ArtSEA: Seattle International Film Festival turns 50-ish

Picks for this year’s cinema celebration, plus award-winning plays at Seattle Rep and ACT Theatre.

film still of an older man in a classic safari suit attempting to capture a giant Rainier Beer in a net

‘Rainier: A Beer Odyssey’ is one of several documentaries with local ties on view at SIFF 2024. (Seattle International Film Festival)

Suddenly it’s May, which means time for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 9-19). This year, in addition to independent filmmaking, SIFF celebrates its return to an old favorite screening location — the former Cinerama theater, acquired by SIFF last year — as well as the festival’s 50th anniversary.

And here I must pause to grab my pocket calculator.

The festival started in 1976, so presumably the 50th would arrive in 2026. But SIFF is accepting as fact that the 13th annual festival was actually the 14th (so deemed for superstitious reasons by organizers in 1988). We must also ignore the lack of a festival in 2020 (skipped for pandemic reasons). If you make both those leaps, you arrive at a facsimile of 50.

This math hurts my fact-checking head but I hope to let it go by the end of this newsletter. After all, a longstanding local event centered on emerging filmmakers and the increasingly rare joy of seeing movies in theaters is absolutely worth celebrating.

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Cascade PBS’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

My consternation was largely quelled upon seeing clips from the featured Rainier: A Beer Odyssey, an extensive look at the creative genius-goofballs responsible for some of the wackiest beer commercials ever produced. 

These locally crafted gems ran on television from 1974-1987 — well before I arrived on these forested shores in 1993. But long(er)time locals remember the Rainier ads fondly for their off-kilter humor and Northwest joie de vivre.

There was the classic herd of wild Rainier beers stampeding across an open plain (the bottle-creatures’ human legs enrobed in tights), and the Rainier cans that steadfastly swam upstream like salmon. There were spoofs on Rambo and Jaws and Amadeus (the last of which features a Mozart character wildly pulling on Rainier beer taps). There were, somehow, appearances by Mickey Rooney. 

Culled from some 100 hours of advertisements and including interviews with the original creators, the film is a nostalgic tribute to local ingenuity — and to a time when people in our upper left corner were making weird art to entertain their community.

‘Sono Lino’ traces the monumental career of glassblower Lino Tagliapietra. (Seattle International Film Festival)

Rainier beer isn’t the only local subject of interest covered in the slew of films at SIFF. 

Among the documentaries with local ties are several that showcase immigrants, including Grandpa Guru, a Croatian film about Srdjan Gino Jevđevic, who fled Sarajevo, landed in Seattle and formed popular punk band Kultur Shock. See also All We Carry, about a young family that escapes Honduras and finds community in a Seattle synagogue. 

Ultimate Citizens, by Seattle filmmaker Francine Strickwerda, highlights Jamshid Khajavi, an Iranian American counselor and coach who encourages young immigrant students at Hazel Wolf K-8 school to pursue their dreams — both in life and in ultimate Frisbee. And glass art fans should check out Sono Lino, which traces the long career and local legacy of glassblower Lino Tagliapietra, the person Dale Chihuly calls the greatest glassblower of all time.

SIFF also offers a tasty smorgasbord of short film packages, including “Sound Visions,” an array of diverse stories by local filmmakers. Included in this lively mix is I’ll Take Porn for $200, by Seattle filmmaker Mischa Jakupcak, a comedy in which Annette Toutonghi (one of my favorite local actors) stars as a woman with a certain surprise for her husband. Humor meets horror in Carlos A.F. Lopez’s Dream Creep, and Lael Rogers digs into the dark side of social media with The Influencer.

Other short film packages at SIFF’s 50-ish showcase animal tales, horror flicks, animation, Indigenous stories and new takes on old complications of love.

From left: Taj E.M. Burroughs and Reginald André Jackson in ‘Fat Ham’ at Seattle Rep. (Bronwen Houck)

For those who prefer their storytelling live on stage, never fear. Seattle has a bevy of theater offerings on the boards, including a couple Pulitzer and Tony winners. 

Tonight is the official opening of The Lehman Trilogy (at ACT Theatre through May 19), helmed by ACT’s revered artistic director John Langs (who recently announced he’s leaving town for a gig in North Carolina — a big loss for Seattle). This epic tale of the rise and fall of an immigrant family won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2022, among countless other accolades.

Meanwhile James IjamesFat Ham (at Seattle Rep through May 12) is cracking up audiences with its contemporary spin on Hamlet, wherein the vengeful ghost shows up at a Black family’s BBQ. The comedy earned a Tony nomination for Best Play in 2023, and while it didn’t take home the award, some consolation must have come in winning the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

If Fat Ham puts you in the mood for more Bard, Seattle Shakespeare stands at the ready with Romeo and Juliet (through May 19), featuring a cast of local standouts including Sarah Harlett and Andrew Lee Creech. And for a more intimate experience, consider Shakespeare Up Close: Ages of Being (through June 22), a one-woman show by Seattle theater legend Mary Ewald (co-founder of New City Theater), who performs snippets and sonnets in the living room of her Capitol Hill home.

Lastly, for another lively classic, there’s The Barber of Seville at Seattle Opera (May 4-19).

Meanwhile Black Arts Legacies: Season 3 continues, as we reveal the name of one featured artist each week through June. Earlier this week we spotlighted longtime Seattle actor/director Tee Dennard, whose resume ranges from helping to establish the Black Arts/West theater company in the 1970s to prime roles in An Officer and a Gentleman and recent indie flicks.

Sign up for the Black Arts Legacies newsletter to be among the first to discover each new artist in this year’s cohort. 

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