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.”

WADE SOWERS

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, 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: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, SIFF

SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!

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. As in previous years, it launches at McCaw Hall and is followed by the opening night party.

24 days later, it closes on a local focus with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix) and directed by Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Sunday, June 10.

In between, 248 features (including 66 documentaries), 164 short films, and 21 VR/360 works from 90 countries are scheduled to screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline. (These numbers are subject to change as additional films may be added at the last minute, and in rare cases films may be withdrawn or cancelled).

Read More “SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!”

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”

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Seattle Screens, SIFF

Seattle Screens: Twist of Pride and The Best of SIFF

Touki Bouki

The 2nd annual Twist of Pride Film Festival opens at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, June 17 with a 20th Anniversary screening of the Seattle-produced Crocodile Tears (1996) followed by the World Premiere of Brides to Be. The festival runs through the weekend. Schedule and tickets here.

The documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, about the making of the legendary shot-for-shot remake of the Steven Spielberg film by a group of schoolkids with a camcorder over the course of seven years, plays through Sunday, June 19 at Northwest Film Forum.

The Best of SIFF returns for revival showings of 12 features (including six award winners) and a program of short films over the next seven days at The Uptown. Complete schedule is below and tickets at the SIFF website. (Festival passes and vouchers are not accepted for these showings.)

Read More “Seattle Screens: Twist of Pride and The Best of SIFF”

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

SIFFtings 2016 – Week 2


SIFF celebrates its Renton Opening Night on Thursday, May 26 with a screening of the comedy My Blind Brother at the IKEA Performing Arts Center, followed by a party at the Renton Pavilion Event Center. Because SIFF isn’t just about the movies. It likes to party too.

And on Friday, May 27, SIFF extends its reach to Shoreline for the first time this year and it kicks off with a Shoreline Opening Night screening of The Tenth Man (Argentina), a lighthearted drama of a New York-based Jewish-Argentinian man returning home to Bueno Aires for Purim. Screenings take place at the newly-renovated theater on the Shoreline Community College campus (building 1600; see the Shoreline CC map), which is said to be state-of-the-art. I’ll be verifying this weekend; as a Shoreline resident myself, I’m thrilled to see the festival in my backyard. Campus parking is free for visitors after 4pm on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a follow-up to the devastating documentary Streetwise, received its World Premiere at SIFF. More than thirty years after that acclaimed exploration of the culture of homeless teenagers in Seattle, Tiny revisits Erin Blackwell, the poster girl of Streetwise—literally, her stone face behind vintage second-hand fashions was the defining image of the film. Director Martin Bell and photographer Mary Ellen Mark profile Ms. Blackwell as struggling mother with ten children, still fighting to get by. Martin Bell is scheduled to attend screenings.
Sunday, May 29, 4pm, Pacific Place; Monday, May 30, 11am, Pacific Place.

Chinese filmmaker Xu Haofeng brings the North American premiere of The Final Master (China) for three screenings across the city. Xu co-wrote the award-winning The Grandmaster with director Wong Kar-wai and his action choreography for The Final Master won an award at the Golden Horse Film Festival.
Saturday, May 28, 6pm, Uptown; Sunday, May 29, 6:30pm, Shoreline Community College Theater.

Also making its North American premiere is Eternal Summer, a road trip crime movie through Northern Sweden. Filmmaker Andreas Ohman is scheduled to attend all screenings this weekend.
Friday, May 27, 7pm, Lincoln Square Cinemas; Saturday, May 28, 1:30pm, Pacific Place; Sunday, May 29, 6:30pm, Pacific Place.

Truman (Spain/Argentina) arrives with five Goya Awards to its credit, including Best Picture. Director Cesc Gay scheduled to attend screenings at the Egyptian only.
Sunday, May 29, 4:30pm, Egyptian; Monday, May 30, 6:30pm, Egyptian; Friday, June 3, 9pm, Shoreline Community College Theater.

Read More “SIFFtings 2016 – Week 2”

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Seattle Screens, SIFF

SIFFtings 2016 – Week One


The 42nd Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 19 with a gala screening of Woody Allen’s Café Society, direct from Cannes where it was the opening night event. That would generally be considered a coup for SIFF but the glitz is tarnished thanks to allegations of child abuse by Allen against the children of Mia Farrow. The controversy isn’t new but was effectively swept under the rug by a willing media until Ronan Farrow turned the spotlight back on his biological father and called out the media for letting the accusations slide as the film opened at Cannes. Nicole Brodeur writes about it at The Seattle Times, and I recommend Matt Zoller Seitz’s personal essay on his struggle to grapple with the art of Allen versus the actions of the artists. As for Seattle, neither Allen nor any of the stars will be attending the film.

What does any of this have to do with the film? Maybe nothing, maybe everything, depending on how you separate your engagement with popular art from the artists who create it. But by putting the film in the opening night spot, SIFF has made a statement of sorts whether it meant to or not. It was announced weeks before the embers of the controversy were fanned back to life, but those embers were always there, even if we (and I include myself) were willing to conveniently forget about it.

The festival really begins on Friday, May 20 as movies play in eight venues radiating out from Seattle Center to Capitol Hill, Ballard, and Bellevue. On Thursday it adds Renton and Friday it leaves Ballard for Shoreline, with Kirkland and Columbia City taking part later. But for now, let’s take a look at some of the highlight in this first week.

Read More “SIFFtings 2016 – Week One”