SpIFF board member Ronald, marketing director Rebecca Bishop and their three programmers -- Irv Broughton, Vaughan Overlie and Pete Porter -- collectively watched more than 400 films to select the 20 feature-length films and 26 short subjects that make up SpIFF's 10th annual collection.
Naturally, the festival's organizers aim for a mix of dramas and comedies, feature films and documentaries. "But independent filmmakers tend to make very serious films," says Ronald, laughing. "It's a struggle to get them to lighten up."
But several of this year's movies manage to mix in some comedy: Outsourced (the festival opener on Feb. 7), which involves an American-East Indian romance in trying circumstances; the Best of the Spokane 48-Hour Film Festival (Feb. 8), along with many of the festival's other short films; Jellyfish (Feb. 9), about an Israeli family's quirky interrelationships; Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (Feb. 14), a romantic comedy that tosses together virgins, lovers and adulterers; Frank and Cindy (Feb. 16), a documentary about an eccentric couple filmed by the man's stepson; and Vanaja (Feb. 17), a kind of East Indian Juno about teen pregnancy and class differences.
The big names in film festivals -- Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes -- attract movies that are likely to attract buyers; typically, films that are making the rounds of festivals like Spokane's are still seeking distribution.
And in contrast to the crowded multiple venues at the high-falutin' festivals, Spokane's offers the convenience of a single venue and -- even better -- an opportunity to meet some of the filmmakers. To take just two of many examples: In Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence (Feb. 9), a northern Florida woman discovers that her family may have been involved in hate crimes -- and both the woman and the film's director are scheduled to attend the Spokane screening. In addition, Row Hard, No Excuses (Feb. 10) depicts two guys rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean -- and one of them will be here to talk about 58 days of bailing water.
After winnowing down hundreds of films, festival organizer Ronald doesn't go to a lot of mainstream Hollywood films -- and anyway, "I'm sick of car racing and explosions," she says. "A good film is like a good book, or should be."
At SpIFF, you not only get to read the books, the writer/directors just might be in nearby seats -- and ready to take your post-film questions.
-- MICHAEL BOWEN
OPENING NIGHT | Thursday, Feb. 7, 7 pm
OUTSOURCED (USA, 2006; 1:42)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & o kick off the 10th annual Spokane International Film Festival, the planners looked to our own backyard -- Seattle -- and found a fest-tested feature that's been a crowd-pleaser since first hitting the festival circuit at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. It won Best of the Fest at the 2007 Palm Springs Film Festival, beating Little Miss Sunshine, and took the Golden Space Needle (audience fave) at last year's Seattle Film Festival.
That had to be sweet for the film's team, as it was a totally homegrown project, with Seattle writers, producers and a Seattle director, John Jeffcoat, who will be in Spokane tonight (Feb. 7) for the festival opening.
In a blog he kept throughout the process, Jeffcoat talked about the triumph of Toronto -- and how short-lived it can be for indie filmmakers. "Variety trumpeted Outsourced as 'A sure-fire hit!' It was going to live, it just wasn't going to live with any help from a major studio. The distributors apparently liked the film but didn't know what to do with a romantic comedy without a 'star.'"
But Outsourced has had a strong life on the festival circuit, and did ultimately get a limited theatrical release in September. The story of a young Seattle middle manager (Josh Hamilton) whose company sends him to India to get the call center he used to run up and running overseas, the film tapped into something thoroughly modern. But with its love story, comedy and clash of cultures, there's a familiarity to it as well.
"Outsourced is a timely, topical comedy that mines the rich vein of globalization," wrote the Washington Post in one of many strong reviews the film has garnered.
"It's a zeitgeist thing," co-writer George Wing told Seattle Weekly last year. "We realized we were going to be in a race to make the first outsourcing movie."
And they won, but the also-rans are coming -- including a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson big-budget version, shamelessly titled, you guessed it, Outsourced. And prior to the writers strike, Wing and Jeffcoat were participating in the creation of a treatment of their story for an NBC pilot -- call it The Office meets My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, set in India.
Even though it's headlining an "international" film festival, Outsourced proves you don't always have to look overseas for better movies.
-- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Preceded by Apparent Woes (Canada, 2007). Followed by Luna-catered opening night party ($25).
Saturday, Feb. 9, 3 pm
THE UNION: THE BUSINESS BEHIND GETTING HIGH (Canada, 2007, 1:45)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here are at least two ways to view marijuana as theater: One is the cinema verit & eacute; approach. Sit in the back row of a federal courthouse long enough and you will see them -- mostly young, mostly men -- an endless cast of characters busted for growing, transporting or selling the local toke of choice, BC Bud.
There was the one Spokane guy who didn't have a car and who convinced his mom and her boyfriend -- for a cut -- to drive him up to British Columbia to score weed. They were popped before they got home and all got their cut -- of the penitentiary time. More dark a tale is the young drug lord who had his throat slashed on a remote Idaho road by people he had hired to scare off some rivals.
Better is to watch the Canadian documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High, preceded by the 13-minute short Dead Air by Colin Johnson (Dead Air director Colin Johnson will attend).
The documentary started off as an exploration of the underground market for weed, says director Brett Harvey by telephone. "Then when growers told us they didn't want the market legalized, we started saying, 'What the heck is going on?'" Harvey says. "So ... we started seeing some of the hypocrisies." The Union was a first-time project for director Harvey, composer Michael Champion, writer/producer Adam Scorgie and editor/producer Stephen Green.
The Union is a fast-moving, wide-ranging doc that opens with a brief history of hemp, then dives into the "hypocrisies," as Harvey says, about the use of strong-arm prohibition tactics that fail to dent the demand for marijuana. Prohibition boosts profits not only for growers and criminal gangs but also for police and other entities: The drug-testing business is a growth industry, for example, and so are private prisons.
The buzz (no pun intended) from other festivals is that The Union is both entertaining and hard-hitting, propelled by Champion's memorable original score and leading viewers to conclude that a new approach to marijuana is needed.
"This is an unwinnable war, and it will never end," Harvey says.
-- KEVIN TAYLOR
Sunday, Feb. 17, noon
FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO (USA, 2007, 1:37)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & ilms seeking to undermine homophobia often demonize fundamentalists and lionize the pro-gay rights crowd. For the Bible Tells Me So takes a different tack: It zooms in on mainstream religious families who discover a gay child in their midst. Anita Bryant and Desmond Tutu make appearances in Daniel Karslake's film, but they've already made up their anti- and pro-gay minds. Karslake focuses instead on people who have opened up to the possibility of changing their opinions: Taught to believe that Christian belief was at odds with homosexual practice, they find themselves caring passionately about the welfare of someone -- their own child -- whose very nature other people condemn. Having felt compelled to believe one way, now they're families feeling compelled to believe another.
One of those families is Dick Gephardt's. He's the former Missouri congressman and two-time presidential candidate, once regarded as a social conservative, who grows into acceptance of his daughter Chrissy, who's gay. The film also explores the stories of a Lutheran preacher's kids who come out to their parents, and of Gene Robinson, the well-known gay Episcopalian bishop.
A nominee this year for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and an Audience Award winner for Best Documentary at the Seattle Film Festival, For the Bible Tells Me So points out the inconsistency between historical and literal interpretations of Leviticus. You mustn't eat shrimp or have intercourse with a menstruating woman? Well, you have to take historical context into consideration. But the abomination of homosexual behavior? Well, the writer meant that literally.
It's possible, nevertheless, to reach out with acceptance and love to gay men and women while remaining a good Christian; it's also possible to be gay and flourish among those who have chosen the Protestant lifestyle. Gay viewers of Karslake's film will discern its positive message -- "Yes, people love me, for the movie tells me so" -- and at Sunday's screening, Karslake himself will be there to tell you so.
-- MICHAEL BOWEN
Preceded by The Blacksmith and the Carpenter (USA, 2007); director Chris Redish and filmmaker Scott Trimble will attend.
Sunday, Feb. 17, 3 pm
VANAJA (India, 2006, 1:51)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & n accomplished director with a star-studded cast and a healthy budget would probably be proud of the critical acclaim generated by Vanaja. The accolades are all the brighter, however, considering the film is actually the debut work of director Rajnesh Domalpalli -- written as a project while he was studying film at Columbia University -- and that his cast consisted of non-professionals culled from villages and schools of rural India where it was shot. Working within a budget of $20,000, Domalpalli created a film hailed as an artistic, believable, moving and "exceptionally acted" statement on the antiquated caste system that still affects millions of lives in India.
Vanaja is the story of an impoverished teenage girl (Mamatha Bhukya) who dreams of mastering the traditional Kuchipudi dance while taking care of her alcoholic father -- a simple fisherman overwhelmed by debt. Vanaja leaves school to become a servant in the household of the influential and intimidating landlady Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), where her spunk and intelligence find her favor. Progressing from farm hand to kitchen maid, she prevails upon her mistress -- a formerly celebrated Kuchipudi dancer -- to give her lessons as Devi's 23-year-old son Shekhar (Karan Singh) returns from school in America with political aspirations. After a shaky start, Vanaja and Shekhar fall in love, but the social complexities of the caste system make marriage impossible.
For the dance scenes, Bhukya took a crash course in Kuchipudi in Domalpalli's basement during a year of pre-production. The director likewise trained the other amateurs in his film, yet the consensus of Western critics is that this was his genius. He somehow found exactly the right actors for each role and drew dazzling performances from each of them. Reviewers say the film is richly detailed, authentic and artistically cinematic. (In the Tegulu language, with English subtitles.)
-- MICK LLOYD-OWEN
Preceded by Four Minutes on an Abandoned Bridge (USA, 2007).
Friday, Feb. 8, 6 pm
MANDA BALA ("Send a Bullet")(Brazil, 2006, 1:25)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & anda Bala asks what frog farming, kidnapping, bulletproof cars, and political corruption have to do with the extreme contrast of rich and poor in Brazil. First-time director Jason Kohn calls Manda Bala a "nonfiction science-fiction film." The Sundance Film Festival called it the Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner.
Preceded by the Best of the 2007 Spokane 48-Hour Film Festival: Cold Hard Mash (winner, both Judges' Choice Award and People's Choice Award), along with Dead End, Innocence and Man vs. Myth-Hunters. The 48-Hour filmmakers will attend.
Friday, Feb. 8, 9 pm
SANGA FRAN ANDRA VANINGEN ("Songs From the Second Floor")(Sweden, 2000, 1:32)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & ongs From The Second Floor is the debut film from Swedish director Roy Andersson, whose images etch themselves on your mind and whose take on life tends to be a bit skewed. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell described Songs as "Jacques Tati as rendered by 'The Far Side' cartoonist Gary Larson." You won't forget it. Songs won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Preceded by Windfisherman (Canada, 2007). Windfisherman director Anna McRoberts will attend.
Saturday, Feb. 9, noon
LILLIE & amp; LEANDER: A LEGACY OF VIOLENCE (USA, 2007, 1:24)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & s a young woman, Alice Brewton Hurwitz learned from her grandmother of Aunt Lillie's murder by an African-American man by the name of Leander. Leander was hung, but the story does not end there. Nearly 100 years later, Alice returns to the South, where she takes a journey into her past that is both painful and elucidating. Through interview and reenactment, Lillie and Leander explores racial violence in northern Florida -- and the Hurwitz family's stunning connection to it. It is a journey that is searing for its honesty and courage and one that looks for the truth of the past. Alice Hurwitz and director Jeffrey Morgan will attend.
Preceded by The T-Shirt (Czech Republic, 2006).
Saturday, Feb. 9, 6 pm
JELLYFISH (Israel/France, 2007, 1:18)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & ellyfish, the debut film from writers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, is a comic ensemble piece about characters who try to make peace with their children, parents and loved ones. Hypnotic and beautifully photographed, Jellyfish earned the Camera d'Or at Cannes this year.
Preceded by Secret in the Wind (Taiwan, 2006).
Saturday, Feb. 9, 9 pm
DarkBlue-AlmostBlack (Spain, 2006, 1:45)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he funny but serious DarkBlueAlmostBlack is the remarkable debut of director Daniel S & aacute;nchez Ar & eacute;valo. Weaving several stories, Dark centers on Jorge, who finds himself working as a janitor, caring for his invalid father, and navigating the unusual requests of his ex-con brother. Meanwhile, his best friend Israel struggles with his sexual identity after discovering that his father frequents a male masseur.
Reminiscent of the work of Pedro Almodovar, Dark swirls together family, sex and class in its tale of self-discovery and coming to terms with the past and the future.
Preceded by Stuff (Canada, 2007).
Sunday, Feb. 10, noon
ROW HARD, NO EXCUSES (USA, 2007, 1:23)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & ow Hard, No Excuses focuses on two middle-aged men who challenge the ocean in a rowboat: 58 days and 3,000 miles in the Atlantic Rowing Challenge. The drama continues even after the race is over. A stunning documentary about one of the most taxing athletic events in the world, and one that challenges the very character of the human animal as well. One of the two rowers depicted, Tom Mailhot, will attend.
Preceded by The Letter (Russia, 2007) and Mugs (USA).
Sunday, Feb. 10, 3 pm
NIWEMANG ("Half Moon")(Iran/Iraq/Austria/France, 2006, 1:54)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & famous Kurdish musician wants to return to Kurdish Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, so he gets in a rattling school bus along with his sons and makes the trip. A road-trip movie unlike any other.
Preceded by Gran Zambini (Spain, 2005).
Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 pm
EL VIOLIN (Mexico, 2005, 1:38)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Violin, from Mexican director Francisco Vargas Quevedo, presents the story of Don Plutarco, an elderly farmer and violinist. He's the patriarch of a musical family who has fashioned an ingenious way of smuggling ammunition beneath the noses of government troops. The Violin is a captivating and beautifully presented tale with a strong sense of social justice.
Preceded by Soldat (Croatia, 2006) and A Policy of Injustice (USA, 2007).
Thursday, Feb. 14, 7 pm
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sweden, 1955, 1:48)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n Valentine's Day, SpIFF 2008 pays tribute to Ingmar Bergman with a screening of Smiles of a Summer Night, a romantic comedy about adultery and self-deception. Smiles brought Bergman international recognition before The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries made him one of the world's foremost film artists.
Preceded by Sinfonia (Spain, 2005). Followed by a Valentine's Evening Gala with champagne, chocolate and flowers ($20, films and party).
Friday, Feb. 15, 6 pm
BALLERINA (France, 2006, 1:17)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & allerina is director Bertrand Normand's portrait of five different Russian ballerinas from the Mariinski Theatre, formerly known as the Kirov Ballet. Behind the ravishing performances -- and there are many on offer here -- lies the discipline and rigor involved in the training of some of Russia's pre-eminent dancers.
Preceded by Tea Reverie (USA, 2007).
Saturday, Feb. 16, noon
FRANK AND CINDY (USA, 2007, 1:13)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & rank is a former lead singer in a boy rock band; Cindy is his wife, and G.J. is her son. Frank and Cindy is a documentary look into the lives of two unusual lovable souls, as viewed through the keen eye (and viewfinder) of G.J. -- filmmaker, actor and funny, jangle-jointed dancer in some funny/unfunny commercials. How they all get along is a study in mayhem that is both loving and disgusting. As Cindy pursues a fix for her bad teeth and subsequently dreams of a fine job -- and as Frank drinks -- everything crumbles. Eventually Frank, while vulgar, sort-of steps up to reveal his love for Cindy, buried over 25 years in the abyss of substance abuse. Filmmaker G.J. persists in filming extreme close-ups of one of the oddest and most interesting couples anywhere.
Preceded by A Little Night Fright (USA, 2007) and A Morning on Maple Street (USA, 2008; directed by Juan Mas of Spokane's North by Northwest.
Juan Mas will attend.
Saturday, Feb. 16, 3 pm
MURCH (USA, 2006, 1:18)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the world of cinema, Walter Murch is one of Hollywood's geniuses. He is the only person who has won Oscars both for film editing and for sound editing. In the 1970s, he worked on four great films with Francis Ford Coppola: The Conversation, The Godfather I & amp; II and Apocalypse Now -- among others. Murch also worked with Anthony Minghella on The English Patient -- innovating new methods all along the way. Murch the film speaks to the creative spark in all of us -- whether student, filmmaker or cin & eacute;aste. Directors Edie and David Ichioka will attend.
Preceded by Fridays at the Farm (USA, 2006).
Saturday, Feb. 16, 6 pm
GUBRA (Malaysia, 2006, 1:45)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & his comedy-drama deals with several characters whose lives touch each other when the patriarch of a family must go to the hospital. The younger daughter, although married, has unresolved feelings for her dead boyfriend. A parallel story in a poor neighborhood revolves around a mosque that is overseen by a young muezzin and his lovely wife. Both devout Muslims and sex workers are shown sympathetically with a compassion rarely found in contemporary cinema. Gubra will give you another view of Islam.
Preceded by Choque (Spain, 2005).
Saturday, Feb. 16, 9 pm
LAITAKAUPUNGIN VALOT ("Lights in the Dusk")(Finland, 2006, 1:18)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ights in the Dusk concludes the so-called "loser trilogy" begun by Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past. A night watchman unwittingly falls for a woman tied to criminal elements that aim to exploit his position for a robbery. The watchman takes the blame, loses his job, and seems to abandon his hopes for romance. If this all sounds bleak, it isn't entirely. Director Aki Kaurismaki manages to invest his characters with surprising warmth in this serio-comic portrait of an outsider who perseveres despite his limited prospects. Lights has played at numerous international film festivals, including Cannes in 2006.
Preceded by Milan (Germany/Serbia, 2007).
Sunday, Feb. 17, 6 pm
LES T & Eacute;MOINS ("The Witnesses")(France, 2007, 1:55)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he time is 1984. The place is Paris. A young, handsome man (Johan Lib & eacute;reau) arrives and strikes up a platonic relationship with a wealthy doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc), who introduces him to Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a young couple who have just had their first child. An unplanned love affair at the onset of a new, unnamed epidemic upsets the tranquility of their lives. The four friends are confronted with the end of the sexual revolution as each faces new possibilities.
Preceded by Bye-Bye! (Canada, 2007).
All screenings at the AMC River Park Square 20 in Theater 4. Tickets: $9; $40, any five programs. For more information, go to www.spokanefilmfestival.org. Call (509) 624-2615. Film descriptions provided by SPiFF, unless otherwise noted.