As a Seattle native, I have always been fascinated by the timing of the Seattle International Film Festival, which opens every year in mid-May and stretches out into June. After months of reliably gray Seattle weather, the city is finally gifted with days of sunshine, bouncing off the blue waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington and brightening the summits of the encircling mountains. And what does SIFF ask us to do? Go inside for 25 days.
It is a measure of the success of SIFF’s game plan – this is as much a city-wide party as a film festival – that people keep cramming the theaters, despite the weather. This year’s sprawling event (officially the 45th, although original founders Darryl Macdonald and Dan Ireland skipped the 13th edition, out of superstition) includes something like 400 short films and features, along with a variety of ambitious industry panels. This year’s “New Works-in-Progress” selection brought four different filmmaking teams to share their projects with a variety of industry advisors (and audience members, too), and the 4th World Indigenous Media Lab served as a training session for Native and Indigenous filmmakers.
SIFF’s mammoth size means it is possible to carve out a number of different festivals within the festival. This year’s installment featured sections spotlighting German-language cinema (as part of the Deutschlandjahr USA/Year of German-American Friendship), a section entitled “Asian Crossroads” (because of its position on the Pacific Rim, Seattle quite rightly has been a hotbed of Asian film for many years), and a good sidebar on African films.
This year’s selection of “Northwest Connections” – movies shot in the Pacific Northwest or created by local-ish filmmakers – seemed bigger than ever. This roster included everything from an impressionistic documentary about the enigmatic Seattle Seahawks football star Marshawn Lynch (David Shields’s Lynch: A History) to a chronicle of Seattle’s all-male cowboy-themed burlesque dance troupe (Amy Enser’s The Long Haul: The Story Of The Buckaroos). Again, speaking as a Seattle native, I can remember years past when the list of films from the Northwest was very slim, so the list is a testament to the way Northwest moviemakers are persisting in the face of sometimes challenging odds. In fact, Seattle director Lynn Shelton’s gentle comedy Sword Of Trust served as the Opening Night curtain-raiser for the festival.
Of course, one of the festivals-within-the-festival was the New American Cinema competition, for which the FIPRESCI jurors gave a prize. Our choice was Amber McGinnis’s International Falls, a well-modulated black comedy set in a nondescript Minnesota town that straddles the border with Canada. Here, a bored housewife (played with deadpan focus by Rachael Harris) makes friends – if that’s the right word – with a worn-out stand-up comedian (Rob Huebel) stopping through for a two-night gig as a hotel’s lounge entertainment. For him, this kind of engagement is a sign that things really aren’t working out in his career; for her, the exposure to show business is a spur to her own interests in performing. McGinnis maintains an even tone throughout: Although the film is genuinely funny at times, its material is always rooted in the melancholy of characters living outside the palace of success.
When looking at the New American Cinema titles as a whole, we can see that these early-career filmmakers are tracing the fault lines currently cracking open in 2019 America. If anything, the bittersweet disenchantment of International Falls presents a relatively hopeful picture, in contrast to the trapped young heroines of Annabelle Attanasio’s Mickey And The Bear or Sonejuhi Sinha’s Stray Dolls or the uncertain characters in Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature. Somewhere in the middle lies Martha Stephens’ To The Stars, a black-and-white drama set in 1960s Oklahoma. If the misfit characters in that coming-of-age scenario can escape with their dreams not quite vanquished, maybe there is hope for us all.