If you look at the schedule for the Seattle International Film Festival, which begins May 16 and continues through June 9, it seems to contain quite possibly every film made this year, everywhere.
The 45th annual festival is presenting 414 films — 238 features, 176 shorts — and while that seems like a lot to the casual filmgoer, it’s a tiny fraction of the films considered for the fest. Those final 414 were chosen through an elaborate process that began last summer and involved thousands of films, dozens of people (SIFF has 35 people working in some capacity in programming, and an additional 18 who work as prescreeners), and probably not quite enough fresh air.
Films chosen for SIFF come to the festival in three ways. One is by blind submission — films that are sent to SIFF for consideration in response to a general invitation. Artistic director Beth Barrett estimated that several thousand films were submitted for the 2019 festival; all were viewed by festival programmers, and about 10 to 15% of these were chosen for inclusion.
It’s a small percentage, but Barrett noted that “sometimes those are the actual gems that you find.” She recalled that “Kedi,” a charming Turkish documentary about the cats of Istanbul, turned up that way a couple of years ago; it ended up as one of the biggest hits of SIFF that year.
Other films, in contrast, are directly solicited. “If it’s a filmmaker you really admire, and you hear they have something they’re working on, you might follow that project in its progress,” said senior programmer Justine Barda. Being a programmer means doing a lot of research, keeping an eye out for projects that sound of interest to SIFF audiences.
Other films come to SIFF after being spotted at film festivals — an ideal way to view a film, as it’ll be on a big screen as the filmmaker intended. Film-festival “season” for SIFF programmers begins with the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and ends with the Berlin International Film Festival in February. SIFF reps travel the world, looking for treasures to bring back home.
This adds up to a lot of watching; Barrett and festival programming manager Stan Shields estimated that they each watch somewhere between 400 and 500 films in consideration for SIFF each year; Barda (who is contracted by SIFF and not a full-time staffer), said she’s at around 200. And yes, they do watch all the way through, hoping that films that don’t start well might turn themselves around. “You can’t do this job and not aspire for every movie you watch to be great,” said Shields.
Most of the festival programmers have specific specialty areas. Barda, for example, focuses on films from France, North Africa and the Middle East; programmer Tracy Rector’s specialty is indigenous films.
Each genre brings its own challenges: Barda, for example, has to sort through a vast roster of French films, and try to present a diverse picture of the country’s offerings (i.e. not entirely, say, romantic comedies set in Paris). Rector has fewer films to evaluate, and they can be harder to find. “So often, non-Native people have told the stories of Native people,” she said. “It’s been my priority to search out work that’s actually created by Native filmmakers.”
Committees help with the work of choosing each festival section’s final lineup. Most of these are made up of SIFF staffers and programmers; sometimes outside help is also involved. Barrett explained that the Asian Crossroads and the African Pictures programs involve local community members “who assist us in watching a lot of those films and talking to us about how to best represent those communities at the festival.”
Slowly, a schedule begins to take shape, with attention constantly paid to balance and diversity, and with every considered film watched by more than one person (to rule out the “I was just in a really good mood that day” factor). Ultimately, there’s always more good films than there are slots available; SIFF is vast, but its schedule is finite. That’s when lively conversations begin. “It’s painful at the end, with everyone advocating for that one film that they love,” said Barrett.
The challenge becomes separating out the best of the best, said Shields. Suppose this year’s crop included seven great documentaries submitted about mountain climbing. “We probably can’t show them all. What three are showing something we’ve never seen before? Or is it just one?”
Finally, by early April, the schedule is more or less set (there’s always room, right up until final deadline for the festival program, to squeeze in one more), and the hoped-for result is a festival with something for everyone.
“That’s the great thing about being as large and broad-reaching as we are — we can take chances on some of those films that we know from the outset that the audience will be small, but it will be a very important film for that audience,” said Barrett, noting that the festival can offset this with more general-interest films that can fill the Egyptian or the Uptown. “It’s really a balancing act of trying to find that right size and the right breadth of the festival.”
Here are some recommendations from four SIFF programmers:
Beth Barrett, artistic director
“The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia,” 4 p.m. May 17 at the Egyptian; 7 p.m. May 22 at the Uptown; 6:30 p.m. May 28 at Shoreline Community College. In this Cuban film, a planetarium guide (María Isabel Díaz) is chosen to begin a new life on another planet. “It’s quirky without ever being ‘quirky,’” said Barrett, describing the film as “constantly surprising.”
“Celebration,” 4 p.m. May 24 at Pacific Place; 9:30 p.m. May 25 at the Egyptian. This documentary about designer Yves Saint Laurent and his longtime business partner Pierre Bergé was filmed in the ’90s and shelved for two decades. “It’s just a fascinating portrait of this brilliant man and an equally brilliant man, and their different spheres of brilliance,” said Barrett.
“Pity the Lovers,” 6 p.m. May 18 at the Majestic Bay; 3:30 p.m. May 19 at the Uptown. From the Swedish Film Institute, this is “a very funny film about two brothers who are very unlucky in love, for very different reasons.”
Stan Shields, festival programming manager
“Shut Up and Play the Piano,” 9:30 p.m. May 20 at Pacific Place; 4 p.m. May 28 at the Uptown. This music documentary about Canadian art-punk musician Chilly Gonzales is “a fascinating look at a very gregarious and shape-shifting performer that not a lot of people in the U.S. know,” said Shields. “One of the strongest music docs I’ve seen in a while.”
“Retrospekt,” 4:30 p.m. May 23 at Pacific Place; 9:30 p.m. May 25 at Pacific Place; 1:30 p.m. June 7 at Pacific Place. From the Netherlands, this film about a woman who works for a domestic-abuse shelter juggles multiple timelines; “you slowly fall,” said Shields, “from this fascinating character study to realizing you’re actually embarking on a thriller, and that transition is really smartly done.”
“Q Ball,” 6:30 p.m. May 17 at Ark Lodge; noon May 18 at the Uptown; 3:30 p.m. May 21 at the Uptown. Basketball star Kevin Durant produced this documentary about the San Quentin State Prison basketball squad. “It’s a really great character study on how people try to find redemption in so many ways, and how little things can lead to greater truths.”
Tracy Rector, programmer (focusing on indigenous films)
“Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife),” 3:30 p.m. May 25 at the Uptown; 8:30 p.m. May 26 at the Uptown; 9:15 p.m. May 30 at Shoreline Community College. Made with an all-indigenous cast and crew, this narrative about a nobleman spiraling into insanity is the first film ever made in the endangered Haida language — “a huge undertaking for the community,” said Rector.
“Top End Wedding,” 6 p.m. May 25 at the Uptown; 1 p.m. May 26 at Shoreline Community College; 3:45 p.m. May 27 at the Egyptian. In this rom-com from Australia, a young couple returns to the bride’s Northern Territory hometown. “It’s a hilarious relationship film,” said Rector, “and I think it’s good that people see that there’s a lot of humor within indigenous communities.”
“N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear,” 12:30 p.m. May 25 at Central Library; 5:30 p.m. May 26 at the Uptown. This documentary about the life and work of Kiowa author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Navarro Scott Momaday will have a special free screening at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, followed by a panel discussion.
Justine Barda, senior programmer (focusing on films from France, North Africa and the Middle East)
“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” 9 p.m. June 6 at the Egyptian; 5:30 p.m. June 9 at the Uptown. A young woman theater director tries to stage a re-enactment of the 1941 Odessa massacre in this Romanian film, described by Barda as “both funny and super-timely, in this era of rising populist movements around the globe, and countries’ reluctance to sometimes come to terms with their own history.”
“Tel Aviv On Fire,” 7 p.m. May 30 at Pacific Place; 3:30 p.m. May 31 at the Uptown. A comedy from Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zoabi, this film centers on a production assistant on a popular Palestinian soap opera who befriends an Israeli military commander who has thoughts on how to improve the show. “Hilarity ensues!” said Barda.
“Non-Fiction,” 8 p.m. May 30 at Kirkland Performance Center; 7 p.m. June 4 at Pacific Place. This French film from Olivier Assayas is set in the Paris publishing world, with Guillaume Canet as an editor trying to move his publishing house into the digital age. “It’s a comedy about ideas,” said Barda, “one of those wonderful movies that you get from France that’s so smart and funny and unabashedly intellectual but not in an overbearing way, but a thoroughly enjoyable way.”
Seattle International Film Festival, May 16-June 9 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Film Center, Pacific Place, Majestic Bay (May 17-22), Ark Lodge (May 17-23), Lincoln Square (May 17-30), Shoreline Community College (May 24-June 2), Kirkland Performance Center (May 30-June 2). Individual tickets $15, six-ticket package $72, full series pass $1,300; other passes and packages available. Information: 206-324-9996, siff.net.