The 29th edition of the Seattle International Film Festival has come and gone. As much as I enjoyed the 45 films I saw over 25 days, I have to admit that I'm ready for some big Hollywood explosions and mindless summer fun. Before I traipse off to see Charlie's Angels VIII, I want to share my thoughts with you on this year's festival. More importantly, I want to raise the question: Is the Seattle International Film Festival a destination event that you should include in your travel plans for the future? (photo above: "In July")

If you're going to travel for films, the most important question about a festival is do they get films that you want to see, or are these films that you won't be able to see anywhere else? (Another question might be: Is the festival in a city you want to visit?) I can't really answer the film question for anybody but me, so the first part of this article is about the films I saw. Logistics about the festival and tips on where to eat, things to see between films, and the answer to the "destination festival" question follow the film reviews.

Films to watch out for (both good and bad)

As at any festival, the more films you see, the better your chances of seeing repeated images, scenes, or themes. I like to call it "trendspotting." Trendspotting is even more fun when a festival's theme is No Déjà Vu. Here are some of the emerging trends from SIFF 29.

The repeated sex scene: in L'Auberge Espagnole (France) and Angela (Italy), in both films, a man barks like a dog and the woman giggles while they make love. In perhaps a correlation, neither film was that good.

The non-Hollywood musical: The Other Side of the Bed (Spain), Camp (U.S.), Devdas (India), Bollywood/Hollywood (Canada), Vagabond (Hungary), and Yes Nurse, No Nurse (Belgium) easily filled this slot. While a sing-a-long version of Chicago worked for those yearning for Hollywood star power.

The Other Side of the Bed is a witty Spanish sex farce with singing. The songs aren't particularly memorable, but the production numbers that go with the songs are knowingly funny and the story is fun.

Camp was a perfect concoction of show tunes and silly humor set in a summer camp for teens who want to be Broadway performers. The show tunes are blended seamlessly into a plot that makes each song seem like it was written for this film. It only adds to your enjoyment if you know the stories of the shows that the songs come from. Devdas was a rather disappointing Bollywood musical where the characters were put in montages while other singers sang for them (kind of like a Milli Vanilli video except nobody moved their lips). A more enchanting twist on Bollywood and Hollywood conventions could be found in Bollywood/Hollywood. Though the singers once again didn't so much sing as dance along to someone else singing. Vagabond is an entirely different type of musical where a young Gypsy discovers the redemptive powers of community through folk dancing. The music on screen is all from live performances on street corners or at the cultural hall where he learns dancing.

The precocious 12 year old (or were they 8 year olds): Valentin (Argentina), Elina (Sweden), Whale Rider (New Zealand), and Hard Goodbyes (Greece) each dealt with an overly wise child coping with the world of adults.

Valentin was charming, but definitely slight. It's a very cute film, but doesn't have much to say. Whale Rider and Hard Goodbyes, on the other hand, bowl you over with the power of what they have to say and how they say it. In Whale Rider, winner of both the audience award for best picture and best director, an 11 year old Maori girl bucks tradition to bring Maori attitudes about communalism into the 21st century. In Hard Goodbyes, my favorite film from the festival, a young boy in 1960s Greece refuses to believe that his father is dead. The film is a lyrical look at denial and growing up.

The Embalmer (Italy), sends a politically incorrect message.

The dwarf as sexual analogy:

Both "Wild Dogs" (Canada) and "The Embalmer" (Italy) use a dwarf character to show sexual dissolution. In Wild Dogs, the filmmaker actually has a point to make and the film is engrossing and moving. The Embalmer, unfortunately, is just a big mess of a film with a politically incorrect message to spread about sexual obsession and a gay dwarf who can only be happy by falling in love with a straight man.

The Hebrew Hammer
(U.S.) is a fun
and silly film.

The silly silly film: So Close (Hong Kong), In July (Germany), and The Hebrew Hammer (U.S.) each had such a thoroughly implausible plot but were all equally enjoyable that they all made for memorable viewing. So Close is about two Hong Kong assassin sisters (or is that sister assassins) and the CSI style Chinese American forensics specialist who chases them. There was a lot of slow motion falling glass in this one, but any film that allows stiletto heels to be part of an assassin's arsenal has to be on a must-see list. In July stars Moritz Bleibtreu, so obviously everybody with an eye for an attractive male star should see this one. It's a road movie, and you'll just have to suspend disbelief and go with the destiny/coincidence storyline and enjoy the film. The Hebrew Hammer was billed as the first ever "Jewsploitation" film and the producers weren't kidding. It was hysterically funny with Andy Dick as evil Santa Claus intent on ridding the world of the phrase "Happy Holidays" and getting rid of Hanukkah altogether while Adam Goldberg plays The Hebrew Hammer. The film even steals shots and music from classic blaxploitation films, mostly the Shaft series (definitely not the Samuel L. Jackson remake version).

The unlucky gay male: A Soldier's Girl (U.S.) and Yossi & Jagger (Israel) both had stories to tell about homophobia and its consequences. A Soldier's Girl had a truly stunning performance from Troy Garity, who immediately moved to the top of my list of people to watch for. Soldier is a much better film than Yossi & Jagger, but the Israeli film has some things in it to recommend. It's not entirely successful, and the one romantic section between the two Israeli soldiers plays more like a Cooper Greenwood video than a scene from an actual film.

Secret Films

One of the most fun (and often sold out) events at the festival is something called The Secret Fest. The films shown here cannot be discussed, and in most cases, aren't really supposed to be shown at all. In fact, Secret Fest pass holders must sign an oath of secrecy to not talk about what they saw or give away what the films were. I can tell you a little about how it works though. The line for the film starts several hours before show time and stretches around the block before the doors finally open. A programmer introduces the film with coy hints about what you're about to see, and always explains why this particular film should be kept secret - in one legendary screening several years back, it was because the filmmaker had never gotten the rights to the music he used in the film (the rights were refused), but the music was so essential to the story that the film has never been re-edited. And I can tell you that Secret Film #4 this year was in my top three films that I saw. It was heartbreaking and incredibly well written. Shhh! I can't say the name of the film or really tell you anything more about it. It can be fun to go to these "event" screenings and not know what you're going to see. You often see things before the hype and before you've ever even heard of the film, so you get to form your own opinion of it.

Special Events

All during the festival, there are gala events for this or that thing. The opening night and closing night films have gala parties that are included in the cost of your ticket, other films have their world premieres at the festival, so the stars and director show up for a Q&A or for after parties, and there's always a poster auction. This year, they showed a Chicago sing-a-long, auctioned off some beautiful Polish posters of International films (my favorites were the posters for My Own Private Idaho and Stranger Than Paradise), and perhaps most spectacularly, the cast of Whale Rider led the audience in a Maori chant before the screening of the film. Experience a foreign culture; see a foreign film, and all for the price of a film. Warning: because the film festival is so well attended, the big opening night and closing night parties can be a bit of a mad house. If you're hungry, eat before you go despite the claims that food is being served at the parties. We couldn't even get to the food table at this year's opening night party on the steps of the art museum. We could see people eating food and we could guess where the table was, but we finally gave up and had another drink.

The festival also has series of films that are always helpful for narrowing down your choices. The midnighter series is always well attended, and this year the fest had a ton of archival "kung fu" movies to whet your appetite -- one dating back to the silent era.

Going to the festival: what to expect

This year, there were more than 220 films with screenings spread out over 25 days. The sheer logistics of showing this many films means that some films show only once and many screenings are tightly scheduled. If you plan on staying after a film to participate in a Q&A, then you might reconsider buying tickets for a movie at another venue. Chances are, the film will start late, or the Q&A will go long, or traffic/parking will be a nightmare when you try to race to the next film. Many films, especially on the weekends, sell out, so either buy a pass (full-series or weekly series are available) or get your tickets early. Still, even "sold out" at a festival where they sell passes doesn't necessarily mean that you can't get in. It just means they've gone through whatever pre-sales seats they allocated. If fewer pass holders show up than expected, then there will still be rush tickets available at the door. Take a chance! If you don't get in, go have a drink somewhere and talk about the other films you've been seeing.

The festival is always running late, and each venue brings its own challenges to the festival staff. In other words, each theater has its own full-time staff and rules about how things work, while the festival has its own set of rules. These rules don't always coexist very well together. In some cases, it seems that the rules haven't even been communicated between theaters. The important things to remember are that the projectionists have no time to prep or preview a film at a festival, the turnout for particular films just can't be predicted, and patience is a virtue. Be flexible, be friendly, and don't get upset if something doesn't work quite like you expect it to. Meditate on the incredible logistics of this many films being shown over such a short amount of time and think about all those film canisters that have to be shuttled around.

One final note: if you travel to Seattle for the fest, try the weekday screenings, or buy your film tickets as early as possible. The weekday screenings are easier to get into.

Where to eat when you have only 15 minutes before the next film

If you're like me, then you want to see as many films as possible while the festival is happening, so sometimes things like balanced meals and exercise programs just have to take a backseat. There are a couple tricks that will help you get through the fest. First, the "no outside food" rule is relaxed at the festival. The volunteer ushers and staff, for the most part, look the other way if you bring in a bottle of water, an energy bar, or a sandwich. I've even seen people bring in take-out containers, but be considerate of your neighbors if you do this: nothing too smelly or crunchy please.

Second, while there are fast food places near most of the theaters, and all theaters have concession stands, you probably don't want to live on popcorn and burgers, so be on the lookout for grocery stores near the theaters, or fast places that focus on fresher ingredients. Third, bring a backpack or satchel. While the food rules are relaxed, it's still safest to hide that food until you're past the staff. Finally, go to the theater first, get a seat and mark it somehow with a sweater or something that won't slip off the seat, and then go find some food.

My favorite places for quick food during the fest are The Broadway Café (fresh Asian), Taco del Mar or Bimbo's (fresh Mexican), the deli stand of Il Fornaio, QFC (a local supermarket chain) and Joe Bar (just coffee). If I have longer to eat, say I'm skipping the middle screening of a three screening evening, then I like leisurely dinners (after all, you may have three hours to kill), so I go to Osteria la Spiga, anything French or with prix-fixe menus (translation: multiple course dinners mean you kill the time in an enjoyable way), or I just bring a book or browse the incredible program guide for the festival while I hang out at one of the many coffee shops around the city.

What to see and do when you get festival burnout

Tired of films or overwhelmed by something that was incredibly moving? Then the best thing to do is to do something completely different. Give your eyes and your body a break by climbing the water tower in Volunteer Park, or walking along Elliott Bay at Myrtle Edwards Park. Avoid crowds because that will just be like being at the festival without the benefit of seeing a film, i.e., don't go to Pike Street Marketplace or the waterfront shops if you're trying to get a break. Even walking along Broadway can be a bit overwhelming as filmgoers race through the regular congested pedestrian traffic trying to get from one venue to another.

I find that bookstores are also a nice respite. For some reason, people are semi-quiet in bookstores - maybe it's that library attitude carried over into retail. But staring at book titles may or may not be what your eyes need at the moment. If you're not used to so many films, you might consider scheduling a massage at one of the many spas in the city.

Finally, if you're in Seattle for several days of films, you might want to schedule some sightseeing time. Or on a weekday, just sightsee during the day, and see films at night. (If you buy a pass, you can actually see films all day, every day. Ticket buyers can only see films in the evenings on weekdays.) If sightseeing is what you're after, then give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it. Go to the Space Needle and see what that crazy festival award is named after. Go to Pike Street Marketplace and watch the fish sellers throw fish around.

Is SIFF A Destination festival?

Finally, to come to my first question last. Is SIFF a destination festival? If you had asked me this question ten years ago, I would have said no. It was just a fest where locals got to see a lot of films. But as the festival has gotten bigger, it has changed a bit. Sure, it's still a fest where non-industry people can get tickets to almost any film, and it still has a localized flavor (one series of films focuses entirely on films shot in Seattle by local filmmakers), but it's also become one of the few festivals in the country where documentary films can be shown to qualify for Oscar eligibility, and the festival has more and more premieres for films - either international premieres or North American premieres. More importantly, you can actually buy tickets for most screenings, unlike Sundance or Toronto.

For filmmakers, I think it's become even more of a destination event. The festival sponsors film forums - mostly panel discussions about various aspects of filmmaking (open to the general public, but geared toward the aspiring filmmaker). Some of the forums this year even came with rewards such as being able to tell your film pitch to a real producer or a cash award. I had lunch with some friends turned filmmakers and I felt like I was suddenly at a very different type of festival where the stakes were higher and the potential for helping finish a project were enormous.

Not only that, but Seattle is beautiful in the spring. The weather can be iffy depending on the year, but the 25 days of SIFF this year were gorgeous and the theaters still sold out. If the festival can get Seattleites indoors to see films on one of the three days a year when we get sunshine, then they must be doing something right. - By Kevin Fansler, Seattle Correspondent.

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