August 30, 2003

The Audience Is the Real Winner at the Seattle International Film Festival

From Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.'

It's one of the longest running festivals in the United States—and one of the biggest. And in its 29 years, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF; www.seattlefilm.com) has held its own against a proliferation of festivals that have positioned themselves in the late spring/early summer slot that SIFF has always held. "Ultimately, what we keeps us strong and true is that this festival maintains the same identity it started out with," observes Darryl Macdonald, the festival's director and co-founder. "It's an audience festival and it's geared squarely at the Seattle film-going audience."

And over the course of three weeks, SIFF presented a cavalcade of offerings—docs and narratives from around the world and from Seattle itself. Yet one could manage a film-going experience without over-saturation. "Here, with the emphasis being on the audience, we start our screenings at 4:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon during the week, so it's only three screenings a day at each venue," Macdonald continues. "With the viewing more spread out, you can appreciate the individual films more. In the end, that pays benefits to the filmmakers."

The 2003 edition saw more documentaries than usual, as well as a Jury Prize to complement the Golden Space Needle Audience Award. The documentary selections were a mix of world and US premieres and festival circuit favorites like Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans and Kim Longinotto's The Day I'll Never Forget. "It would be pretty easy for us to book just about every hit out of Sundance," says Macdonald. "But we don't. Just like everyone else, we want good things to program-the essential documentaries and discoveries that nobody's heard of yet. We don't want to serve one course. We'll turn this film down, but pick this film because they're both equally excellent, but they're both about exactly the same subject. So it's about a diversity of topics, and a diversity of information and the way the information is presented.

"We also have an obligation," he continues. "We're one of seven film festivals in North America that qualify films for the Independent Spirit Awards. Because of that we have a responsibility to seek out films that didn't play Sundance, that didn't play Toronto, that didn't play the other nominating festivals. We want to broaden opportunities for filmmakers."

And the impetus for expanding the number of documentaries this year? "I didn't feel that we had done the field justice," Macdonald admits. "We played 28 documentaries last year, and I knew that we were turning down films that were excellent, just because we had this quota. The hardest section to program last year and this year was the documentaries; there was so much excellent work." The festival had the added challenge of winnowing down the 40 or so documentaries to 14 for the competition.

The Jury Prize went to two films—Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground and Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which shared the audience award with Kim Shelton's A Great Wonder. The Weather Underground tells the story of the eponymous 1960s radical group that broke off from the Students for a Democratic Society to pursue more subversive and destructive means of bringing attention to the horrors of the Vietnam War. An inventive blend of archival footage and interviews with the surviving members, the film eschews narration and lets the people who lived through the period tell the story. The filmmakers, perhaps blessed with the advantage of not having lived through the 1960s and 1970s, present this much examined era with a freshly innovative perspective. But it is the ruminative reflections that Green and Siegel coax out of their subjects that are the most poignant. These were white, middle-class people who wanted to make a difference as radicals and who struggled with their consciences and with sustaining the spirit of the movement as the pull of home and family became too much to bear.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised has a '60s ring to it, but it captures an event—the overthrow and restoration to power of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—that took place only a year ago. The Ireland-based filmmakers Bartley and O'Briain were granted remarkable access to Chavez, and their initial intent was to document his socialistic approach to governing the fourth largest oil producer in the world—a tack that didn't go over well with the world's largest oil consumer to the north. The filmmakers had the great good fortune of capturing the ensuing coup, the chaotic days that followed and Chavez's triumphant return. The film unspools like a Costa-Gavras political thriller, and, as in State of Siege, the American White House is implicitly implicated as a sinister co-conspirator.

Chavez is friends with Cuba's Fidel Castro, an unseen and unheard subject of Lorenzo DeStefano's Los Zafiros, which relates the story of one of Cuba's leading a cappella groups during the Cold War era. The film is told through the band's two surviving members; one, who based in Miami, reunites with the other, who is based in Havana. Los Zafiros is a seamless blend of footage of the band and the reminisces of the two survivors as they wander through Havana, hooking up with old friends and relatives, and breaking into song whenever the mood strikes them. DeStefano and his crew wisely let the musicians tell their stories and, in turn, summon up the magic that transfixed a nation so many decades ago.

An equally compelling film with sociocultural politics coursing through it was Louise Hogarth's The Gift, which documents a trend among younger gay men to acquire HIV+ status—"bug chasing"—through "barebacking"—having unsafe sex. Hogarth chooses her subjects wisely, showing just how wide the generation gap has grown in the 20 years of the AIDS pandemic—and how the effort in the community to de-stigmatize HIV+ status to the point of glamorization may have had tragic repercussions. While a 40-something support group in the film—a kind of Cassandra-like chorus-laments this campaign, a young man says he'll be "happy and relieved to know" that he's HIV+, while another who does know sobs, "I've made an awful mistake."

 

 Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.

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