The Seattle International Film Festival — which for 40-some years has prompted excited moviegoers to step into dark theaters on sunny spring days — canceled last year’s event. But this week SIFF returns in virtual form (April 8-18), with 92 feature films from 69 countries, plus the usual abundance of short film packages and filmmaker Q&As. It may not have the buzzy feeling of those long lines wrapping around the block, but on the plus side, the showtimes are whenever (and wherever) you want.
ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.
SIFF has always been a beacon people point to as evidence that Seattle is a “film town,” in addition to the run of popular movies filmed here, including Singles, Sleepless in Seattle and Say Anything. Last week, director Steven Soderbergh announced he’s filming a new movie here in May: Kimi, starring Zoë Kravitz as an agoraphobic tech worker. (Wanna be an extra? Submit your selfie.)
But Washington state’s comparatively measly film incentive program (capped at $3.5 million per year) has made it difficult to bring in big budget movies and the associated work for local crews. See: all those movies and TV shows “set in Seattle” but filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, or in Portland, Oregon.
This week, King County Executive Dow Constantine revealed an amenity he hopes will help amp up local filmmaking: a new sound stage facility on Harbor Island in the 117,000-square-foot industrial space that was formerly the Fisher Flour Mill. “We transformed this vast warehouse into a creative space with stages, sets and shops to put hundreds of people to work in good, union jobs making films right here in King County,” Constantine said in a statement. “This is about making a smart public investment to help this creative industry grow and thrive.”
While previewing the local films on view at SIFF this year, I noticed a coincidental theme. Beyond being made and set in the Northwest (largely in Eastern Washington, for a change), these movies reveal the potential of chance encounters — something we’ve lost during our pandemic hunkerdown.
In East of the Mountains, based on the book by Northwest author David Guterson, a terminally ill and taciturn doctor would rather end it all than suffer the same lingering death as his recently departed wife. The starring role is played by Seattle’s own Tom Skerritt, whose face is as intriguingly cragged as the basalt cliffs of the Columbia Gorge. The doctor ditches Seattle for the scablands, but his suicide mission is interrupted by the personal encounters he has during a series of mishaps. Local director S.J. Chiro (of the gorgeously filmed Lane, 1974) reveals the shocking beauty of the landscape in this somber story.
Local filmmaker Wes Hurley, who won a coveted Creative Capital grant in 2019, presents his long-awaited autobiographical feature film, Potato Dreams of America, about growing up gay in Russia. With a whiff of John Waters, Hurley tells the wild but true tale of his mother’s decision to become a mail-order bride in order to get them both to the U.S. — home of the big, bold American movies that gave young Hurley hope. Filmed in Seattle and featuring lots of faces familiar to the local theater scene, Hurley’s fantastical take on an immigrant story reveals how the people he met along the way helped him come into his own.
In the quirky, TV-blue-hued All Sorts (filmed in Yakima), shy data entry employee Diego is baffled by the office culture at his new job — which includes an employee camped out in the ceiling. Director J. Rick Castañeda, who hails from Granger, near Yakima, laces the absurdist office-cube setting with a love story between Diego and June — an unbeatable contender in underground folder-filing competitions — who brings Diego out of his shell. And in All Those Small Things (from local Rebel Kat Productions), a haughty British game show host is shaken out of his routine by the death of a friend. His route to finding himself is an impromptu trip to (guess where?) Eastern Washington, where the small-town community — including a white rapper named Tiny Hammer — gets him grounded.
Lastly — a quick burst of technicolor for spring. The Museum of Museums, long delayed from opening due to city permitting issues compounded by COVID-19, is officially open. The new show features work by Seattle painter Nikita Ares, who grew up in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines — reportedly known as the “City of Golden Friendship.” Ares is responsible for MoM’s exuberantly color-splashed front door, which welcomes visitors into the midcentury-modern building on the Swedish Medical Center campus.
In her new exhibit, co-presented with The Factory gallery (through April 25), Ares showcases the bouquet of abstract blossoms and bright blobs she created during the pandemic. The vivid color play and zippy action of these pieces feels like an antidote to the long isolation of quarantine. The works seem perfectly apt for this vaccine-fueled moment of cultural reawakening.
If the spring blooms outdoors have you itching for more displays of color, consider these other local painters currently on view: Fred Lisaius, whose bright and beautiful nature paintings are Letting the Light Back In at Patricia Rovzar Gallery (through April 30); Olympia-based artist Hart James shares her lush green Northwest landscapes in Peace of the Wild at Harris/Harvey Gallery (through May 1); and Julie Devine presents thickly painted views of mountainous terrain you can almost hike into in North Cascades at Gallery Mack (through May 30).
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