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30 Years, 25 Days, 33 Docs, 13 Competitors, 6 Award Winners: Seattle International Film Festival by the Numbers

By Tom White

From 'Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,' which earned the Refracting Reality Documentary Award at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival.

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) celebrated its 30th anniversary with some 33 docs in the Refracting Reality section, 13 of them earmarked for the documentary competition. It was a wild opening weekend in the Emerald City in late May, with the unveiling of the new Seattle Central Library, conceived and executed by Rem Koolhaus to universal acclaim, happening right next door to SIFF headquarters.

This was the first SIFF in quite a while without founding director/impresario Daryl Macdonald, who returned last year to another festival he helped found: the Palm Springs International Film Festival. In the capable hands of Festival Director Helen Loveridge and Director of Programming Carl Spence, with Macdonald playing more of an advisorial role for SIFF 2004, the festival dominated the late spring/early summer calendar for many a Seattlite.

When the dust settled, 25 days later, we had winners. The Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary, picked by the audience, went to Born into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, prods./dirs.), with First Runner-up going to The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, dirs.; Achbar and Bart Simpson, prods.; Joel Bakkan, wtr.), Second Runner-up to Big City Dick (Scott Milam, Ken Harder and Todd Pottinger, dirs./prods.) and Third Runner-Up to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, dirs./prods.). Two films tied for the Refracting Reality Documentary Award (jury prize): The Game of Their Lives (Daniel Gordon, dir/prod.) and  Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, dir./prod; Martin Rosenbaum, Jonathan Shoemaker, prods.).

Another film that played in competition, Imelda, profiles the notorious former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Granted uncommon access to Marcos, filmmaker Ramona Diaz and director of photography Ferne Pearlstein give Marcos enough room—and, it seems, enough rope—to ruminate about her life before and after President Ferdinand Marcos, reflecting on her rise from beauty queen to, well, queen, and, of course, showcasing her shoes. Set against interviews with her kids, Filipino journalists and US statesmen such as Richard Holbrooke, as well as footage from the Marcos' rise and fall, the film follows Imelda through her home town and her various palaces, creating the aura of a fallen monarch in exile. At turns regal and wacky, she tosses bromides like "It is easy to be beautiful" and "I had to be a star and a slave"—as if her star would rub off on her subjects. But she rose, surviving an assassination attempt, charming world leaders ranging from Mohammar Qadaafi to Henry Kissinger to ensure that billions of dollars would flow to the Philippines—and to the Marcos family. She still has her many admirers-as well as her many detractors. By the end of the film, Diaz has presented an unintentionally campy profile of a woman, and a compelling essay on power.

The Refracting Reality Documentary Award co-winner, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, takes viewers to the Deep South, courtesy of songwriter/musician Jim White, who totes British director/producer Andrew Douglas and his crew around in his 1970 Chevy to bayous, coal mines, honky tonks, rusted-out car lots and storefront churches. White makes for an intriguing tour guide, summoning up the ghosts of Faulkner and O'Connor as he ruminates on the gothic, murky underbelly of this storied American region. That's the sort of hardscrabble landscape that cinematographer Flor Collins has captured, and we meet White's fellow musicians along the way, performing on houseboats, on the hoods of dilapidated Impalas, in gas stations and in coffee shops. The film becomes a long-form music video at times, peppered with White's elliptical observations about the Pentecostal undercurrents that course through the lives of the people there.

But given America's long, dark history with race, particularly in the South, the film's virtual absence of African-Americans is troubling. Indeed, the question of race is never discussed—by White or anyone else in the film. To intentionally leave out an inextricable element of Southern culture and then present the film as a journey in search of the soul of the South is not only a bad-faith proposition between filmmaker and viewer; it's irresponsible filmmaking.   

Just as SIFF showcased an impressive international slate of documentaries, the festival also keeps its sights trained in its own backyard. Seattle-based filmmakers Laurel Spellman Smith and Francine Strickwerda premiered their film Busting Out as part of Refracting Reality. The film takes a personal premise (Strickwerda's mother died of breast cancer when the filmmaker was seven) as a taking-off point to explore the mythology, semiotics and mystique—the gestalt—of the female breast in America. In a wide-ranging journey that takes us from hospitals to topless bars, the film takes a light-hearted look at this nationwide obsession. In a country where a flash of a breast on television can incur a crackdown of puritanical proportions, Busting Out may be the proper antidote.


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.