We talk to the directors of locally made documentaries “The Cage Fighter,” directed by Jeff Unay; “Pow Wow,” directed by Robinson Devor; and “Crazywise,” directed by Phil Borges and Kevin Tomlinson.
Each year, the Seattle International Film Festival brings independent feature films, shorts, documentaries, and animated films to movie theaters throughout the city. The 2017 festival begins on May 18 and ends on June 11.
Several local films are in this year’s lineup, including narrative films like “Lane 1974,” “Rocketmen,” and “Wallflower.” The local documentaries cover guitarist Bill Frisell, mountaineer Fred Beckey, a blue-collar worker’s return to cage fighting, clashing cultures in the California desert and new approaches to mental-health care. Here’s a look at three local directors:
“The Cage Fighter,” directed by Jeff Unay
This documentary follows Joe Carman, a 40-year-old Washington State Ferry worker, as he returns to cage fighting against his family’s wishes.
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Director Unay met Carman at a gym in Kent. Carman told him that he was training for a fight, and that his family was against it.
Unay originally thought he would make a short film about the fight but instead spent almost four years on what would turn into a feature-length documentary.
“One shoot led to 149 other shoots,” Unay said. “I don’t think either one of us would think we would make something like this.”
Unay said his own experience as a father helped him relate to Carman’s situation. He filmed Carman at work during the day, at home with his wife and four daughters in evenings and on weekends, and training at 3 a.m.
“To me, documentary film is all about the relationship that exists between the filmmaker and the subject,” Unay said. “These are not actors. These are real people.”
“The Cage Fighter” is Unay’s directorial debut. He’s known for his award-winning work in animation as a digital sculptor, animating faces in such films as “Avatar” and “King Kong.” He said studying how faces express emotion influenced “The Cage Fighter” — he filmed most of it using portrait lenses and removed much of the dialogue in the final cut.
Unay said the film would not have been possible without Carman’s family’s emotional honesty. He did almost all of the filming by himself, allowing him to build a close relationship with the family; it also meant that Unay shouldered a lot of emotional weight on his own.
“There were moments where I didn’t want to film, I just wanted to hug them and tell them everything was going to be OK,” Unay said. “But I also had to remind myself that this story needed to be shared.”
“The Cage Fighter” screens at 7 p.m. June 1 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, and at 3:30 p.m. on June 4 at Kirkland Performance Center.
“Pow Wow,” directed by Robinson Devor
Devor documents the past and present of Palm Springs, California, in “Pow Wow.” Characters include retirees at country clubs, teenage lovers, Native Americans, a prison pastor and a now-deceased art dealer. Devor incorporates their stories into a retelling of the story of Willie Boy, a young Native American man who outran a mounted posse in 1908.
“Like Willie Boy, the film’s present-day characters have, in many ways, utilized the desert to survive and run free,” Devor wrote on the film’s Kickstarter page. Devor described the film as “an experiment in storytelling as well as a comparative study of past and present desert existence.”
The main focus of the present-day portion of the film is a country club whose members dress up as cowboys and Native Americans at an annual costume party called “Pow Wow.” Devor knew people who had attended the Pow Wow party regularly since it began over 55 years ago. While investigating the relationship between local Native American and white communities, he soon realized that everyone knew the story of Willie Boy.
“Everything is connected,” Devor said. “We thought that it was important to try to get as many angles and reflections and connections as we could. And as much diversity, or lack of diversity in some cases, as we could.”
“Pow Wow” will screen at 7 p.m. on May 29 at AMC Pacific Place, and at 6:30 p.m. on June 5 at Ark Lodge Cinemas.
“Crazywise,” directed by Phil Borges and Kevin Tomlinson
“Crazywise” examines the different ways in which Western and Eastern cultures view mental illness. The film focuses on two Americans as they turn to new forms of treatment, such as meditation, and includes their family members, friends, and mental health professionals.
Borges said he was inspired to make the documentary after photographing indigenous groups around the world.
In the years he spent doing human rights photography, he had noticed that many community healers or shamans had taken on those roles after having what we would call a psychotic break. Instead of being ostracized, those people were guided by older healers and taught to use their experiences to help the community.
Meanwhile, in the West, many mental-health professionals are underfunded, overwhelmed by high numbers of patients, and encouraged to prescribe medications.
Borges emphasized that “Crazywise” isn’t an antimedication film. Even those who favor alternative treatment options acknowledge that medications have their place in mental health treatment.
But what became clear as they worked on the film, said co-director Tomlinson, was that medication shouldn’t always be the first option.
“We went into this with a real open mind,” Tomlinson said. “We’re not medical professionals, we’re not psychologists, we’re filmmakers. We really approached this from an everyman perspective, wanting to find out what’s working and what’s not working.”
Borges and Tomlinson said the film is timely because of the shortage of mental health facilities and treatment options in Seattle.
“We’re trying to promote a wellness and recovery model,” Tomlinson said. “We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we’re hoping that people will change the way we define, diagnose, and treat mental and emotional crises. Then, I think people have a fighting chance to recover.”
“Crazywise” will screen at 1 p.m. on May 21 at Majestic Bay, and at 7 p.m. on May 22 at AMC Pacific Place.