The 2023 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2023)

The 49th Seattle International Film Festival (May 11-21)  opens next week, featuring 264 shorts, docs, and narrative films from 74 countries. As always, the looming question is – where to begin? I’ve found the trick to navigating festivals is developing a 6th sense for films in your wheelhouse (so I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser).

(deep breath) Let’s dive in.

This year’s Opening Night Gala selection is Past Lives (USA/Korea), the latest offering from A24 (Ex Machina, Ladybird, Moonlight, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Billed as “a heartrending modern romance”, the drama was written and directed by Celine Song, who will be attending and participating in a Q&A following the screening.

Always with the personal drama: Dean Kavanagh’s Hole in the Head (Ireland) is a character study about a mute projectionist who uses the tools of his trade as a conduit for coming to terms with long-repressed memories. Adolfo (Mexico, U.S. premiere) is first-time writer-director Sofia Auza’s tale of two twentysomething strangers who form a close bond over the course of one fateful evening (possible shades of Before Sunrise).

Utilizing the backdrop of late-80s Thatcherism, Georgia Oakley’s debut feature Blue Jean (U.K.) concerns a P.E. teacher entering her first queer relationship just as the British government passes The Local Government Act-which (among other things) prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality (timely, considering recent legislation here in the colonies).

Another period drama with political undercurrents is Chile ’76 (Chile/Argentine/Qatar). During Chile’s oppressive Pinochet era, an upper-class doctor’s wife is unexpectedly recruited by her local priest to nurse a wounded anti-government fugitive back to health. The film marks the directing debut for actress Manuella Martelli.

That’s showbiz: several backstage docs intrigue me, including Becoming Mary Tyler Moore (USA) James Adolphus’ portrait of the pioneering actress, producer, and activist. A Disturbance in the Force (USA) really sounds fun-it tells the origin story of the “unhinged” 1978 CBS TV special “The Star Wars Holiday Special”-which redefined the meaning of “WTF?!” for franchise fans (directed by Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak).

Some wordy film titles double as a synopsis…e.g., Chicory Wees’ Circus of the Scars – The Insider Odyssey of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow (USA), an overdue history of the unique Seattle-based troupe. It’s sure to be a piercing study (sorry). Speaking of bad puns (and as a shameless practitioner of same), I’m really looking forward to groaning through another Seattle-based doc, Punderneath it All (USA). Director Abby Hagan explores “…the wonderfully whimsical world of 15 regional pun competitions across the U.S.”.

Movie movie: Roman Hüben’s Douglas Sirk – Hope as in Despair (Switzerland) is a documentary portrait of the prolific German director known for technicolor 50s melodramas like Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Pigeonholed at the time as “women’s weepies”, Sirk’s oeuvre has since gained more critical appreciation, as well as influencing filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And Nancy Buirski’s Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy (USA) zeroes in on John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking 1969 drama.

Speaking of which, Midnight Cowboy (which I wrote about here) is one of several special archival presentations at this year’s SIFF. Also showing: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and Jack Arnold’s 1957 cult favorite The Incredible Shrinking Man (which I wrote about here). This is a rare opportunity to see these gems on the big screen.

Behind the music: All hail the Queen of Disco! Love to Love You, Donna Summer (USA) promises to be an intimate portrait of the late pop diva, co-directed by Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams. Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro’s Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes (USA) examines the life of the great jazz player and cultural activist.

Pacific Northwest music connections are well-represented this year; I’m particularly intrigued by Even Hell Has its Heroes (USA), a documentary by Seattle multimedia transgender artist Clyde Petersen about Earth (“the slowest metal band on the planet”). And Casey Affleck stars as a washed-up folk singer looking for a comeback in Dreamin’ Wild (USA). The drama was shot in Spokane and is written and directed by Bill Pohlad.

Family friendly: I’m a big anime fan, so I’m looking forward to catching Keiichi Hara’s fantasy adventure Lonely Castle in the Mirror (Japan), described as “a magical realism story about struggling with mental health and how friendships can help you overcome your despair.” Another promising animated feature is Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia (France). Co-directed by Jean-Christophe Roger and Julien Chheng, it’s the belated sequel to the charming 2014 film Ernest & Célestine (my original  SIFF review).

Odds ‘n’ sods: Next Sohee (Korea) is a crime thriller with a compelling setup- “A vivacious high schooler is placed in a job training program at a call center and is slowly cut down to nothing until she commits suicide, galvanizing a police detective to peel back layer upon layer of exploitation to get to the bottom of her death.”

Directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, Mami Wata- A West Afrikan Folklore (Nigeria) “follows the citizens of a fictional West African village as their faith in a water deity is challenged by forces from without and within.” And Marie Alice Wolfszahn’s Mother Superior (Austria) is “a gothic occult thriller set in 1970s Austria, in which a “woman born under sinister circumstances takes a job as an eccentric Baroness’ nurse to solve the mystery of her own parentage.” OK then.

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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