The Facsimile of a Film Festival

in 47th Seattle International Film Festival

by Jim Slotek

The Seattle Film Festival brings the world home. Why your screen is your passport to perspective.

Our urge to engage socially is clearly powerful. Otherwise, why would I be in Toronto watching my cartoon avatar on a screen at a “party” in Seattle, introducing myself to people, and stopping at one point to dance?

The Seattle International Film Festival, which was cancelled last year because of the COVID 19 pandemic, returned in virtual form in 2021. The films were real. Everything else was a facsimile of a film festival, but kudos to the organizers for the determined effort.

“It’s very much like other years,” said SIFF programming manager Stan Shields (whom I’d “met” at the aforementioned virtual welcoming party). “There are screenings and meetings and events. The only difference is I’m doing it from my kitchen.”

The show must go on. And as I screened the films, it occurred to me that it must go on more than ever.

If simply for perspective, during what many of us in the West consider trying times, it is important to see films like

Dieudo Hamadi’s documentary Downstream to Kinshasa, about a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that was massacred when war between Rwanda and Uganda spilled over their borders at the turn of the century.

Today, the survivors, many of them amputees, still seek damages, and are filmed crammed into a boat for an ordeal of a voyage down the Congo to face the government that ignores them.

Or imagine living under the harsh theocracy of Iran, which normalizes state executions to the point that it poisons its own citizens’ souls. That is the theme of Mohammad Rasoulof’s dramatic anthology There Is No Evil (Sheytan Vojud Nadarad). There Is No Evil is not so much about the condemned, as it is about people, some of them soldiers, some certified state executioners, having to rationalize or suffer through the “job” of killing people. When state-sanctioned murder becomes a normal life occupation, it conjures Hannah Arendt’s famous observation about the Adolph Eichmann trial and “the banality of evil.”

Notwithstanding the real pain and death that has accompanied the pandemic, there are many people whose experience of this global disaster consists of being forced to stay indoors and watch television – “First World problems” as they are called. And many of the “locked down” act as if they are political prisoners and victims of authoritarianism.

But if you live comfortably, and are willing to assign “victimhood” to yourself in the face of inconvenience, you need to get out more. Except you can’t. Under current conditions, travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Iran, or anywhere really, ranges from problematic to impossible.

Your only “passport” is a screen. And, on that screen, are images that should give you pause about your complaints. If we can’t see the world first-hand, we have the privilege of having the world – and film festivals like SIFF – come to us.

And what we see is a world of struggle and determination and joy and sadness. And while we wait to rejoin it and embrace it fully again, we can absorb the lives of others via film and put our complaints in perspective.

Jim Slotek