by Marty Demarest

There's Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Sundance. Further afield are Berlin and Cannes. For fans of the cinema, these locations are oases of enlightened artistry. The annual festivals that they host bring films that can't be found anywhere else, artists who still consider the moving image a medium rather than a profit method. And for the fourth year, Spokane can be added to that list.

It's true that attendees at Spokane's Northwest International Film Festival, which begins Wednesday at the Met, won't be seeing any Hollywood uber-stars hawking their indie-chic-but-studio-produced movies in a facade of integrity, which happens at other festivals. And the notorious parties thrown by production companies in the hopes that major film companies will agree to distribute their pictures are unlikely to find their way into the local nightlife. What will be available - in abundance - are movies made with integrity, talent, imagination and even a degree of glamour, along with the men and women who have created them.

The festival owes its inception to the Contemporary Arts Alliance, directed by Leslie Ronald, who suggested that Spokane could host a festival -- and that it could work. Helmed by film critic and director of the Met film series Bob Glatzer, the festival has become one of the region's ongoing artistic triumphs. Almost anyone who witnessed the Met filled to capacity for the screening of the award-winning documentary American Gypsy, or last year's premiere of the commissioned short film Organ Music can attest that the festival has become one of the cultural events that will keep film-buffs happy and art lovers talking for months.

This year, the festival expands to five different evenings, beginning on Wednesday with the feature film Last Wedding. Directed by Vancouver filmmaker Bruce Sweeney, Last Wedding relates the story of three romantic relationships. "Each couple has to face up to something, in some way," explains Sweeney, listing "professional jealousy, domestic incompatibility and infidelity." It's a story that could be told any number of ways, but because the film was made independently, and with a small budget, Sweeney was able to craft it into something different from a multiplex feature. "I think that it's obviously a personal film, and you have a great personal investment in that film."

For Sweeney and other filmmakers, part of the appeal of working in independent film is the financial situation, which often means lower budgets but increased artistic freedom. "I'm interested in having budgets that are under $5 million, because under $5 million people don't really care about it. When you make a film for $10 million, then there are a lot of eyes looking down at you, and there's a lot more pressure. But when you've got a smaller budget, and make something that makes their money back and then some, then they're thrilled."

On Thursday night, Seattle filmmaker Garrett Bennett will be on hand to present his feature, Farewell to Harry. Set on a Pacific Northwest island much like Bainbridge, Farewell to Harry takes an approach of dreamlike lucidity to its subject. Telling the tale of a young writer named Nick who returns home only to encounter and befriend a local legendary hat maker - Harry - the film explores the nature of friendship, memory and time, all without descending into confusion. It's also a perfect example of how a filmmaker like Bennett, who trained at the American Film Institute, used the creation of an independent feature film to launch a career that satisfied his personal goals. "It was just the kind of story that I knew that if I was going to do it, I was going to have to do it by myself," he says. "Because it's one of these kinds of stories where I realized that I could work on it for 10 years and maybe make it as a $10 million movie with gigantic stars, or I could just make it myself, for a nominal budget, and get it done, and get on with it."

The contemporary music group Zephyr takes the stage along with three classic short films on Friday night, performing the scores to Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's surreal shocker Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), Rene Clair's 1924 comic gem Entr'acte and Joris Ivens' poetic Regen (Rain). A short excerpt from Andy Warhol's provocative film Empire -- which in its full length features a single shot of the Empire State Building for 24 hours -- will precede the screenings and performances.

Canadian filmmaker James Dunnison's feature film Stuff will return to the festival for Saturday's screening. When the festival originally showed Stuff two years ago, the small crowd that attended reacted with complete delight, and many festival-goers named it as the best film of the festival. Due to the quality of the film, the Contemporary Arts Alliance commissioned Dunnison to make a short film, which received its premiere at last year's festival. Both that short, Organ Music, and Stuff will be shown together this year.

Stuff is part fable and part dark comedy, in which Philip, a young boy with a stifling mother, is hit on the head by a mysterious ring, complicating his life even further as he finds himself hunted by "The Hand of God," played by deadpan comic Winston Spear. The film veers wildly between quirky romance and bleak comedy, knit together by Dunnison's vibrant and assured digital video camera work. Spear also stars in Organ Music, as a man who visits Spokane to receive a kidney transplant only to encounter Donut Parade, the Columbia Gorge and a mysterious voice in his head.

Concluding the festival on Sunday will be two screenings of Sherman Alexie's directorial debut, The Business of Fancydancing. Arriving in Spokane days after the film's premiere at Sundance, Alexie will be on hand to present the digital feature, which has a storyline more than slightly autobiographical.

"A very famous, very successful Indian writer," Alexie chuckles, "goes home for a funeral - back to the rez - after not having been home for a decade.

"Art is personal," he continues, "and if you're trying to make independent film, it seems to me that the most independent you can be is to be the most personal. Michael Bay was not at Pearl Harbor. Martin Scorsese is not in the Mafia. The list could go on, from bad filmmakers to great filmmakers. They're making movies that are completely imaginative - which is good and I enjoy many of the movies - but it seems to me that if that's what studios are doing, then how can we as independent filmmakers make our movies that much different?"

Alexie answers his own question. "Getting rid of as many metaphors as possible. I don't want to make a movie about a metaphor." So Alexie turned to his first book, The Business of Fancydancing. "Because it's the most personal book. The most autobiographical."

His decision to direct the film himself, however, rather than cash in on his success as the writer of the critically acclaimed film Smoke Signals, stems from several different impulses. "I didn't want any director to have to deal with me," he jokes. "I was saving directors from this egomaniacal writer."

Alexie is equally frank with the reasons behind shooting the film in digital video. "Digital video is the only way brown people and women can afford to make movies." At the same time, the independence and lower costs allowed Alexie to delve into subject matter that a bigger budget and less control might have compromised - the main character is gay - and use techniques that wouldn't sell a film, like casting a largely unknown cast. For Alexie, however, the difference was worth it, and his sentiment expresses the way in which most festival films differ from their studio counterparts. "It felt much more intimate. It was never logistically difficult, but emotionally it was tough, because the material was really personal."

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