real-life folk singers as “two strangers who take an impromptu, cross-country road trip in the days after 9/11” (I’m getting a Once vibe). I’m eager to see Weirdos (Canada), the latest from my favorite Canadian director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), a “sparkling coming-of-age road journey” set in 1976. The Trip to Spain (UK) reunites director Michael Winterbottom with stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as they bring their patented brand of whining and dining back to the table. Borders (Burkina Faso) is a drama examining a burgeoning friendship between four women from different regions as they cross West Africa by bus.
More African cinema! The action-comedy Bad Black (Uganda) comes straight outta the no-budget “Wakaliwood” studio, and has been a hit with audiences at other festivals. It promises to deliver “ass-kicking commando vengeance unlike anything you have seen before.” Looks like a lot of fun…I’m in! On what I would assume to be a much lighter note, The Wedding Party (Nigeria) offers up “a fresh, female take on Nigerian culture.”
There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bad Day for the Cut (Ireland) pits a “seemingly” mild-mannered Irish farmer against thugs who have killed his ma, and features what is touted as “a career-making lead performance from Nigel O’Neill.” Godspeed (Taiwan) is a crime thriller centering on a down-and-out taxi driver who “accidentally picks up a drug mule” one fateful night (echoes of Michael Mann’s Collateral). Here’s a twist on the hit man genre: Kills on Wheels (Hungary) follows the travails of two handicapped young men who cross paths with “a wheelchair-bound hit man who seems to come straight out of a comic book.” Oy.
Funny stuff: Ears (Italy) is a B&W surrealist tragi-comedy about a man who wakes up with a ringing in his ears and a “cryptic note on his fridge” that jumpstarts what looks to be a pretty weird day. Free and Easy (China) concerns a “soap-peddling shyster” who picks the wrong isolated mountain town to drift into…it’s agog with “idiosyncratic con artists” (I sense irony). Gook (USA) is said to be a mashup of Kevin Smith’s Clerks with Spike Lee’s social commentary sensibilities. It’s a day in the life of two Korean brothers hanging out in their dad’s South Central shoe store-on the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots.
I never miss a chance to get my fantasy/sci-fi/midnight movie fix. Where to start? The Door (China) is a sci-fi mindbender about an auto mechanic who stumbles onto a magic door that leads to an alternate reality (as one does). Also from China: Have a Nice Day, “a grim, animated noir” with “Tarantino-esque dialog” (you had me at “animated noir”). Infinity Baby (USA) is billed as an “absurdist, droll black comedy” concerning “a company who farms out three month-old babies who will never age due to a freak pharmaceutical side effect.” More nightmare fuel: Meatball Machine Kodoku (Japan), is an “utterly insane, blood-and-guts-soaked, action-packed cyber-punk comedy.” OK then.
Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog. I’ll be plowing through screeners and sharing reviews with you starting next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF website for the full film roster, and info about event screenings and special guests.