The Northwest Connections program at the Seattle International Film Festival (May 20-June 13) will feature five documentaries, four of which are about the Northwest arts scene.
Hundreds of tales will be told at the Seattle International Film Festival (beginning Thursday and continuing through June 13) — some of which are true, and a few of which are from our own backyard. The Northwest Connections program this year features five documentaries, four of which are about the Northwest arts scene. “Wheedle’s Groove” and “Amplified Seattle” focus on local music of the past and present; “Ginny Ruffner — A Not-So-Still Life” and “Chihuly Fire & Light” are portraits of local visual artists.
“Seattle has such a rich arts scene, it provides perfect fodder for some interesting stories,” said SIFF artistic director Carl Spence. He noted that the documentary section of the festival has grown dramatically, estimating that the number of nonfiction films submitted has tripled in the past decade. This year, he said, 467 were submitted; not counting the numerous films that were viewed and considered from other festivals. Ultimately, 54 feature-length documentaries will screen, including the five from the Northwest.
Recently, several of the directors of the local films spoke with me about their work.
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Jennifer Maas, a native of Austin, Texas, now living in Seattle, found the story of “Wheedle’s Groove” while researching “a different documentary I never ended up making.” Talking to a number of people in the Seattle music scene, she learned of the vibrant soul and funk community here in the ’60s and ’70s. (“Was everyone in the Central District a musician?” she wondered, only half-joking.) “I kept coming back to the fact that nobody had documented this,” she said. Though a compilation CD (named, liked the movie, “Wheedle’s Groove,” after a former Sonics mascot) and a concert in 2004 had brought attention to some long-forgotten figures, she wanted to tell the story with cameras.
“Wheedle’s Groove” turned out to be a five-year labor of love, and a fond tribute to a scene long gone. At its end, we see a photo shoot at Garfield High School with dozens of musicians, reminiscent of the famous 1958 reunion photo of jazz musicians, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Maas, who said she was inspired by the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club” among others, hopes there might be concerts or even a reunion tour accompanying the film, which will have a theatrical run at Northwest Film Forum this fall.
Though Maas has moved between the documentary and narrative film worlds — she was a co-producer on Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” and is currently producing the upcoming feature “Treatment,” directed by Steven Schardt — she thinks the two filmmaking communities here are quite separate, though a few people do overlap. Next up for her are a couple of short documentaries, one about Seattle’s female bartenders and one about musician Jim Sullivan. “Some stories deserve to be told that really shouldn’t be an hour and a half,” she said.
(“Wheedle’s Groove” screens May 28 at Everett Performing Arts Center and May 30 at SIFF Cinema.)
John Jeffcoat, a New York native who arrived in Seattle in 1994, has moved from documentaries (his first film was “Bingo! The Documentary” in 1999) to romantic comedies (“Outsourced,” winner of SIFF’s top audience award in 2007) and back to documentaries again. “I just got hired for a job [in Seattle] because people are seeing me as the rock documentary guy who does all the music stuff,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s really quick to pigeonhole you. You always have to reprove yourself.”
“Amplified Seattle” is Jeffcoat’s first music film — or, rather, his first 13 of them. It’s a series of intimate, short documentaries (about five minutes each) introducing the 13 Seattle bands in “$5 Cover,” a multifaceted MTV Web series. Lynn Shelton created narrative chapters featuring each band. Jeffcoat’s films “were designed to be individual stand-alones, just to be part of the $5 Cover experience,” he said. “You watch the show, there’s a band you’re curious about, you can watch the doc about the band.” The entire series, which also includes documentaries by Seattle filmmaker Sue Corcoran called “The B Sides,” will be shown on MTV.com in October. Though some of Shelton’s work (and one of Jeffcoat’s films) screened at Sundance and SIFF Cinema earlier this year, the SIFF screenings will be the first time Jeffcoat’s entire series has been shown.
And he’ll next be trying something new again: television. A TV series based on “Outsourced” has just been picked up by NBC for the fall season. Jeffcoat and co-writer George Wing wrote the pilot, which was then given a “comedy pass” by another writer before the episode was shot earlier this spring. “It’s definitely still our story and our characters and our situation, but the comedy is a little bit broader than George and I had created,” said Jeffcoat. Ken Kwapis (“The Office”) developed the project and will direct.
(“Amplified Seattle” will screen May 22 and 26 at the Neptune.)
“Ginny Ruffner — A Not-So-Still Life”
Karen Stanton, a Seattleite since the 1970s, says she’s long been interested in “real people stories.” Early in her career, she told stories through commercials and short corporate projects for hire; now, in her feature-length documentary debut, she’s taking time to tell the story of an artist. “This film has a very clear purpose: to invite a viewer to spend time with [Ruffner] and her work,” said Stanton, from the editing room where she was putting final touches on her film.
Produced by Seattle’s ShadowCatcher Entertainment, “Ginny Ruffner” has taken Stanton about a year and a half to complete. She knew Ruffner only slightly before taking on the assignment, and describes with enthusiasm the artist’s “very dynamic journey through life” — which has included not only artistic success, but a remarkable recovery from a devastating accident years ago. Ruffner, who will be present for the film’s SIFF premiere, has seen a rough cut of the film and was “very excited and pleased about it, I think,” said Stanton. She added that the film’s producers have worked hard to “keep [Ruffner] involved and at the same time be respectful that she is the subject and not the filmmaker.”
Stanton said she looked at a number of documentaries before beginning her work, and was particularly drawn to the work of the Maysles brothers (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) and to John W. Walters’ art-world documentary “How to Draw a Bunny.” “I tend to like emotionally based projects,” she said. “My particular focus is always to find a way for the audience to connect in an authentic way emotionally with the subject.”
(“Ginny Ruffner — A Not-So-Still Life” screens June 11 at SIFF Cinema and June 12 at Kirkland Performance Center.)
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org