Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals, SIFF

Twenty-five years of SIFF

[Originally published May 1999 in the Seattle Weekly]

This year, the Seattle International Film Festival celebrates 25 years. OK, let’s be real—this is really only the 24th festival. Somewhere between 1987 (the 12th Annual SIFF) and 1988 (the 14th) we jumped a year: a leap festival, I suppose, but if skyscrapers can skip the 13th floor, why shouldn’t a festival have the same option? I say, “Any excuse for a celebration!” And SIFF has plenty to celebrate.

“At the first Seattle Film Festival, they had a sneak preview one night during the week, and there were very few people in the theater. I don’t think there were a dozen people, and it turned out the film was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One reason you go to a film festival is to see something that you’ve never heard of and have no idea what it’s going to be and hopefully you’re just bowled over by it. I remember for days afterwards trying to explain to friends what The Rocky Horror Picture Show was.”

WADE SOWERS, SIFF series passholder and festival-goer since 1976

In 1976, Darryl Macdonald and Dan Ireland, partners in the Moore-Egyptian theater, put together 13 films on a two-week program, and the Seattle International Film Festival was inaugurated. This was long before Cinema Seattle was created: The festival was completely underwritten by the Moore-Egyptian and was a true labor of love. The first festival opened with The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, and featured Fassbinder’s Fox and his Friends, Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, Verhoeven’s Cathy Tippel, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The next year it more than doubled, and in 1979 hosted its first debuts: 11 American premieres and the world premiere of Alien. In the meantime, Dan and Darryl were exploring Dutch cinema, and SIFF soon became the premier American showcase of the emerging films of the Netherlands. In 1980, after featuring his work in the first three festivals, SIFF dedicated its third retrospective to the work of Paul Verhoeven, and in 1983 his kinky thriller The Fourth Man, which turned out to be his international breakthrough film, opened the festival with its American debut.

“I have all these memories of people they brought to the festival: Michael Powell and Robert Wise and Stanley Donen and so many filmmakers big and small who nobody would have seen without the festival bringing them. And that means a lot to filmmakers who live here. Unless we travel a lot to New York or LA, we feel kind of cut off from the rest of the world, and I think the festival provides us with a link to other filmmakers and other films that we wouldn’t see otherwise. I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve just been sitting in the audience with some filmmaker that’s brought their film. They may not be someone famous, but I love to hear their story, I love to hear how they got the money, how their vision came about, the obstacles they faced, some of the cool things that happened to them. Even if you don’t get to meet them, just seeing them in the same room with you gives you hope.”

JANICE FINDLAY, local filmmaker and festival-goer since 1979

Sigourney Weaver in 'Alien'
Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’

Over the years, SIFF has introduced dozens of world premieres and hundreds of American premieres, some of which went on to critical acclaim and popular success, many of which disappeared from the public consciousness. But then Seattle has never been a prestige festival like Cannes or New York or Toronto or the much younger Sundance, where filmmakers fight for the international exposure they bring. Critics and producers fly from all over the world to see these high-profile exhibitions culled from a pool of the cinematic elite. SIFF has grown into the biggest festival in the country because of community. The 25-day span is just too much for an out-of-town critic or fearless out-of-state film buff to cover, but it gives local residents plenty of time to sample their share of world cinema without having to take a vacation (not that that’s stopped a few driven souls from doing just that, and you can often pick them out of the passholders line by their bleary eyes and massively scribbled schedules). Last year, more than 135,000 tickets were sold, and those were by and large, according to SIFF, to Seattle filmgoers.

“I remember being absolutely knocked out the night of Wim Wender’s The American Friend (SIFF 1978). That was one of those where the talk went well into the evening. I remember a grand time the evening that Ivan Passer was there to present Cutter’s Way (SIFF 1981). And I remember William Everson’s amazing collection of pre-Hayes code films. This was years before Warner Bros. put together their package (called “Forbidden Hollywood”), and he had a lot of films that Warner didn’t.”

GREG OLSON, SAM programmer and festival-goer since 1976

In a city that has no Cinemateque or year-round noncommercial repertory venue, SIFF becomes ever more important as a lifeline to the rich array of cinema that never secures an American release. Past festivals have offered everything from the underground cinema of George Kuchar and Curt McDowell, early exposure to the films of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (including three films that have yet to secure either a theatrical or video release), to Julio Medem (his debut, Vacas, makes a return visit this year as a “Flashback”), and of course to countless American independent films. Seattle’s heyday as a Hong Kongmovie-mad town finds its roots in such festival showings as The Butterfly Murders (SIFF 1980) and Banana Cop (SIFF 1985). A quick survey through the years finds such remarkable films as Our Hitler (SIFF 1980), Poto and Cabengo (SIFF 1981), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai De Commerce (SIFF 1983) among others, which never secured theatrical runs and have yet to be released on video.

“I remember being there when the Australian new wave hit, being there when John Sayles showed Return of the Secaucus Seven (SIFF 1980), being there when Max Havelaar (SIFF 1977) and Soldier of Orange (SIFF 1978) and the Dutch new wave hit. Going through each new wave as they came through, you felt like you were there.”

STEPHANIE OGLE, proprietor, Cinema Books, and festival-goer since 1977

Listing the films that took off and became major hits or cult classics makes for the most impressive festival stories but not necessarily the most vivid SIFF memories. It’s that lone screening of an unforgettable film that never appeared again, or that rare big-screen showing of an archival oddity, or the electricity of a director answering a question—perhaps your question—about a film that has delighted, enraged, or simply impressed you, that’s SIFF to me.

“In 1981, they had a double bill of the Claude Lelouche film Second Chance with Catherine Deneuve and Anouk Aimee, followed by George Romero’s Knightriders. My son was 12 and he wanted to see Knightriders and my wife really loves foreign films, but at the time the thought of seeing a George Romero motorcycle movie was just more than she could bear. But since one was at 7 and one was at 9:30, they each had to go to both of them. It was my son’s first foreign-language film and now he’s a foreign-language film buff, and my wife was so overwhelmed by Romero’s Knightriders that she realized why I go to the festival—so I can see something that’s totally unlike what I’m used to seeing. From that festival on, she started purchasing a full-series pass because if she could be so surprised by something like Knightriders she didn’t want to take a chance on missing something like that again.”


Rutger Hauer and the cast of 'Soldier of Orange.'
Rutger Hauer and the cast of ‘Soldier of Orange.’

SIFF timeline

1976: The first festival features 13 films at the Moore-Egyptian.

1978: Stanley Kramer is honored in the festival’s first retrospective.

1979: The 81 films include the world premiere of Ridley Scott’s Alien, plus 11 US premieres.

1980: Paul Verhoeven honored, along with the most concentrated collection of Dutch cinema to date.

1981: SIFF programs 100 films and outgrows its single venue, the Moore (making its final festival appearance), and branches out into the newly remodeled Egyptian Theater, to this day the flagship of SIFF.

1983: The Secret Fest is born (don’t tell anyone).

1985: The Golden Space Needle Awards are inaugurated, one of the few audience-determined awards in the world of film festivals. The first Best Film winner: Kiss of the Spider Woman.

1986: Fons Rademakers wins Golden Space Needle in the American inaugural showing of The Assault. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

1989: The Michael Powell retrospective, perhaps the most fondly remembered tribute in the history of SIFF.

1990: Cinema Seattle is born.

1995: Opening night film is the world premiere of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. He forgets to mention that in his acceptance speech, but Seattleites are pleased just the same.

1996: SIFF co-creator Dan Ireland returns to open the festival with his directorial debut: the acclaimed The Whole Wide World. The Filmmakers’ Forum is created.

1997: Bill Condon wins the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director for Gods and Monsters. He went on to pick up the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the same film.

Copyright © 1999 by Sean Axmaker

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2024: Finding Clara Bow, Swashbuckling Restorations, & More

For over 25 years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival called the Castro Theatre home. With the iconic theater now closed for a year-plus-long renovation, SFSFF has relocated to the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, located in a beautiful park created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the north edge of the Presidio. The auditorium, primarily a performance space, seats nearly a thousand and features a spacious foyer where passholders could visit and relax between shows (particularly useful on chilly weekends).

SFSFF prides itself on mixing landmark productions and audience favorites with rediscoveries, revelations, and rarities, often recently uncovered and restored. And for its 27th edition this year, the festival presented 20 features and six short films over five days, all with live musical scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists in the world.

The opening night film, Albert Parker’s 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate, certainly qualifies as both landmark and favorite. This rousing adventure, starring Douglas Fairbanks as the genial gentleman pirate, was shot on full-sized ships that give it a tremendous scope. It was also a groundbreaking experiment in Technicolor filmmaking, only the fourth feature shot entirely in color, and it was presented in a brand new restoration mastered from original camera negatives and a wealth of original archival prints. For the first time ever, the distinctive palette of the two-strip technology was accurately recreated for modern audiences.

Continue reading at Slant

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2023: One Last Silent Movie Party at the Castro Theatre?

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another joyous gathering of silent cinema fans, historians, scholars, and all stripes of movie buffs. Launched in 1995, the festival has grown from a single-day event to—excluding two years of Covid shutdowns—an annual, five-day celebration. It’s about the movies, of course, and this year SFSFF presented 20 features and seven shorts. But it’s also about the silent movie experience. All shows were accompanied by live music, from solo piano to small combos to a 10-piece mini-orchestra for the closing-night event, playing both archival music and original scores, many composed for the screenings.

Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask, from 1929, opened the festival with a bittersweet farewell to the silents. The film, the swashbuckling final silent feature to star Douglas Fairbanks, has added resonance for SFSFF audiences because of the legacy of the Castro Theatre, the festival’s home for its entire 26 years. The new owners of the movie palace in the heart of the Castro district have controversially chosen to remove the seats and level the floor to turn it into a concert venue, which would effectively end its suitability as a screening space.

In many ways, The Iron Mask’s selection was a fitting farewell, as Fairbanks’s older kind of hero is shaped by loss and disappointment but still driven by duty and honor and, of course, friendship, to fight the good fight one last time. The final images are at once joyous and melancholic, a celebration of what has been accomplished as the end comes.

Continue reading at Slant Magazine

You can also read the essays written for the festival program book at the SFSFF website here.

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

A Rich and Varied World: Highlights of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The great misconception of silent cinema is that it’s all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It’s the idea of “lack” they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.

That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater (“the Cathedral to Cinema,” as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations. 

Continue reading at

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

Your 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview

“True art transcends time” is the motto of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which opens its twenty-third edition at the historic Castro Theatre on Wednesday, May 30. What began as a one-day event over two decades ago has grown into the largest and most impressive silent film festival in the country. The twenty-three programs presented over the five-day event include twenty features (from forty-five minutes to three and a half hours in length) from nine countries, ranging from the avant-garde, to the experimental, and even 3D shorts. And all are matched with live music from some of the best silent movie accompanists from around the world.

Continue reading at Fandor

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews, SIFF

SIFF Diary – Week 1

There was a time when I threw myself into SIFF, seeing 50, 60, sometimes over 70 films between the first days of press screenings and the closing night gala (that’s still far short of some passholders who watch over 100 films over the course of the fest). Those days are over for many reasons, not the least of which is that San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which now plays out smack dab in the middle of SIFF and pulls me out of town for nearly a week. This year I expect to see something between 10 and 15 films scheduled between my day job and writing deadlines, and while that means I miss a lot of interesting films, the upside is that I treasure those films I do get to see and I have more time to ruminate over them. Here are thoughts on some of the films I saw the first. No press screenings for me this year. These were all seen with festival audiences.

Audiences split on First Reformed (US) but critics are raving and I think it’s Paul Schrader’s finest and richest film since Affliction. It also defies expectations of an American psychological drama by following a style more similar to his most beloved filmmakers: Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky among them. Read More “SIFF Diary – Week 1”

Posted in: Film Festivals, Seattle Screens, SIFF

SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2018 Guide

[Updated June 7, 2018]

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 17, with the opening night gala presentation of Goya-winning feature The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Bill Nighy from Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, and closes 24 days later on Sunday, June 10 with Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. In between there are (at last count) 168 feature films, 66 documentary features, 10 archival films, and 164 short films among the multimedia presentations. All told: 433 films representing 90 countries (as of opening night).

Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to SIFF resources from around the web. We will update a few times a week.

SIFF Week by Week, Day by Day:

SIFF 2018: The best of the fest’s final weekend (staff, Seattle Times) NEW
SIFF 2018 Picks: Final Week (Keiko DeLuca, Seth Sommerfeld, and Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly) NEW
The 29 Best Movies To See at SIFF This Week: June 4-10 (Staff, The Stranger) NEW
SIFF 2018: week three highlights (Michael Bracy, Three Imaginary Girls) NEW
SIFF 2018: Picks for Week Three (staff, The Sunbreak) NEW
Read More “SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2018 Guide”

Posted in: Contributors, Editor, Film Festivals

SIFF 2017: It’s a wrap!

The Golden Space Needle Audience Awards were handed out for SIFF 2017 on Sunday, June 11, and soon after the Best of SIFF 2017 line-up was announced.

Parallax View has both covered for you here.

(You can also peruse reviews, interviews, and other features collected and curated in Parallax View’s SIFF 20187 Guide here.)

Rodrigo Grande’s Argentine crime thriller At the End of the Tunnel won the Golden Space Needle Audience Awards for Best Film and Best Director and Peter Bratt’s Dolores, a portrait of racial and labor activist Dolores Huerta, won for Best Documentary. Seattle audiences also awarded Sami Blood star Lene Cecilia Sparrok the Best Actress award and David Johns of I, Daniel Blake the Best Actor award.

Read More “SIFF 2017: It’s a wrap!”

Posted in: by Robert Horton, Contributors, Film Festivals, SIFF

Sifting Through SIFF

At some point the numbers are overwhelming. This is the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, a marathon that lasts 25 days across 15 venues (Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline included), with around 400 feature-length and short films from 80 countries. There are gobs of panels and festivities and visiting filmmakers.

It seems churlish to be a movie lover and complain that SIFF is too big, especially when the city seems to love it so much. It is, undeniably, a vast and glittery party, and every year it brings necessary gems and some lovely out-of-left-field experiences. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a splendid 10-day festival to be carved out of this unfocused sprawl.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Posted in: Contributors, Editor, Film Festivals, SIFF

SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2017 Guide

The 43rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 18, with the opening night gala presentation of The Big Sick, from director Michael Showalter and writer/star Kumail Nanjiani, and closes 24 days later on Sunday, June 11 with the North American premiere of Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx. In between there are (at last count) 161 feature films, 58 documentary features, 14 archival films, and 163 short films. All told: 400 films representing 80 countries (as of opening night).

Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to SIFF resources from around the web. We will update a few times a week.

SIFF Week by Week, Day by Day:

SIFF 2017: It’s a wrap! (Parallax View) NEW
The 13 Best Movies to See at SIFF This Weekend: June 9-11, 2017 (staff, The Stranger) NEW
Highlights of the film festival’s final weekend (staff, Seattle Times) NEW
Closing Weekend Picks (staff, The SunBreak) NEW
Homestretch Roundtable (The SunBreak) NEW
SIFF 2017: Week Four Preview (Sean Gilman, Seattle Screen Scene) NEW
Read More “SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2017 Guide”