by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
MAY 15-JUNE 8
Featuring 198 features, 60 documentaries and 163 shorts from 83 different countries, the 40th annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) began with a bang last night with an all-star screening of Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley's (12 Years a Slave) Jimi Hendrix drama Jimi: All Is By My Side. Running through June 8, and featuring a cavalcade of high profile guests including Quincy Jones, Richard Linklater, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Laura Dern, the festival celebrates its past, while bolting proudly into the future, embracing cinematic exploration and all it imaginatively entails.
'It's 40 years,' laughs SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence. 'There was definitely pressure to have a great festival. But there's always pressure to have a great festival, the anniversary is nice, but it doesn't really change that fact.'
This was the fifth year in a row I had the opportunity to sit down with Spence the day before the opening night film was set to screen, and in that time it's never ceased to amaze me how genuinely excited the longtime SIFF programmer, staffer and executive is to see things get going. 'We had such a great festival last year,' he says with a broad, genuine smile, 'and as such, there's always that question of how we're going to top ourselves, how can we make the festival even better. But I think we have a pretty solid program [this year]. I'm particularly proud. For our 40th? Yeah. This is a good program. I think the audience will be pleased.'
This is the festival number 21 for Spence, almost a decade of which have involved him in the position he has now. In all that time, he's never lost sight of the bigger picture, keeping things in perspective even as SIFF has grown in both prominence and importance on the worldwide film festival stage. 'You have to remember to try and put together a festival that people will want to attend,' he admits candidly, 'that you program films that they want to come see. The pressure is putting a lineup together that mixes in all the elements we hold near and dear to both our hearts and to the history of the festival. We have such a big audience and we're dependent upon them. The pressure is to engage with that audience, all corners of it, because if we don't, then we haven't lived up to the mission we set before ourselves.'
The fun part in sitting down with the longtime SIFF stalwart is discovering which titles get his pulse racing, which ones he's energized for the audience to take a look at, especially when there are over 400 different cinematic programs of one sort or another to choose from. 'There's lots I'm excited about, but I'm thrilled we get to show Boyhood, Richard Linklater's latest film,' states Spence. 'It's so good. Just great. But there are so many more, like The Way He Looks from Brazil. It's one of my favorites, like a Gay-themed John Hughes movie with a South American twist.'
'I'm really excited people get to see Jimi: All Is By My Side. I always love André Benjamin, and he was here for Battle in Seattle, and this is such a better film, and I think he's phenomenal in it as well. Dior and I is one I made a point to track down the filmmaker for, because I'd heard such great things. He sent me a copy to watch and I just absolutely loved it, so that is one film I'm particularly proud we are getting to showcase.'
'But most of all, I was surprised, and am now so honored, that Quincy Jones is attending the festival. I didn't think it was going to happen. I love the film, Keep On Keepin' On, and the thing about that film is that Clark Terry isn't just a phenomenal musician, but that his interaction with other musicians, his mentoring, giving back to the community at large - he was the main mentor to artists like Quincy Jones, Miles Davis and others - is what he thrived on. It's what he still thrives on. The fact we have him here, Quincy Jones here, and that his latest [student], Justin Kauflin, who is blind, will be here and will perform live at the Triple Door, that's just magic.'
Speaking of Jones, he's just one of the amazing talents being recognized for their achievements by SIFF in 2014. Not even six months after receiving his first Academy Award nomination, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the Nigerian drama Half of a Yellow Sun to the festival, while Hollywood icon Laura Dern shows up with one of the summer's most hotly anticipated titles, the young adult cancer melodrama The Fault In Our Stars. Fresh off its Sundance debut also comes Richard Linklater with Boyhood, the chronicle of a youngster's transition from adolescence to young adulthood featuring a single set of actors, filming taking place over a 12-year period of time.
'We really wanted to have some marquee names to help us celebrate our 40th,' admits Spence. 'But just as much, we wanted their films to run the spectrum of big Hollywood features to small independent productions. The Fault In Our Stars is a big studio melodrama, but it's also just a really good film. Chiwetel's film, meanwhile, is this really small independent effort about two sisters living through the independence movement and civil strife in Nigeria, and in many ways it couldn't be more timely. It gives good background as to why things are the way things are there [in Nigeria].'
'I put a lot of effort into making sure we had a lot of great films and great guests. With Boyhood, we had to have it. We debuted Richard's Slacker way back when, so having him back for this groundbreaking effort just made sense. But it's all interconnected. Laura Dern is here this year, and she starred with Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, a movie we showed at SIFF. Chiwetel Ejiofor just worked with our opening night writer/director John Ridley on 12 Years a Slave. None of which was on purpose, but all of which makes sense when you take it all in, when you look at the bigger picture.'
One of the biggest pieces of news was the announcement that SIFF would be returning to Capitol Hill's iconic Egyptian Theatre, even though it has been closed for almost a year. 'It's a flagship venue,' says Spence. 'The festival has been screening there since 1980, so it was important to us to get those doors back open. We have a deal to use it for the festival, and we're currently hammering out details to, hopefully, use it year-round. We've made an offer and are hoping for the best.'
'It's just a great theater. We've had to do a few things to get it ready. We've put in new speakers. We've cleaned things up quite a bit. Everything looks and sounds terrific at this point but we'd like to do a lot more. Hopefully, if our lease gets accepted, we'll be able to do just that. There's a nostalgic and a historic connection to that building I don't want to see come to an end.'
With their current situation at the Uptown Cinemas, with a venue at the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, if the lease for the Egyptian does go through, the fact Spence and his team would suddenly be running five different screens in the city isn't a thing that worries him. 'It's been a metamorphosis, for sure,' he proclaims. 'We went from an organization that had a theater, to one that had a theater and a festival as a centerpiece. We then went to being just a festival, and as part of that we sold off the Egyptian.'
'But I've always loved having theaters. When I was at the University of Washington, I helped spearhead the installation of the 35mm projectors in the HUB Auditorium. That's where I first started programming films for exhibition. So it made sense to my mind to start programming year round when we first moved into McCaw Hall and, subsequently, when we took over running the Uptown. And, the thing that's really important about that, is that had we not assumed the lease, that venue would still be closed. There wouldn't be a movie theater in the Queen Anne neighborhood.'
It is the preservation of those neighborhood venues that seems to excite Spence the most and is without a doubt one of the driving forces behind his push to get the Egyptian back into working order. 'Neighborhood movie houses are disappearing,' he states. 'I don't think that is up for debate. So, with that in mind, one of the great things about our doing year-round programming is that it preserves these neighborhood theaters and treats them with the respect they deserve.'
'But, selfishly, they also preserve festival venues. SIFF is right in the middle of the blockbuster movie season, so getting screens from the big chains is understandably difficult. Giving up screens in the middle of May and June is understandably counterintuitive to the industry, so by our running the Uptown and the Egyptian we ensure that those screens will always be available come festival time. We've shown with the Uptown that you can revitalize a theater and you can bring the audience back into the neighborhood. That has given us the confidence to consider the idea we can maybe continue to do this on a larger scale. We're making our own rules.'
[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the Opening Night Gala in McCaw Hall, the Seattle International Film Festival announced that it has purchased the SIFF Cinema Uptown (with the 'Angels of the Uptown') and has also signed a lease for the Egyptian Theatre (thank you, Seattle Central Community College), securing these two neighborhood landmarks as year-round SIFF Cinema and Festival venues.]
With our time coming to an end, our attention turns back towards the festival itself, in this case the broad and impressive list of LGBT-themed motion pictures screening during the festival. 'It's an impressive selection,' says Spence proudly. 'The Case Against 8 is a great film and is definitely a documentary I think people should go out of their way to see. There's Me, Myself and Mum from French director Guillaume Gallienne, which isn't remotely politically correct and is about a guy who's really effeminate and everyone thinks is Gay, including his mom, but isn't; I think it's terrific. There's our Gay-la film Helicopter Mom with Nia Vardalos, about a mother who pushes her son to come out so he can win a college scholarship, even though he's still in the process of assessing his sexuality.'
'That movie's particularly interesting. It's groundbreaking, because it's basically saying it is okay to not know your sexuality. That it's okay to experiment, to figure things out. There's neither a here or there and everyone around them is okay with that, they're fine with the thought that their friend or loved one might be Gay but hasn't yet come to any sort of conclusion whether or not they actually are.'
'There's the great documentary To Be Takei about the Star Trek icon George Takei. I think people are really going to like this one. And there's that film from Brazil, The Way He Looks, that I've already talked about. It's one of my favorites. But there are number of exciting titles to choose from, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bringing that one back for our anniversary for a midnight screening just feels right.'
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