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Feature documentaries shine at Seattle Fest

The 33rd edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) initiated its marathon 24 day run on Friday, May 25, with 18 films bursting out of the starting gates at six festival venues strategically located around the city from the landmark Space Needle to the University District (and a seventh across the lake in satellite city Bellevue). The opening event I chose to attend was "An Evening with Lisa Gerrard", hypnotic Australian song-bird/composer, introducing the screening of a mystico-abstract documentary on her career and philosophy, made in Australia. Ms. Gerrard, an imposing and highly attractive fortyish figure in a form-hugging black gown and long blond locks piled high in a pyramidic whirl atop her head, held a captive audience in thrall for nearly an hour prior to the screening with mystical pronouncements, examples of her unusual singing technique (with the audience humming along!), and a drip-dry sense of humor which evoked peals of appreciative laughter at various points in her disquisition.
Unfortunately the extremely pretentious, artsy-fartsy, abstract biographical film which followed, entitled "Sanctuary: Lisa Gerrard", written and directed, (also, shot and edited) by Aussie Clive Collier, was not nearly as captivating as Lisa herself. Nevertheless, it was an interesting opening shot for a festival which is bound to be full of surprises.

With the first week of the fest now over the surprise for me so far has been the incredibly juicy slate of feature length documentaries (generally 90 minutes or longer, as opposed to short docs of less than an hour) to the point where documental films have dominated my first week's festival intake.
A partial list of titles follows: "Crossing the Line" (-- into North
Korea!) -- "The Orange Revolution" (the stolen election in the Ukraine in 2004 and the poisoning of the liberal candidate) -- "The Champagne Spy" (A German-speaking Israeli Agent posing as an ex-Nazi in Egypt!) -- the fictionalized Viet-Nam MIA doc, "Rescue Dawn" by Werner Herzog, and "The Fever of '57', a new look at the launching of Sputnik on the 50th Anniversary of that even, and the Cold War paranoia which followed in its wake). Perhaps most astounding of all these docs was “I Have Never Forgotten You – The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal”, Richard Trank's 100 minute portrait of the famed Jewish Nazi Hunter Wiesenthal, who died in 2005 at age 90-plus, after bringing such notorious mass murderers as Eichman to final justice.
NOTE: The above named documentary films are all so rich in content that they will require separate reviews in a subsequent report.

In addition, also in the realm of dramatized history (often now called
"docu-drama") or real events with actors in lieu of original participants, renowned German director Volker Schloendorff's account of the history of the Polish Solidarity movement, "STRAJK'" (Strike), featuring Andrzej Chyra as Lech Walesa. The full title of this superb historical study is "Strajk -- Die Heldin von Danzig" -- or "Strike -- the Heroine of Danzig" (Danzig is the German name of Gdansk) and the focus of the film is not on the electrician Walesa, who later became president of Free Poland, but on a barely literate woman, Agnieszka Kowalska, who worked in the legendary "Lenin" shipyards of Gdansk as a welder for thirty years, and continually stood up for her co-workers rights until she was fired. Her dismissal however, she did not take lying down, and her personal resistance ignited the Soliodarnosc movement which eventually led to the overthrow of the entire despised Communist regime. Actress Katharina Thalbach is memorable in the role of Agnieszka -- a plain woman who started a revolution -- and deserves whatever the Polish equivalent of an Oscar is.

A sampling of other full-length documentary features on tap (in the "not-to-be-missed" category) include: "Journey Home; A story from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956", "Miss Gulag" (in Russian) about a fashion show held at a Siberian prison camp as retold by survivors, "Nanking" -- which recalls the infamous "Rape of Nanking" by the Japanese army in 1937 -- an event which galvanized the entire world to the emerging threat of Japan four years before Pearl Harbor --told largely through letters and diaries read by such actors as Mariel Hemingway and Woody Harrelson, "Souls without Borders (Almas Sin Fronteras)-- The True Story of the Lincoln Brigade"
which pays tribute to the international volunteers (mostly civilians) who came from 50 countries around the world (but mainly from America -- hence the name "Lincoln") to fight against Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 -- "White Light - Black Rain', (in Japanese) another look at the atomic razing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, consisting of interviews with survivors and archival footage -- and finally, "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" (UK), described in the catalog as "a snappy joyride through moviedom's many takes on perversion... with psychological insights such as "Why did the birds attack in Hitchcock's "The Birds" -- Well, what cinephile could resist material like this!

Just as a reminder that there are plenty (in fact, skads) of fiction films on view as well, I have managed to glom a number including: The marvelous new French comedy "Mon Meilleur Ami" (My Best Friend) which features the current king of French Cinemas, Daniel Auteuil, as a wealthy antique dealer without a friend in the world, who enlists the aid of a simple cab driver to teach him how to make friends -- and win bets!
A very funny and very off-beat Auteuil. This is, incidentally one of 21 French films slated to be shown, including the Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose" and the closing film, "Moliere" -- compromising a mini-French film festival in its own right.

"Outing Riley" is a laugh-a-minute gay comedy (in both senses of the word) American Indie, which, for once, does not agonize about the trials and tribulations of "coming out" but takes us on a roller coaster ride of rib-splits centering on an Irish family in Chicago, five blue-collar, beer-guzzling siblings, one of whom is a priest and one a very gay and funny blade indeed. The one problem here was that the Beta-SP format translated to the screen in wishy-washy pastel shades instead of the hard-edge color it calls out for.


During week one Sir Anthony Hopkins was here to receive his Life Achievement Award and to introduce his first directed film, “Slipstream” as well. Sir Anthony, whose films have always done very well in Seattle, regaled two audiences on successive days at two different theaters and, one might say that the now somewhat pudgy white-haired actor “charmed the pants off them”. Regarding his brainchild “Slipstream” (as in “Non Mainstream”) which many viewers found quite confusing, he said, “Well, yes, it was kind of crazy – I just wanted to see what I could do, given a free hand”. I attended the screening at The Egyptian (formerly the flagship venue of the fest, now a decaying dinosaur with runaway freezing air-conditioning) on a very hot afternoon and was ultimately driven from the theater by the Big Chill inside, not having brought a coat or blanket and fearing an attack of pneumonia. The half hour or so of the film I did see was “mind-boggling” in the most unsavory sense of the word. A totally self indulgent succession of sound bites and instantaneous double exposures – scillions of them – with hardly any of them, with or without sequential logic, with or without dialogue, remaining on the screen for more than a couple of split seconds.
Somewhere in there is the story of a film crew with a schizophrenic director shooting a terrible Hollywood film out on the California desert and reporting back to a creepy producer (John Turturro) in Hollywood. Hopkins himself in a white suit and straw hat, accompanied by a sleazy blonde bitch, struts in and out of the set as he is supposed to be the writer of the original property on which the film is based. At one point an actor who looks like a clone of Elliot Gould turns to the camera and says “Who wrote this piece of shit?” -- probably the most coherent line in the entire tale.
Were the filmmaker of this celluloid disaster area anyone else but a prestigious actor like Anthony Hopkins the finished product would probably have been canned (as in “trash can”) before it ever got to a festival.
Given however, that this is the brainchild of a serious actor who has been in the business a long time, and not just a film student on drugs, it has to be given somewhat longer shrift. One festival volunteer I met who loved it said it was Anthony’s “Eight and a Half”, and indeed, if you stop to think, this is a film about the making a problematic film and an obvious – if heavy-handed – satire of the whole Hollywood business. One can’t help wondering what Fellini might think of it were he still around. The shivering audience I left behind in the Egyptian seemed to like it well enough and even found things to laugh at. Hopkins’ “Slipstream” may not exactly go down in cinema history, but it will likely become a cult-film for screaming, spaced-out midnight film clubs.

"Two Days in Paris", is French-born actress Julie Delpy's first turn behind the cameras, and is basically a re-hash of Richard Linkletter's box-office hits "Before Sunrise/Sunset" in which she starred. This helter-skelter Franco-American comedy was the Saturday Gala closing out week number one at the stately-shabby Egyptian theater. La Delpy failed to show up as hoped, but her bearded young co-star, Adam Goldberg, repped the film from the stage. This incredible nerd apparently has a certain following from various TV series which I have never seen (or ever want to see), and the film itself in which he bickers for 96 annoyingly dumb minutes in tiresome closeup head shots with a sharp-tongued Delpy on a visit to her family in Paris, did seem to be amusing to a packed Saturday night house. Delpy, now 35, as she proudly proclaims at an early point in the pic, is still quite good-looking and appealing as an actress, but as a director all I can say is "she shoulda stayed in bed".

There is clearly an audience out there for this kind of big-screen Sit-Com, but I personally found the abominably un-clever repartee in the picture so appallingly dumb that I took a walk after maybe half an hour, as much as I could take of this shlock -- and headed for the upscale Italian restaurant around the corner where a fairly appetizing post-film buffet reception for privileged ticket holders was taking place. The food was a lot better than the film, to say the least. Having been something of a Julie Delpy fan ever since I first saw her in Agnieszka Holland's "Europa-Europa" right here in Seattle back in '93 (and also in Kieslowski's "White")
I must say that I was highly under-whelmed by her directorial debut, but in a film festival such as this with such a mound of offerings to pick over, well -- "you win a few and you lose a few", but it's been mostly winners so far.

Alex Deleon, Seattle


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