The Seattle International Film Festival kicked off last week, with a schedule that looks to be maybe the best overall I’ve seen for this fest — which is saying quite a lot. One of the recurrent themes of this year’s fest is the Washington state film initiative, which the film community here united en masse to support by harassing our state legislators relentlessly until they passed it (personally, I’m still holding a grudge against my own state rep, He-Who-Is-Named-Ross-Hunter, who equally relentlessly tried to cock-block it from even getting it out of his committee until the speaker of the House relieved the committee of the bill and got it on the floor in spite of him).
There’s also been lots of love for the Seattle film community generally so far at the fest, as there should be. We are blessed with a remarkable pool of film industry talent here in Seattle — indie film standouts like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths and Ben Kasulke, of course, but also all the talented crew folks here who make it possible for directors to get films made here at all, and a great many talented actors who call Seattle home as well. Director of Programming Beth Barrett, who’s been with the fest for a decade, mentioned during an intro the other night that the first year she worked for SIFF they had maybe five Northwest films on the SIFF slate; this year there are 60-some Northwest Connections films. Lots of talent in this town, and we are as proud of that as we are our rain and our status as hipster heaven (take that, Portlandia and Williamsburg!).
The opening night gala kicked off with Seattle-based rockstar DP Ben Kasulke getting a well-deserved award from Mayor Mike McGinn. Kasulke maybe went a bit over the three minutes they allotted him for his acceptance speech, but it was such a sweet and heartfelt speech, and Kasulke is such a well-liked guy, that nobody cared. The opening night film was Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, which stars Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass. I enjoyed Shelton’s film when I saw it at Toronto, and it held up just as well on the second viewing. It’s a hold review film, which means I can’t review it until it officially opens … but wait — a loophole! I already wrote this film up at Toronto, before it was on hold-review at SIFF! You can see that write-up right over here. Shhhhh.
I almost ditched out on the Opening Night Gala Party when I had a brief moment of crowd anxiety, but we went for a walk around the block until some of the crowd cleared out. Once we did make it inside, I was glad to be there; this was the most fun I’ve had at a larger SIFF party, partly because I shot a film here last year and many of the folks who worked crew on my film Bunker were on-hand for the festivities, so I kept running into people I actually wanted to talk to. The open bar flowed freely, and by later in the night when the “I just want to go to the parties and see people who work in movies” crowd had cleared and it was almost all SIFF and film industry folks left, there were some pretty spectacular moves going on over on the dance floor. I wish I had video, but what happens at SIFF stays at SIFF, right? Right.
I was tied up with kidstuff on Friday, so Saturday was my first full day to get to immerse myself in screenings, and I had quite an eclectic day lined up. I kicked the day off with a random pick: A screening of Old Dog, a Tibetan film about an old man, his restless son, and their aged Mastiff. Old Dog is one of those quiet films, what we sometimes refer to on this side of the industry as “meticulously paced.” Not that meticulously paced is necessarily code word for bad; I’d consider Kelly Reichardt and Claire Denis’ films to fall under that heading, and I love both those filmmakers.
Here, director Pema Tseden explores the quiet tension between the old ways and the new through a simple story of an aged nomadic sheepherder and his son; between them is the family’s old dog, an ancient Mastiff the son sells as the film opens. Tibetan mastiffs, a part of the Tibetan cultural landscape as work animals helping to herd sheep and goats, as well as to protect nomadic families from harm, have become popular boutique pets, and are so rare and worth so much money that they’ve become a commodity worth stealing. The son — and local thugs — argue that the dog will just get stolen if they don’t sell, but the old man stubbornly clings to the tradition, his only concessions to the march of modernization being a television that only seems to receive some Chinese version of the home shopping network, and his insistence that his son and daughter-in-law, who have not yet produced children, go to town to see a doctor to find out why.
As a story about change and generational gaps, Old Dog works in much the same space as Kazakhstani film Tulpan, which made some critical waves a few years back. Old Dog lacks the cinematic artistry that set Tulpan apart, though I’m willing to cut Tseden a little slack given that he was shooting in his remote Tibetan hometown and probably didn’t have access to the kind of equipment and experienced crew most Seattle filmmakers just take for granted. This isn’t a technically impressive film — the sound balance feels off, with ambient noises often very loud while voices can be hard to hear, and Tseden has a tendency to frame a tableaux and then have people walk into it and out of it, which is effective when the frame is composed artistically to begin with, but feels lazy when it’s not, as is often the case here — and I can’t just blame the setting for this. Documentarian Michael Glawogger composes shots of incredible beauty and vivid color amid poverty and ugliness in films like Megacities, Workingman’s Death and Whore’s Glory, but here, everything is just dismal and depressing and blah.
Tseden does capture well the feel of a place that seems frozen in time amidst a changing world, uncovering surprising moments of gentle humor in a seemingly endless, laughably inept game of pool at an outdoor table beneath the town’s tiny police headquarters, a baby goat wandering with a herd getting distracted by blowing trash, and a sheep, separated from its flock by a fence, bleating desperately as it seeks a way to rejoin its fellows on the right side of the pasture. And the film’s tragic ending — which, I hear, spurred angry walkouts at the film’s first SIFF screening Friday night — feels very much like a statement about a dying way of life amid the march of progress and the extreme measures one must sometimes take to stand on principles. Tseden has been making a name for himself as a rare Tibetan filmmaker telling stories about Tibet, and as Old Dog hasn’t gotten official approval to be shown in China yet, the fest circuit is a rare opportunity to see it.
Often the Q&As at SIFF screenings are pretty good, but this one was heading south fast with questions like “Is the grass in that part of Tibet always brown, or is it green sometimes?” when suddenly I noticed there were some people standing in the aisle next to me. The tallish guy standing right by me raised his hand and, seemingly innocuously, asked why the director and translator were speaking in Chinese. It was all downhill from there. “You don’t even speak Tibetan, do you?” he demanded, and then he and the older gentleman next to him proceeded to accuse the director of being a Chinese agent making films that are, essentially, communist propaganda. Like many of my fellow audience members, at this point I was thinking, “Wait, wait … Here I was just thinking this movie is subtly PRO-Tibet and now the director’s being accused of being a Chinese agent? What did I miss?” I was intrigued, and really would have liked to have seen an impromptu panel to discuss these issues, but there was a programming schedule to keep, and the director was looking very upset and flummoxed, which I guess is understandable.
Then the director and the older guy started arguing back and forth in Tibetan, and I nudged the tall guy and asked him to translate, but he was distracted trying to get the Tibetan monk who had accompanied the director to the screening to back up the protesters views. “Why don’t you say something?” the man angrily demanded of the saffron-clad monk, who stoically avoided eye contact. “Having a monk with you doesn’t make you Tibetan!” the man angrily shouted at the director, while the older man’s daughter shouted “Free Tibet!” By far the most engaging fest Q&A I’ve seen since Joyce McKinney crashed fest screenings of Tabloid last year with her clone dog, and hats off to my friend Dustin Kaspar, who was moderating the screening, for handling the Q&A takeover with grace under pressure.
The protestors left peacefully enough; I was kind of hoping they’d be lurking around the Harvard Exit hoping to go after the director some more, but alas, they had departed or been asked nicely to leave. And by the bye, before any Tibet protesters jump down my throat, I’m not making light of the very real issues affecting Tibet, and I’m not being facetious when I say I would have liked to hear some more in depth discussion around why exactly these protesters had targeted this particular director and this film. If you know who they are, point them my way because I’d love to talk to them about exactly what issues they were trying to shine a light on.
After that bit of unexpected excitement, I headed over to the other side of Capitol Hill for a trifecta of diverse cinematic fare: Matthew Lillard’s directorial debut Fat Kid Rules the World, Megan Griffith’s sophomore effort, the sex-trade drama Eden, and Bobcat Goldthwait’s searingly funny black comedy God Bless America. The latter is also a hold review film, but guess what? I reviewed it at TIFF too! Reviews of Fat Kid and Eden coming shortly.