The 2019 SIFF preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 11, 2019)

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It’s nearly time for the 44th Seattle International Film Festival (May 16th to June 9th). SIFF is showing 410 shorts, features and docs from 86 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 2019 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. The documentary Cold Case Hammarsjkold (Denmark) follows intriguing new leads regarding the mysterious 1961 plane crash in Zambia that took the life of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsjkold.

Werner Herzog meets one-on-one with the eponymous former leader of the Soviet Union in Meeting Gorbachev (UK/USA). Russia, Russia, Russia…Putin’s Witnesses (Latvia) is filmmaker/Russian ex-patriate Vitaly Mansky’s unblinking look behind the scenes of Putin’s election in 2000.

Keira Knightly stars in Official Secrets (USA), the true story of a whistle-blower prosecuted in 2004 under the UK’s Official Secrets Act after she exposed U.S. espionage shenanigans designed to drum up support for invading Iraq. Raise Hell: The Life and Time of Molly Ivins (USA) profiles the late, great, and fearless political writer who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. The Fall of the American Empire (Canada) is the bookend to Quebecois director Dennys Arcand’s trilogy of sociopolitical satires, preceded by The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions.

Thinking green: 2040 (Australia) is a hybrid eco-doc that speculates on a *possible* utopic future for the planet…if “we” get our act together. The eco-doc Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada) is a “timely meditation” regarding modern civilization’s impact on the Earth’s environment (looks to be along the lines of Koyaanisqatsi). The Wild (USA) is filmmaker Mark Titus’ update to his 2014 eco-doc The Breach, which studied the threat to Bristol Bay, Alaska’s salmon industry posed by local copper mining.

Too much cold reality for you? How about a little levity, then? The Death of Dick Long (USA) is a self-proclaimed “ridiculous comedy” about “two idiots in small-town Alabama” (sounds about my speed) who bungle through a hasty cover-up after a mutual pal meets an untimely end while they’re all out partying together (good times!).

Support the Girls (USA) is a day-in-the-life “working-class comedy” from Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) starring Regina King as the harried manager of a Texas-based “breastaurant”. Emma Peeters (Belgium) concerns a struggling thespian who decides to end it all on her imminent 35th birthday (according to her, “the expiry date for actresses”).

Dramadies: Sword of Trust (USA) is this year’s Opening Night film at SIFF and the latest from Seattle-based director Lynn Shelton, wherein two young women encounter the conspiracy-laced worldview of a crotchety pawnshop owner (Marc Maron). Winter Flies (Czech Republic) is a road movie about the misadventures of two Czech teens as they joyride a stolen car through “the dramatic backroads of northern Bohemia”.

Go Back to China (China) is a family dramedy about a young woman living high off her trust fund in L.A. who gets cut off by her prosperous dad in China. If she wants back on the gravy train, he demands she must first come back to China for a year to work at his toy factory.

Pure drama: This is Not Berlin (Mexico) is a coming-of-age tale with an ensemble cast, set against the 80s new wave music and art scene in Mexico City. A 12-year-old girl deals with growing pains and tensions brewing at school between white and First Nations students in A Colony (Quebec). Alice (Australia) is a woman left high and dry by her husband who becomes a sex worker in desperation yet finds it unexpectedly empowering.

Burning Cane (USA) is the buzz-generating debut from 18-year-old director Phillip Youmans, set in rural Louisiana. Monos (Columbia) is an uncompromising war drama about 8 teenage guerilla fighters who go rogue in a dense South American jungle, with a female American hostage in tow.

Piranhas (Italy) is “a harrowing tale of gang violence” set in the Neopolitan crime world, adapted from a Roberto Saviano novel. The Ground Beneath My Feet (Austria) is a psychodrama about a workaholic facing mounting pressures in her personal and professional life that are nudging her closer to a breakdown.

Okay, enough with the drama, already. I wanna dance. Alt-rocker PJ Harvey literally travelled the world to find inspiration for her latest album, and her journey is documented in A Dog Called Money (Ireland). Yes, he’s still alive, and doing well, thank you-David Crosby: Remember My Name (USA) is “an aggressively honest portrait” of the rock icon, produced by Cameron Crowe. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (USA) sounds…cool.

And the hits just keep coming…Pavarotti (USA/UK) looks to be a full-scale (sorry) portrait of the late opera star from veteran director Ron Howard. The Apollo (USA) mixes archival stage (and backstage) footage with contemporary perspectives to reflect on the past, present and future of Harlem’s iconic performance venue. The rock ‘n’ roll comedy Yesterday (UK) sounds like a potential crowd-pleaser, considering it’s a Beatles-inspired musical fantasy that features the never-a-dull-moment Danny Boyle at the helm.

From the crime/mystery/thriller files: I’m a “Nordic noir” aficionado, so I hope to catch An Affair (Norway) wherein a disenchanted housewife being stalked by a “hunky young man” becomes the stalker herself when he tires of the chase and moves on.  Conviction (France) is a true crime legal thriller promising to be “a crackling nail-biter”. In Stray Dolls (USA), a South Asian immigrant woman fresh to the U.S. takes a job at “a seedy” New Jersey motel, then gets dragged into an ill-advised scheme by a fellow housekeeper.

Forays into sci-fi and fantasy beckon: Cities of Last Things (Taiwan), “a sci-fi-tinged noir” looks like it could be a mindblower, with three actors in separate vignettes all playing one character-a tortured Taiwanese police detective navigating one long dark night of his soul (or something to that effect). Sons of Denmark (Denmark) is a dystopian political thriller set in 2025, when an underground group desperately fights to stop a fast-rising ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant party from taking power in Denmark (seems rather timely).

I’m intrigued to see As the Earth Turns (USA), a 1938 silent film shot in Seattle and recently discovered at the home of director Richard Lyford. Restored and featuring a new score by Seattle composer Ed Hartman, it is described as “a sci-fi thriller that cleverly foreshadows many things still relevant to us.” What an amazing find!

Fear not, midnight movie and/or horror fans-SIFF has not forsaken thee: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Japan) is “a lost gem of 1980s Japanese cinema” that I somehow missed on its first go-around. Looks like this will be my chance to catch the revival of this “Rocky Horror meets Hard Day’s Night” hybrid and report back to you. Ghost Town Anthology (Quebec) is a film “shot on grainy, 16mm stock” about a sleepy Quebecois hamlet that “has a ghost problem” (I’m scared already).

Last but not least…I don’t know what took him so long-but the maestro of deadpan cinema Jim Jarmusch has finally got around to making a zombie flick: SIFF just announced the late (but very welcome) addition of The Dead Don’t Die (USA) to the schedule (with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Savigny!).

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll be plowing through the catalog and sharing reviews with you beginning next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF site for full details on the films, event screenings, special guests, panel discussions and more.

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