June 11, 2012

NXNW: Seattle Stakes its Claim on the Festival Circuit

The best attended and largest film festival in North America drew to a close after 25 days this past weekend. For the 38th year, the Seattle International Film Festival, which ran May 17 to June 10, challenged its dedicated audiences (attendance was estimated at more than 155,000) over the course of 25 days, screening more than 465 films from 70 countries, including 60 documentaries--the most ever at the festival.

Five Star Existence (Finland/Sweden), produced, directed and written by Sonja Linden, earned the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and a $2,500 cash prize. Linden's debut film was lauded by the jury for its accomplished visuals, evocative sound design and its timely subject: the almost pathological dependence of humans on their increasingly complex electronic devices. The film posed important questions regarding human-to-human and human-to-machine connectivity, without providing easy answers. 


From Sonja Linden's Five Star Existence.


Voted the Golden Space Needle Audience Award for Best Documentary was 2012 Sundance Audience Award winner The Invisible War, from director Kirby Dick, which investigates sexual assault in the military. Director Nadav Kurtz's Paradise, about philosophical window washers in Chicago, was selected for Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Short, which came with $1,000 in cash and production software from Movie Magic and Quick Film Budget.

Feature documentaries are purposefully integrated into SIFF's programming and screenings are scheduled throughout the festival's eight main venues and at the festival's satellite locations in Kirkland, Everett and Renton. "We treat documentaries equally; we don't put them in a lesser spot," says Carl Spence, the festival's artistic director, noting that even within the festival's catalogue, documentaries are on equal footing. "We put all films together alphabetically in our official catalog and we don't segregate documentaries from the narrative films," explains Spence.

SIFF's audiences appear to embrace the opportunity to discover new filmmakers and unfamiliar subject matter. "Our audiences are pretty smart and discerning," notes Spence. "We have a really well-educated, well-read audience and literate in terms of movie-going, so they are interested in seeing films they don't know anything about." New Directors competition juror and distribution executive Michael Tuckman adds, "It's obvious SIFF can really connect with their audiences," citing screenings without stars and/or name directors that consistently sold out during the festival run.

Typically, the festival's program is locked by April 1, with the submission period opening in late August/early September. More than 5,676 films were submitted for the 2012 festival. Documentary programming varied from out-of-competition films with theatrical distribution such as Bart Layton's The Imposter and Matthew Aker and Jeff Dupre's Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present to world premieres such as Victor Buhler's The Beautiful Game and Stephen Frandsen, Hadleigh Arnst and Laura Naylor's Duck Beach to Eternity.

Also a debut work, and one of the 12 documentary competition films, The Beautiful Game examines the cultural and economic impact of soccer in Africa via profiles of both pro and aspiring African soccer players. The lively and humorous Duck Beach to Eternity follows single Mormons during an annual all-Mormon beach party weekend where reveling does not include sex, drugs or alcohol.

SIFF's festival venues are diverse and range from the allegedly haunted Harvard Exit Theatre in the happening Capitol Hill neighborhood, to a state-of-the-art multiplex screen at downtown's AMC Pacific Place Cinemas to SIFF's newly refurbished, historic SIFF Cinema Uptown, a three-screen facility, now owned and programmed by SIFF year-round. Among the documentary films that sold out at the SIFF Uptown was Winter Nomads from Switzerland's Manuel von Sturler. Shot cinema vérité style, with remarkably no acknowledgement of the camera or crew by its subjects, Winter Nomads tracks two modern-day shepherds who practice the ancient chore of "transhumance"--moving 800 sheep to greener pastures across 600 kilometers of snowy Swiss countryside.


From Manuel von Sturler's Winter Nomad.


At a multi-lingual, post-screening Q&A, Winter Nomads' director Manuel von Sturler described the lengthy pre-production required to film the two shepherds' four-month trek. During his initial encounter with his subjects, he embedded himself with the shepherds and their flock for one winter season. The next year, along with a minimal crew, von Sturler shot 35 days on the technically challenging production, in order to capture "the intimacy between the characters and the level of complicity between man and animal."

Directors Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulos' The Source packed the large Harvard Exit Theatre on the festival's final Friday night. Wille, a book publisher and cult expert, came across the story of Southern California's Source Family more than 12 years ago. (The family founded The Source vegetarian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard during the late 1960s and managed it through the '70s). "This was a rich period in our culture, with radical experiments in social incubation," says Wille, who was also attracted to the story because The Source Family "compulsively" documented their singular commune. The ample trove of archival footage, which chronicles the 140-member family's births, deaths and everyday activities, is inter-cut with present-day interviews with former family members. Wille pointed to Washington State's long history of Utopian groups; today, former members of The Source Family live in the state and several were welcomed enthusiastically during the lengthy post-screening conversation.


From Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulos' The Source.


As one audience member commented after The Source screening, "Wow, in so many ways," providing an apt description of the sprawling, ambitious 2012 SIFF.

Freelance writer Kathy A. McDonald is a frequent contributor to Documentary. She served on the 2012 SIFF documentary grand jury along with Indomina Media's Rob Williams and Oscilloscope's Dan Berger.