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HOW TO RUN A GREAT FILM FESTIVAL: Simply copy what Seattle does.
by Chris Parry

I've been to a shitload of film festivals over the last few years. I've schmoozed and fought for swag with the hoity toity crowd at Sundance. I've drank beer and guffawed at comedy horror films with the weirdos at South By Southwest. I've double-fisted the complimentary brewskis as the locals turned in at 9pm at the LA Film Festival. And I've scratched my head at the latest Micronesian offering playing at Sydney and Vancouver - so I think I'm pretty well placed to determine what makes a great film festival. And after the last few weeks spent in Seattle, enjoying flicks from around the world, drinking like there's no tomorrow, enjoying the sights and sounds of a great town and making friends that will hopefully be friends for a long time, I'm ready to call the winner of the first annual film fest face off. Seattle International Film Festival, come on down!

You know you're at a film festival when you've seen ten films in two days and not one of them didn't have subtitles. You know you're at a film festival when you're introduced to someone as they're looking over your shoulder to see if there's anyone more important in the room. You know you're at a film festival when you've seen the third film in three days that involves incest.

But you know you're at Seattle International Film Festival when it's 9:30pm and you're about to take in another movie rather than go out on the town - because the movies are so damn good.

I ventured into this northwestern berg nearly three weeks ago now, ready to begin a marathon of movies that would threaten to send me cross-eyed. I'm now about to return home, only to realize I haven't seen a crappy film yet, and I've got well over 45 flicks under my belt. How could this be? When I see Hollywood releases, you can bet that four in five will totally suck, yet here I am watching flicks from 10am until 11pm and they're all good, great, or at the very least original.

Take the Korean film series, a highlight of the 2003 Seattle Fest. After seeing my fourth Korean film in two days I was beginning to get a little wary that I might have signed on to something less about thrilling the audience and more about pleasing a sponsor, yet of the seven or so Korean films I've seen to this point, three are in my top five films of the entire festival, and only two could be considered of a standard less than 'very good'.

Consider OASIS - a five star film all the way, involving a thick-headed petty thief who decides to rape a woman with severe cerebral palsy. While taking advantage of the girl however, he catches himself in his moment of weakness, apologizes and leaves her be, only to return sometime later and try to make amends. She in turn sees an acceptance of her disability in him, and she too accepts his problems as they begin an unlikely, but positively enthralling, romance. Korean sensation Seol Kyung-gu puts in a massive performance as the thief, Jong-du, while the impressive Moon So-ri seamlessly moves from breathtaking beauty to clench-muscled mess, as the female lead, Gong-ju.

This is a film that MUST be released on a lot of screens - it's funny, it's dramatic, it's romantic, it's everything you could possibly ask for in a story about flawed people who find perfection in each other. To hell with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, romance doesn't get better than it is depicted right here. That it should come in a South Korean film that most of the world has never heard of speaks volumes about the Seattle Film Fest's decision to dive into the South Korean cinematic gene pool, as did the rest of the films in this category.

Little did I know that Oasis would be the first time I'd encounter an actor who may well go on to become one of my favorite thespians, even though I can't understand a word he says. Seol Kyung-gu appears in Oasis, but also in two other Korean films that surprised me with their punch, wit and production quality.

PUBLIC ENEMY is a great cop flick, with Seol Kyung-gu appearing 50 pounds heavier as Kang, a cop who was given automatic high rank after winning a boxing medal at the Asian games, only for his lack of brains, poor social habits and a violent streak to see him slowly demoted down to the bottom rung. When he's investigated by internal affairs after his partner is shot by bad guys, he decides to break the case his own way, which leads to some funny moments, a little action, and a character so fundamentally flawed that it's hard to figure whether he's actually a good guy. After the deep emotion of Oasis, Kyung-gu proves he can do comedy and action here, with the third of his films at the festival proving he can handle slapstick too.

JAILBREAKERS was perhaps the film I held out the least hope for of all the international films. It just sounds like a dumb comedy, and dumb comedies rarely translate from Asia to the West. Well, mark Jailbreakers down as the first comedy in years to complete the translation without losing a laugh. Centering around a pair of prison inmates who break out of prison when they think they've been left off an amnesty list, only to find out too late that they were indeed on the list, the film follows the pair as they attempt to break back in - and it's hysterical from start to finish.

So three Korean flicks, three big successes. Could the streak continue? Maybe that's asking a bit much, but the documentaries certainly matched the standard. BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN YEARS is a great work, five years in the making, where the stars of the golden age of Broadway are interviewed in depth about their time treading the boards. For a guy who generally couldn't care less about Broadway, this flick passed every test and actually managed to foster an interest in the subject matter for me. To see Shirley MacLaine asked when the first time she saw Broadway was, and to hear her say "Gosh, I don't know. Maybe 1732," was a breath of fresh air in the normally staid end of a festival.

LIFE AFTER WAR continued the excellence, with an almost unbelievable story that is all the more relevant today considering the political situation in the Middle East. Life After War shows us Sarah Chayes, a woman who quit her job as a journalist covering the Afghanistan conflict to rebuild houses that had been bombed by the Americans. What she faces isn't just people who can't understand her career switch, but bureaucratic bungling, corruption, cultural differences run wild, and a distinct lack of care for our fellow man from people who, by rights, should be going manic trying to help her.

MY ARCHITECT also impressed, as did the widely loved CAPTURING THE FREIDMANS, but it's OVERNIGHT, however, that takes the cake for a documentary that will simply blow an audience away. Perhaps the least 'important' of the documentaries on offer, it is the most horrifying, the most resembling a rolling car wreck, and the most guaranteed to make you want to punch someone in the throat. Overnight follows the sudden rise to fame of Troy Duffy, a guy who wrote a screenplay called Boondock Saints and duly received a nice big contract from Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, who also agreed to purchase and give Troy the bar the pair had met in. It was a massive deal and Duffy was seen as the next big thing across the industry... only problem? Duffy is insane.

I dare you to sue me, Duffy, you drunken nutbar. You're a goofball of the highest order, a waste of a golden opportunity that most deserving filmmakers will never get a sniff of. You had it all and you turned into a raving maniac who was obsessed with telling people how great you were and how big a dick everyone else was. And now you're back where they found you. Good riddance.

But personal messages aside, Overnight is a GREAT documentary, though it could almost be termed a reality show. See, egomaniac Duffy decided to get a couple of friends to film his every move as he climbed the ladder of success, telling them they'd get paid at some point down the road and that they should just hang with him because he never forgets his friends.

Then Duffy got paid. And his friends didn't. And we get to see the entire argument involving the guys asking why they wouldn't get paid. To quote Duffy, "You deserve to get paid. You're just not gonna." Cheap ass punk.

So his friends took the footage they'd shot of Duffy's rise and subsequent fall and decided to show the world the real Troy Duffy. And let me tell you, it's the most satisfying 100 minutes or so you'll ever see. Duffy just doesn't stop blowing his own horn, putting crap on anyone and everyone around him, while claiming that he's more talented than anyone in the business - all this before he'd actually shot a frame of film. Eventually, after a DUI arrest and a spell in jail, the 'I am God' routine wears thin and Miramax pulls out of their deal, and the ensuing slide into hell is a beautiful thing to see. Nobody ever deserved to fail more than Duffy, a guy so hung up on himself that people at the screening of this film actually asked if it was a mockumentary or real, since it just COULDN'T be real... could it?

I could go on and on about the great shorts (when will D.E.B.S. be a TV series, dammit?), the Eastern European films, the Japanese selection, the Chinese restoration films, the premieres, the midnight movies (Cabin Fever! Bubba Ho-Tep! The Eye! So Close!), it just goes on and on, but here's the guts of what I'm trying to say...

This has been one hell of a great film festival. Seattle has it down. For starters, the press is treated like royalty. No shoehorn sweatboxes like at Sundance, no struggles to get a seat like at SXSW, no confinement to one theater like at Sydney. The press screenings happen before and during the festival, in the massive and comfortable Egyptian complex. I didn't miss a single film I wanted to see, and I'm not afraid to admit it, I was spoiled by the staff like I couldn't have possibly expected.

Sure, the parties don't compare to Sundance's parties on a size basis, but Seattle doesn't have the swag-grab that turns the Park City scene into a jumble sale, nor does it have the six parties a night grind that Sundance movers and shakers have to endure so they can ensure they didn't get talked about behind their back.

The celebrities aren't out in force in Seattle, and if you ask me that's a great thing. Plenty of access to filmmakers, actors you might not have heard of before but should, and people that really care about what you thought of their film means a lot more than the chance to sniff Britney Spears' seat. I got to tell a documentary maker what needed fixing on his doco, and then see it with the fix made. I got to talk trash about Australian film financing bodies with a pair of aussie short filmmakers that are destined for greatness. I got to drink with Korean directors who didn't understand a word I said, but nodded and smiled anyway. I talked deals and world takeover plans with the folks from Magic Lamp Releasing, shared travel horror stories with the directors of Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion and Power Trip. I got to ask a young guy who made a short for 50 grand exactly how he managed to spend 50 G's on an admittedly good short film with only one location.

That's the stuff, folks. I could give a rats ass what Katie Holmes thinks of the director of her last film, or whether Nick Nolte will give me a three minute roundtable interview with eighteen other journalists - I want to talk to the up'n'comers, the kids, the rebels, the artists. Seattle brings those to you, with a subtle sprinkling of big names thrown in.

The city itself is incredible. If you've never been to Seattle, you're missing out. The Northwest is far from the dreary cloudy rain haven that we're led to believe it is - in fact there were many days when I had to change clothes three times from the heat. The venues are all close to each other. The tourist sights are as good as you'll find in any city, with the Experience Music Project is a special highlight. To hell with Cleveland's Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame, the EMP is the quintessential music-lover's heaven, with all the usual musuem exhibits combined with hands on stuff that you could spend literally hours on. I got my first guitar lesson there... and I sucked.

But what really sets Seattle apart from the other festivals is... well, everything. These people don't just put on some movies and await the praise from the cultural elite, they get their hands dirty and make sure things happen. When the crowd started getting sick of the Cinema Seattle trailer showing before each film, they ditched it. When people said they wanted more Oasis screenings, they added one. And when a certain journalist couldn't find a hotel room for the last few days of his stay, they delivered. More than that, they offered to deliver. I didn't even need to ask.

Further, they don't just put on a party and let people stand in dark corners, they introduce people. They do the moving and shaking for you. They WANT you to have a good time, and they WANT you to make contacts. They know that it isn't enough to just hire a room and put out some sponsored beer, you need to ensure the people are talking and that every person gets benefit out of every encounter. This, in my mind, is what puts the Seattle festival far over the top. They put comraderie and friendship above all else, and that's a big reason why the crowds get bigger every year.

At a time when festivals like Toronto are making online journalists jump through hoops to get a pass, and Sundance is fighting to reclaim the very city it takes place in, and SXSW has it's hands full dealing with three festivals at one time, and Tribeca treats out-of-towners like they're invading a private party, Seattle has forged the best film festival I've seen. It's the model that all film festivals should try to better, but few will.

With more audience participation, more awards voting, plenty of special events and secret screenings, an abundance of films that blew me away, industry people that matter and staff that care about the people watching the films, as well as the filmmakers, I won't just be back next year - I'll be back next weekend.

After I've done some laundry.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=741
originally posted: 06/09/03 05:51:54
last updated: 01/03/04 00:30:36
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