Posted in: by Jay Kuehner, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Like You Know It All

The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us again, that equally cherished and dreaded pre-summer ritual that entails queuing and going indoors just as the city is collectively preparing to spread its wings after another monochrome season of scarce daylight and, quite probably, enough drama already. Complain, however, that the fest is too long, and it will end all too soon. Moan that it’s too big, yet still lament the absence of your favorite director’s latest masterpiece (where oh where is Claire Denis’ White Material, or Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun, or Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s To Die Like A Man?). As for the lines that still stretch down the alley behind the Egyptian theatre: haven’t we all waited longer for something far less tasty, like bad coffee for instance?

Cast your net wide at this audience-friendly (as opposed to industry-oriented) festival and something’s liable to turn up, perhaps something unexpected, just as in the fisherman Syracuse’s (Colin Farrel) catch in Neil Jordan’s improbable Irish fable Ondine; is she a mythic half-seal come to land to redeem the recovering alcoholic and his wheelchair-bound daughter? A Romanian drug runner fleeing a bust on open seas? Or, to take the whole enterprise at face value, is she a perfect narrative muse of a lingerie model who seductively chants Sigur Ros tunes to the ocean’s depths as Colin Farrel is consigned to channeling profound sympathy with his eyebrows alone? At the very least, the film boasts a smoldering, bruised palette in keeping with its nautical Irish milieu, lensed by the estimable Christopher Doyle who, it’s worth remembering, was once considered Wong Kar-Wai’s primary pair of eyes, and who delivered a master class in cinematography in typical rambling fashion at a past edition of SIFF. Has it really been that long?

Of course there is the wisdom that says it’s not the size of the catch but how you fish, an apt metaphor not only for festing but for filmmaking as well. Which is what makes Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar such an exemplary case; its protagonist is a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef who snares his fish by hand or spear, under the curious gaze of his tiny son Natan, born to an Italian mother and now thousands of miles away, surrounded by the vast sea, dwelling in a hut on stilts flanked by crocodiles and birds (one of which he proprietarily names ‘Blanquita’). Is this a fiction? A documentary? Or simply, as its director attests, just a “film” ? A genuine sleeper, graceful and direct.

To continue the theme: why not a simple crab trap when it comes to catching something good? Like the plastic milk container cut in half and strung on the back of a small Colombian girl in Oscar Ruiz Navia’s Crab Trap, a cryptic tale of a drifter, possibly lovelorn, who inexplicably lands in the small fishing village of La Barra, searching for a way in with the locals while seeking a way out of his past. An oblique film, in which the man’s search is subsumed by the quotidian rhythm and inherent tensions of the village, a mostly black community threatened by imminent development, a threat materialized in the cranked-up dance music pumping from a set of oversized speakers plunked down beachside by a gringo. Any boat to ferry the mysterious protagonist elsewhere proves elusive, the fate of a man in limbo that’s at once a state of mind and a politics of place.

The notion of scavenging may be less-than-ideal for the intrepid festival-goer, but the lanky young Filipino boys who dive in Manila’s polluted waters for recyclable metal scraps in Ralston Jover’s film Bakal Boys are a resilient bunch who bring dignity to their labor, fictionalized for the sake of the director’s design; otherwise this hyper-real tale is dictated by the vicissitudes of poverty. The film garnered an honorable mention in the Dragons and Tigers competition at the Vancouver International Film Festival, a veritable breeding ground for emerging Asian cinema – no small nod for this virtually non-budget endeavor .


If it’s worth remembering that the United States is still a country at war, as one sad, sad character sitting poolside in Florida insists in Todd Solondz’s Oedipally challenged Life During Wartime, consider the unprecedented example set by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington in Restrepo, who embedded with a U.S. Platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley during a 15 month deployment, at the time considered the deadliest place on earth for soldiers putatively fighting a war on terror. Intimately accessing the soldiers’ daily routine of warfare (constantly under fire) and downtime (scarce), the film offers a radically visceral and unsentimental look at life as wartime for this tireless troop who attempt to secure an outpost they’ve named after a fallen comrade, Juan Restrepo. A rough video image of him pre-deployment is inserted at film’s finale to devastating effect, as is a minor sequence of the soldiers dancing to a thumping disco beat, wrapped in an ephemeral embrace and bouncing in their tiny bunker. If the mall outside Pacific Place theatres feels like a woefully inappropriate place to be after the screening, take note that author Junger is making a stop in Seattle to read from his sourced book, War.

Laura Poitras’ The Oath refracts religious, familial, and national ideologies by tracking two former Al-Qaeda employees, brothers-in-law who worked personally for Osama bin Laden, both now in Yemen. One drives a cab, the other is a transfer from Guantanamo Bay charged with war crimes. That Poitras attempts to tell her story beyond patriotic interests is a testament to her documentary instincts; there’s no doubt that her comings and goings on home soil haven’t been without incident.

Ironic, then, that it might take a film from Iraq to enlist domestic sensibilities against the other U.S. war. Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon is narratively confined to a young boy’s cross-country search, with grandma in tow, to find a father who’s been imprisoned since the Gulf War. Visually and sonically, however, the texture of this slight and occasionally irritating narrative blooms into a poetic tour of a country still smoldering from shock and awful warfare, begging the question: How in the hell did Al-Dardji shoot this film?

Just how the directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, of the ode to ’70s Italian horror, Amer, shot their delirious homage is precisely the point of how you understand it, or don’t. There are dead birds in handkerchiefs and magical pocket watches loosed from the embalmed clutches of patriarchs lying in state, an empty mansion with shutters slapping in the midnight Mediterranean breeze and endless keyholes through which sex or death or nothing at all seems to be glimpsed, and a very erotic taxi ride in which the roar of the engine and slick strands of hair stuck on red lipstick coalesce into an ominous and ecstatic fury of…..well, perhaps just an overpriced fare to the villa. Slotted in the kitschy Midnight Adrenaline section, this film-smart exercise may as well play in the Films 4 Families section as a cautionary tale of repressing your daughter’s inevitable sexual awakening. Cue fuzzy guitar riff here.

Pitched provocatively between the (intrinsically political) aesthetics of Shirin Neshat and Jacques Tati, Dima El-Horr’s feminine road trip of a movie, Every Day is a Holiday, is pointedly absurd and playfully portentous. A cigarette smoke-filled bus packed with women is headed to a men’s prison in the vast Lebanese desert, until a bullet strikes the driver and strands the lot, three of whom head off together on their own, each with distinct agendas (marriage, divorce, and…the delivery of a gun). The allegorical aspect keeps the drama in a reverie-like state, but/and the carefully framed compositions are too arresting to keep this first-time director unknown for long.

The premise of Holy Rollers (Kevin Tyler Asch) is poor news for the Orthodox Jewish community but treasure for a narratively starved moviemaking one; who can’t resist a real-life story in the when-good-people-do-bad-things genre, here the case of a Hasidic drug running enterprise shuttling ecstacy between New York and Amsterdam. You know when 20 year-old Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg, who seems to have walked from Noah Baumbach’s Brooklyn to Crown heights and slipped into a new wardrobe) dons a pair of clubbing sneakers and snips his curls that his cultural Bar-Mitzvah is underway. Good looking and well-executed, the film is nonetheless doomed to over-indulge its conceit, from the title onward.

Given the increasingly xenophobic immigration policies taking hold in la frontera, a pair of films from Mexico would seem imperative viewing. A radio dispatch that preludes Carlos Carerra’s Backyard attests to its fraught local of Juarez as a ”wounded city, crowned with the blood of murdered girls.” It’s a chilly description for the reality there, one that regrettably gets a dramatic make-over as a crime drama with a tenacious female cop on the latin beat. Northless, a debut by Rigoberto Perezcano, begins just as bleakly, set in the whitewashed desert where a migrating Oaxacan hopes to make his crossing northward. Shot as a fever dream of disorientation amid punishing heat, the opening gradually cedes to a listless, even quietly humorous, routine as Andres finds an unlikely home in a Tijuana bodega run by two women who embody plenty of reasons to remain national. Simple, uninflected, and carefully realized, this quiet debut speaks more loudly about migration, simply by slipping pesos in the jukebox at the local cantina and downing shots of tequila as time simply unfolds.

Milk of Sorrow
Milk of Sorrow

Pressed during the Oscars ceremony, likely drinking with friends in front of a television, to name your favorite Foreign Language submission, you’d be maligned for even knowing a contender let alone the one from Peru, The Milk of Sorrow, about a young maid in the stark Andes who lives in fear of sexual violence, the legacy of terrorism that swept her country when she was a child. Directly stated: she preemptively plants a mythically-loaded potato in her vagina as a means of staving off rape. While it doesn’t make for good copy at Oscar time, Llosa’s film is formally brilliant, capturing maid Fausta’s pained isolation in minor gestures such as the simple but intricately rendered walk to the estate gate, while portraying the community at large in delicately ironic, static tableaux of high altitude life that recall Chinese master Jia Zhangke. A dignified film for sure.

Formalism gone gratuiously awry, Bolivian style: Juan Carlos Valdivia’s Zona Sur, a portrait of a bourgeois family and its servants told ever-so elliptically, as the camera literally spirals throughout each of the film’s fifty-seven vignettes, from teenagers’ fucking and subsequent pillow talk to the affable cook Wilson stealing skin cream from the matriarch. Similarly domestic but altogether less incisive about class disparity than previous Sundance award winner in World Cinema (The Maid). Huacho (Alejandro Fernandez Almendras), by contrast, limns an earthy portrait of a rural family making ends meet, in which the selling of home-made cheese by the side of the road is neither dramatic device nor ethnographic observation but part of an imminently vanishing means of getting by in modern Chile. Alicia Scherson’s follow up to her stylish debut Play (2005), Turistas aspires to an equally naturalistic aesthetic albeit in the service of a young woman’s sudden detour from unhappily married to unmoored in the lush Chilean countryside with a foreign backpacker of good intent. Nothing life-shattering, but nice to see some South American representation.

Tiger co-award winner at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Mundane History (Anocha Suwichakornpong) is distinctively hushed and unhurried, quietly extracting the relationship between a nurse and his paralyzed patient as their tentative, quotidian bond deepens in spite of an unspoken class resentment. Dreamy but never surreal in the style of compatriot Apichatpong (I’m lazily lumping them together by nationality), it’s still a welcome entry from an underserved Thai industry. It’s the sort of film that Rotterdam typically sponsors, the labor of intrepid producers willing to take risks, like the subject of Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children. It’s both a deeply personal and coolly detached biographical fiction; we scarcely get to know Gregoire Canvel (surrogate for Humbert Balsen, whose suicide shocked the European film community, and who took an early interest in Hansen-Løve’s career), as he’s always on his cell phone, chain smoking, just out of reach – precisely the film’s point – before financial pressure mounts and Canvel commits his desperate act, which is filmed with bracing, unsentimental brevity. If the film’s first half belongs squarely to the noble but flawed producer, the second half comes to rest on his legacy, that of film production practicalities but more affectingly so how it is passed to his teenage daughter Clemence. The notion of transmission would seem to parallel Hansen-Løve’s own education within the French film community, and the way she sorts out history is beautifully mirrored in Clemence’s steps toward maturity, in one scene wonderfully scored to her attempt at ordering a cup of morning-after coffee (Alice De Lencquesaing, seen also in good form in Assayas’ Summer Hours, emanates beyond-her-years wisdom).

François Ozon, having long since graduated from his maudit status in French cinema, would seem in Hideaway (as ever the French title, Le Refuge, better serves) to be teasing at the possibility of scathing melodrama (heroin overdose, unexpected pregnancy) but, as in Time to Leave, he plays it rather earnestly: a tender plea for an alternative family after a tragic death forlorns a recovered and expectant mother, since retreated to a house by the sea and visited upon by the deceased’s gay brother. The longer we stay with this couple, the truer they become, in contrast to Ozon’s more sinister or giddy caricatures. Call it softening with age, maturity, or selling out – Ozon is certainly curing himself of irony either way.

Is there a subject that better embodies SIFF’s motto of ”Go Inside Film, Get Outside of Yourself” than that of Jeff Malmberg’s doc Marwencol? In which an ‘outsider’ artist imaginatively recreates a small Belgian village during wartime with haunting verisimilitude using dolls inhabiting fastidiously constructed sets. As art goes it’s a curious enterprise, but not enough to build a film around until the disclosure that the creator of such tableaux, 38 year-old Mark Hogancamp, realized them as a rehabilitative project after being beaten into a coma outside a bar in 2000. There is both a redemptive playfulness and chilly horror to the work that invokes questions of representation in art and war, particularly as the work then becomes of potential value to an interested gallery.

Like You Know It All
Like You Know It All

For a portrait of the artist as incurable narcissist, look no further than Hong Sang-Soo’s latest installment in an unprecedented oeuvre of woeful tales about delusional males and the women to whom, in spite of bouts of all-night drinking, they fail to measure up. Down to its pitch-perfect title, Like You Know It All drolly deconstructs Hong’s home territory: the film director loosed on the festival circuit, professional integrity intact, personal dignity at stake when faced with the enigma that is… women. Shot in Hong’s increasingly televisual style, this is another unforgiving look at modern romance and the egos that attend it, specifically Korean yet universally pathetic.

Romance, Amer-indie style: nothing gets close to Hong’s barb than perhaps the Duplass brothers’ Cyrus, in which a schlub’s implausibly requited love by a single mother is undermined, nay utterly thwarted, by the schemings of her 21-year-old son Cyrus, an oversized manchild with a keyboard fetish and a considerable gift for co-dependent-some-more behavior. Painfully funny, Cyrus. Cut from similar cloth and drawn from an extended family of filmmakers that includes Lynne Shelton and the Duplass brothers, The Freebie is another L.A. set rom-com about an ideal young couple (save for more time at crossword puzzles than sex) who find themselves testing monogamy, only to find that straying is the hardest part. In spite of its improvisational feel, the narrative likewise hews closely to convention – curious couples will be all-too comforted. Then there’s the case of Monogamy, a hopelessly hip take on fidelity and voyeurism that plays like future television, surprisingly disappointing considering the director’s precedent Murderball.

Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton) has a romance at its heart, but it’s informed by socio-political forces of some consequence, here the incalculable influence of the Black Panther party on two former members, set in the torpor of a Philadelphia summer circa 1976. Set to a groovy Roots soundtrack, and enlisting archival footage into its bell-bottomed, street credible milieu, Night is conventional but you can feel a film beating inside of it.

As for filming a beat, it’s always a gambit to document vital music scenes with the aid of talking head testimonials and pans across faded snapshots and album covers. What about the music? Local doc Wheedles Groove (Jennifer Maas) can’t resist such technical tropes, given the lack of sheer evidence, but does do historical justice to an overlooked scene of 70s soul music in the capital of grunge. Not least among its tasty artifacts is the unbelievable  presence, by Seattle’s lukewarm standard today, of hot soul clubs with stacked line-ups jamming into the wee hours up on Yesler ave! To think we have progressed…

Highly anticipated, regionally at least, the debut feature from Matt McCormick, Some Days Are Better Than Others, is sure to get a warm welcome, aided by credible acting performances from notorious musicians in the indie sector. There’s clearly a knack for composition in McCormick’s melancholically rendered Portland, and heartbreak seems to be the operative mode/mood for its quartet of characters. ”Quirky lyricism for those who enjoy Miranda July” went the quip as I left the theatre, wondering if Hal Hartley was now somehow ripe for a comeback with a new generation.

Poor Alternate Cinema, whatever it may be: four titles does not a sidebar merit, not when the field of artists pushing the form is so vast, nor the boundary between avant-garde and commercial so elastic (one look at Film Comment’s current poll A Decade in the Dark bears this out). So, no Ruhr from James Benning; no Double Tide from Sharon Lockhart. Still, there’s Johan Grimonprez’s tricky take on Alfred Hitchcock, Double Take, with its specter of the double that pricks at one’s sense of personal and political paranoia. If only Van Sant’s remake of Psycho conjured up this much unease…

From the Spanish Ambiente selection—a good choice for a festival centerpiece, given the country’s prodigious production of late—one could make an easy leap from the Grimonprez to Garbo: The Spy (Edmon Roch), a playful documentary about a Catalan former chicken farmer who, after spending much of the Spanish Civil War in hiding, cleverly insinuates himself as a faux Nazi informer to the Germans during WWII, composing dispatches of uncommon depth that ultimately mount a deceptive and heroic defense for the allied forces. Me, Too (Alvaro Pastor, Antonio Naharro) is an otherwise familiar romantic office drama save for an unprecedented performance by its lead, an actor with Down Syndrome playing the newest recruit in a social services office to varying degrees of acceptance, with one exception; his attractive and attracted colleague Nuria. Taboo! Harmony Korine and Todd Solondz take note.

Lest one feel, by festival’s finale, like the fatigued anti-hero of Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, a two-timing Austrian bank robber and marathon runner in desperate need of an adrenaline fix, exhausted but still on the move, I’ll leave the other several hundred titles up to speculation, that strange impetus for any cinephile still left standing by closing night sometime next month. Did I neglect to mention two miss-at-your-peril Chinese films? Lu Chuan’s controversial tour de force (indulge the phrase, it’s warranted!) depicting the Japanese occupation in the former Chinese capital in 1937, City of Life and Death. And the Chinese/Canadian production Last Train Home, Lixin Fan’s document of mass domestic migration among Chinese after the annual New Year celebrations. The latter is bound for distribution, but why not see it with an enthusiastic audience, at a friendly festival, in anticipation of the director’s attendance post-screening for a little Q & A? Just don’t ask about the budget, or what kind of camera they used….

Cross-published with Hot Splice.

Complete SIFF 2010 coverage at Parallax View’s guide to SIFF resources.