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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

SIFF Dispatch: It’s a Wrap!

It’s hard to believe, after nearly six week’s immersion in the Seattle International Film Festival, that we’re already at closing weekend. At most longer fests like Sundance and Toronto, the time flies, sure. But SIFF lasts so long, it always takes me a few days to realign my brain around not checking the SIFF schedule to see what’s coming up next. And that’s with having to balance my SIFF immersion around busy end-of-school-year schedules for a pack of kids. Someday when my kids are grown, perhaps I’ll be like some of the Fools Serious passholders, able to boast that I saw over a hundred films during the fest.

This has been one of the strongest programming years SIFF has had in a while. It’s always a strongly programmed fest that knows its city and its role in Seattle’s arts community. SIFF doesn’t tend to attract a ton of out-of-towners (and thank goodness for that, because our traffic is bad enough already), and the guests who come in for it skew toward interesting and engaging rather than glitzy and glamorous. The programming, also, tends to be smart, often challenging fare, because Seattle audiences have a fairly high tolerance for the artsier fare.

I saw more of the family programming than I normally would this year, because my son Jaxon was on the Families4Films Youth Jury. This is the second year the fest has had a jury of 8-12 year olds, and it’s a great way to get kids engaged in and thinking about film from an early age. The programming team for this section, headed up by Educational Programs Manager Dustin Kaspar, gave the seven young jurors a slate of seven diverse and interesting films to watch, ponder, discuss and adjudicate.

Consequently Jaxon, age 11, has seen more challenging films in the past three weeks than in his whole life up to this point, and in talking to him about the films I can see that the experience has opened his eyes beyond the realm of kiddie fare (As an aside, I feel ridiculously proud that one of his favorite films was a subtitled Swedish female empowerment flick, and that he was disappointed that A Cat in Paris was dubbed and not subbed. Good to see all those anime conventions are paying off…) He’s even made a new friend of one of his fellow jurors, once they discovered they both adore playing the same video games on XBox Live.

I actually enjoyed many of the family films this year, particularly Being Elmo, A Thousand Times Stronger, and Circus Dreams. I’ve written about the first two already, so I wanted to say a few words about Circus Dreams, which is a nice doc about Circus Smirkus, a traveling circus in which the cast is all kids aged 10-18. The film captures the circus as it’s on the brink of having to permanently shutter due to economic hard times, with the weight of decades of history on the slim shoulders of 24 jugglers, clowns and acrobatic artists to keep their beloved circus afloat.

Director Signe Taylor has a good eye for focusing on some compelling characters and the dramatic arc of these kids with something they really care about at stake lends the film a different sort of emotional tenor than, say, Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, which tended to arc more like a reality show set in the Midwest. You start to really root for these kids and their adult mentors, and watching the faces of the kids in the audience, including my own, it was evident that the story held them in sway. The film won the Films4Families jury award, which will hopefully give it a boost to bring it to a festival near you.

Also on the education front, one of the most interesting screenings I attended this year was for a little film called The Darkest Matter, a student filmmaking camp production that reimagined Lord of the Flies aboard an escape pod and deserted space station. What interested me most about this film was the way in which it was made. The film came into being as the result of a partnership between San Francisco’s Starting Arts and Dawnrunner Productions, and the cast and crew were middle school and high school students. Start to finish, the project lasted five weeks, on a budget of around $25K, and most of it was shot against a green screen.

Quality-wise, the end result is about what you might expect of a sci-fi film largely developed by students: the acting is uneven, though the young lead actress, isn’t bad. The green screen effects aren’t spectacular. It’s kind of what you might expect to get if you gave Sid and Marty Kroft a green screen and a pack of kids to work with for a few weeks (and I say that as a former member of the Land of the Lost Fan Club), roughly the level of a Goosebumps adaptation (which is actually not bad for what it is). But if ever there was a film where the process is more important than the perfection of the end result, this student-driven effort is it, and I respected the reach of the adults involved, including energetic, exuberant director James Fox, in aiming high with a challenging idea.

This kind of partnership gets that while making great films now is important, it’s also important to teach and nurture young people interested in filmmaking in all aspects of the craft. How many of today’s great filmmakers were once kids running around with Super 8 cameras? How many of tomorrow’s artists are shooting movies on Flipcams or iPhone video now? Technology makes it easier than ever for a kid to discover an interest in making movies. Great, so let’s nurture that seed and make sure, especially, that less-privileged kids have access and opportunity to explore those dreams too.

I’m generally impressed with the direction the fest is taking their Education and Outreach, and I’m curious to see what else they do with the newly completed SIFF space at Seattle Center, near the existing SIFF Cinema. I’ve heard they’re partnering (or maybe sharing space with?) The Film School, which offers ample opportunity to expand SIFF’s educational outreach, and I hope to see SIFF support this important aspect of of the film festival/community relationship even more over the next few years.

Seattle is a great film town, we have a lot of talented future filmmakers and film crew and actors here, and SIFF should be taking the lead among regional fests, creating the models, being the best at this. They have a passionate and boundlessly enthusiastic general in Dustin Kaspar, so here’s hoping he can lead the charge on keeping SIFF’s educational program growing and thriving.

Last night was the closing gala, and the Cinerama was packed for the screening of Life in a Day. I’d seen the film at Sundance, so I was able to spend some time surreptitiously watching the faces of the crowd as they laughed and cried watching the film. I particularly enjoyed eavesdropping on snippets of conversation about the film as the crowd trooped en masse a few blocks over to the Pan Pacific Hotel for the closing shindig. It was kind of cool to see which bits people responded to and which they did not (here in liberal Seattle, for instance, the bit with the cow in the slaughterhouse induced much covering of eyes and some squealing).

So another great year of the film festival has wrapped here, but with the SIFF year-round staff moving into their new digs in a few weeks and gearing up a program at SIFF Center starting in the fall, Seattle cinephiles still have much to look forward to, to carry us through to next year’s fest.

I’ll be posting a roundup of some of the films I saw here that I haven’t written up yet soon, so keep an eye out.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin