The Seattle International Film Festival Kicks Off

As a boy growing up in Olive Branch, Mississippi I never imagined there was a place that felt the same way I did about film. Sure, I had inclinations that there were pockets out there that shared a similar love. For instance, I took in a grand showing of Gone With the Wind (complete with intermissions!) in Memphis, TN. However, I never put together that a whole city of people who absolutely adored cinema might exist somewhere out there. Websites weren't even invented yet. So if I could go back in time and tell myself that I'd be covering the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival for ... well, I'd like to think I'd have been in a much better mood these past few decades.

The Seattle International Film Festival kicked off in grand style last night at McCaw Hall. We were joined by Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of Outkast), Martin Henderson, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson and director Stuart Townsend -- all representing the opening-night film, Battle in Seattle. I can definitely report that I felt cooler with Andre in the venue; though I had to share those cool points with a few thousand of my closest friends. I should also mention that is a proud sponsor of SIFF and I'd encourage other businesses to give the festival all discretionary income available. Trust me when I say they'll do more entertaining things with it then you were planning on. Ahem.

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) purports to be the "largest and best attended film festival in the world." I have no reason to doubt this claim, and I can tell you after having attended the festival for the past seven years that an amazing amount of material is shown, over 400 feature and short films over a 25-day span. I'll also mention the enthusiastic crowds, folks who will line up in the rain for hours to see almost any film made available to them. To call Seattle's film culture vibrant is to call St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome a fairly religious place.

In fact, in direct comparison to endeavors such as Sundance (slogan: "Come get your picture taken with Paris Hilton!") the SIFF is all about connecting with each other through film. Sixty-nine countries are represented at this year's fest, and one-third of the directors represented are women. This last fact is particularly important to me because I bicker with anyone who will listen about the disparity of working female directors in the business. It just annoys me for no other reason than it doesn't seem very logical that females make up over half the population but fill less than a quarter of the directors' chairs.

This year's film festival looks to be a doozy. The band The Album Leaf will be performing the score for the 1927 classic Sunrise (info here). Sir Ben Kingsley will be honored. You can watch all sorts of shorts online. SIFF holds a wide array of events, from filmmaker workshops all the way up to midnight screenings. If you have an interest in anything cinematic this is truly a festival that needs to be on your radar. The closing night film is Bottle Shock, featuring Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman. I'd encourage you to visit our fair city and take in a few weeks worth of movies if you're able.

SIFF's opening night this year was also much stronger than in past years. Gone was the relentless listing of sponsors, replaced by a few expedited and gracious speakers. Michael Seiwerath was honored for his work with the Northwest Film Forum and mentioned the aspirational goal of SIFF, which is to become the greatest audience film festival in the world. Then Battle in Seattle director Stuart Townsend introduced the film, calling it a dramatic interpretation of the 1999 WTO riots. He noted the movie was a study on "the limits and meaning of democracy" that "blew away the stereotype of the apathetic American."

As for the film itself, well, it was beautiful and terrifying in the same master stroke. I'm not sure when the current trend of eroding civil liberties started, perhaps it was at Kent State in 1970, or maybe it was the moment the idea of a "protest free zone" was actually logically accepted, but clearly Townsend is dialed into the delicate balance our current culture finds itself in. He's dialed into Globalization -- the loss of endangered species, the outsourcing of jobs, and the sinister notion that eight nations control the fate of billions of people with impunity. While some developing nations go without affordable medicine, extremely wealthy nations (such as the US) implement policies that are alarmingly one-sided.

It would be enough to make a fella cry if it weren't for all those people, glorious people, cheering the protesters represented onscreen ... united in the dark.

The Seattle International Film Festival runs through June 15. A full listing of the films showing can be found here.