SIFF-ting through cinema: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2022)

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The 2022 Seattle International Film Festival celebrated its opening night on April 14th. This year’s SIFF is a “hybrid experience”, combining virtual access to many selections with a return to in-person screenings.  SIFF is showing 262 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. The Festival runs now through April 24th, so let’s just dive right in…

SIFF is showcasing 41 documentaries this year, and many look intriguing. Sweetheart Deal (USA) is billed as an “unflinchingly honest” portrait of 4 heroin-addicted sex workers struggling for survival along Seattle’s infamous Aurora Avenue. Riotsville, USA (USA) tells the story of a government-funded fake town built on a military installation in the late 60s for practicing crowd-control against “Black Panther agitators” (the exercises were filmed and distributed for police training purposes).

On the meditative side: Filmed over 6 years, Dark Red Forest (China) is a verité reflection on the “mysterious daily life” of Buddhist nuns, documenting an annual retreat attended by thousands at the Yarchen Gar Monastery in Tibet. River (Australia) is being compared to the Qatsi trilogy, with “soothing, poetic narration by Willem Dafoe” and a “haunting score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and more”. They had me at “Qatsi”.

Pop culture docs: Only in Theaters (USA) is billed as “an ode” to a venerable LA-based art house theater chain run by the Laemmle family. Several promising music docs are also on my “too see” list, including a profile of Sinéad O’Connor called Nothing Compares (Ireland), Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (USA), which takes a look back at 50 years of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Bernstein’s Wall (USA) which blends “TV interviews, home movies, and excerpts from sexually frank letters” to construct an (assumingly) intimate portrait of iconic composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Always with the drama: Warm Blood (USA) is set in the 1980s, and described as a “grungy, politically subversive mix of narrative, documentary, and trash B-movies about the underbelly of America”…right in my wheelhouse. Drunken Birds (Canada/Quebec) concerns a Mexican drug cartel worker who finds seasonal migrant work in Quebec while searching for his long-lost love. The trailer suggests a Terrence Malick-style visual palette. Ali & Eva (UK) is a cross-cultural “middle-age lonely-hearts” romance that its director calls “a diegetic musical” (a middlebrow’s confession: I had look up “diegetic”).

Lightening the mood: “Imagine if Ealing Studios and ESPN teamed up to co-produce a film.” I imagine I’ll find out, as the dramedy Phantom of the Open (UK) is on my list. Also from the UK, The Duke is a dramedy based on the 1961 heist of a Goya portrait of from London’s National Gallery, conducted by an unlikely culprit (Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are the primary draw for me). Cha Cha Real Smooth (USA) is a dramedy about “a bar mitzvah party host who makes friends with a mother and her autistic daughter” (it earned the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award earlier this year at Sundance).

“Funny” how? Celts (Serbia) is a dark comedy about “a harried and undersexed mother” in 1993 Belgrade who slips out of her 8 year-old daughter’s sleepover party for a little partying of her own during a politically tumultuous era (I’m sensing echoes of Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball). Barbarian Invasion (Malaysia) is “an empowering show-biz satire” about an actress and single mom who has been on hiatus for 10 years taking care of her son. She lands the lead in a surefire-hit action film, with one caveat: she’s required to do her own martial arts stunts. Cop Secret (France/Iceland) is an Icelandic action comedy that goofs on the buddy-cop genre (with a hint of Nordic noir, perhaps?).

Let’s go do some crimes: Hinterland (Germany) is a period thriller set in post WWI Vienna, described as “an expressionist crime thriller, filmed entirely on blue-screen”. The Man in the Basement (France) is a “neighbor from hell” thriller starring one of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet. A man purchases a basement from a well-off couple as a storage space …but then moves in. In the psychological thriller Out of Sync (Spain), “time, space, and sound fall hopelessly out of sync” for a Foley artist.

Odds and ends: Billed as “an outback Western”, The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia) was written and directed by star Leah Purcell. The film is a reworking of Henry Lawson’s 1892 colonial classic. Inu-oh (Japan) is an anime fictionalizing “the collaboration between Inu-kong, a 14th-century masked performer, and a blind biwa player.” And 2551.01 (Austria) is “an experimental, punk-style interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid—with elements of Guy Maddin, Freaks, the Brothers Quay, David Lynch, and Titicut Follies” …which suggests I picked a bad week to give up doing mushrooms.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll be plowing through the catalog and sharing reviews with you beginning next Saturday (check out my Twitter feed @denofcinema5 for capsule reviews). In the meantime, visit the SIFF site for full details on film schedules, virtual viewing options, event screenings, special guests, and more.

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