by Marty Demarest

It's rare enough for something like a film festival to find an audience in Spokane. But during the five years that it's been in operation, the evenings of full houses and exciting premieres have confirmed that not only can Spokane sustain a film festival, but that there's room for growth. This year, SpIFF (as the festival is acronymically known) expands beyond American and Canadian films to encompass movies from around the globe.

Festival director Bob Glatzer selects each of these movies based on one all-important principle: high quality. Every film in this year's lineup, and from past years' programs, distinguishes itself with decent production values and ambitious content. These are not dumbed-down, made-for-profit McMovies. Instead of easy solutions and clich & eacute;d questions, SpIFF's movies all engage the viewer with ambiguities. And they usually look as good as their bigger-budgeted counterparts, even though they've been made at a significantly lower cost. Consequently, the lessons their characters learn -- if any at all -- usually sit uneasily with our expectations of cinema. SpIFF gives Spokane filmgoers a chance to have their movie-going habits challenged by work that dares to ask harder questions and yield more complicated answers. The festival presents attendees with films that respect them as viewers and offers them the chance of enrichment as art lovers. It is, in short, the type of festival that anyone who has ever complained about Spokane's lack of movie selections should attend.

Spokane's film festival changed its acronym this year from SNIFF to SpIFF, reflecting a conversion from Northwest films to International films. As a result, this year's festival will lead with a gala screening at AMC 20 Theaters of the Argentinean film Kamchatka, which was an Academy Award nominee in 2003 for Best Foreign Language Film. The film is set in Argentina in the mid-1970s and relates the tensions of a liberal family on the run from the new fascist regime. It's told from the perspective of a precocious 10-year-old boy who watches television, obsesses over Harry Houdini, and plays Risk with his family. It's the sort of film that rarely receives widespread distribution, blossoming instead in festival lineups, where committees tend to look for larger themes in small specific stories.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam is an enchantingly told documentary by Anne Marie Fleming. She embarks on a personal quest to learn more about her grandfather, who was a Chinese magician and acrobat in Europe and then America early in the 20th century. Despite having a phenomenally successful vaudeville career and working with the likes of Orson Welles and the Marx Brothers, Fleming's immediate family knows few of the details of Long Tack Sam's life. On the road from Canada to China, Fleming discovers that, like many immigrant families, many of the stories have been lost or confused over time. The results of these mixed-up narratives are presented in Old World picture box-style animation, with the details changing as new facts emerge.

If you want something bittersweet, ask the French. From coffee to chocolate, the French have had a way with the way that things in life always go bitter, and the sweetness that comes from accepting that as a part of life. Director Claude Berri, a master of the form (his Jean de Florette is a particularly good example) brings SpIFF audiences a new bittersweet comedy, The Housekeeper , which features a jilted, middle-aged man hiring a pretty young thing to do the cleaning. When the housekeeper asks to move into Jacques' apartment, Berri's mastery of situational comedy and human pathos takes over.

Composers like Mozart and Wagner have long drawn on epic, mythical stories as the basis of their operas. Either that, or they wrote about inconsequential people whose lives were filled with enough comedy to float an opera. But 20th-century American composer John Adams has regularly looked to modern political life as fodder for his operas. The Death of Klinghoffer uses the assassination of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists on a cruise ship in 1985 to sustain his exploration of cultural identity and violence. Director Penny Woolcock has taken Adams' opera and given it even more context, using the medium of film to explain the history of both the Jews and Palestinians in Palestine. The topic is still, clearly, relevant, and Adams' score occasionally soars into epic territory. If that weren't engaging enough, Woolcock elected to stage the film on an actual cruise ship, and asked Adams to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. An open discussion will follow SpIFF's screening.

Over the six years of SpIFF's screenings (and name changes), several filmmakers have emerged as festival favorites. Calgary director Gary Burns' film Kitchen Party was included in the first festival, while his Waydowntown was one of last year's highlights. This year, Burns returns with A Problem With Fear, which explores some of the same themes he touched upon in Waydowntown. Chief among them is the crippling effect that fear (of anything and everything) can have on a person's life. Burns places his everything-phobic protagonist Laurie in the middle of a 21st-century urban environment, gradually positioning him among his worst fears. Burns is at his best when depicting contemporary society, and he fills A Problem with small, throwaway moments of comedy that buoy the film to occasional comedic heights.

Normally, film festivals make every effort to include the latest films from cutting-edge filmmakers in their lineup. This year, however, the biggest name in SpIFF's lineup is the respected French director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose career includes the classic Bob the Gambler. Melville's late-1970 crime film Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) tells the story of a heist of a Paris jewelry store, including the relationships between the thieves themselves. Melville, who was a master of suspense, builds the tension in his story clinically and calmly, using action only as a release. John Woo, the director behind Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, is such a fan that he paid to have this film restored and re-released.

My Flesh and Blood is a documentary that does what documentaries do best: It tells us about something that most of us cannot imagine accurately. In this case, it's the family of Susan Tom -- a divorced single mother who is raising 14 children, 11 of whom are adopted. Most of the children in Tom's family are children with special health care needs, and two of them will likely die early. Director Jonathan Karsh won both the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Jury Award for Best Director of a Documentary at last year's Sundance Film Festival. His work here captures one unbelievable family during a particularly tumultuous year, and will give most viewers insight into a world they'd never experienced before.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin makes films the old-school way -- the way old-school way. Using grainy black and white photography, overly made-up actors, silence, and surreal sets, Maddin juxtaposes the themes of contemporary storytelling with early moviemaking techniques. His miniscule short, The Heart of the World, was one of the best films of 2002 (and it also screened at last year's SpIFF). This year he returns with a longer effort, The Saddest Music in the World. Set in depression-ridden Winnipeg in 1933, the film begins with double amputee Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) commissioning a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Among the competitors who arrive are a Serbian cellist with an amnesiac nymphomaniac wife and a failed Broadway impresario.

And finally, Danish director Lone Sherfig's Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is pretty much what you'd expect from the title. The suicidal protagonist has had all he can take of contemporary Glasgow and plans to do something about it. But as in Sherfig's previous film, the sweetly edgy Italian for Beginners, Wilbur is inhabited by the walking wounded -- whose lives of quiet desperation nevertheless have moments of sheer transcendence and unexpected romantic possibility.

A SPIFF-y Schedule --

The Spokane International Film Festival takes place Jan. 29-Feb. 1, with the following films and locations:

Kamchatka - Jan. 29 at 8 pm; Riverpark Square AMC

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam - Jan. 30 at 5 pm; The Met

The Housekeeper - Jan. 30 at 8 pm; The Met

The Death of Klinghoffer - Jan. 31 at 1 pm; The Met

A Problem With Fear - Jan. 31 at 5 pm; The Met

Le Cercle Rouge - Jan. 31 at 8 pm; The Met

My Flesh and Blood - Feb. 1 at 1 pm; The Met

The Saddest Music in the World - Feb. 1 at 4 pm; The Met

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself - Feb. 1 at 7 pm; The Met

Tickets: $7 per film; $54, festival pass; $5 per person in groups of eight or more. Call 624-2615.

Publication date: 1/29/04

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