The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is one of the oldest in the country, playing to Pacific Northwest audiences since 1976. It is also one of the longest, running over three weeks. (its about two-thirds of the way through right now). In recent years, some of the most exciting programming at SIFF has come from Catalyst, a series of films, panels and conversations that place indie film front and center and serve as a cross-section of what is happening right now in this very volatile scene. Last year’s Catalyst brought us TIME LAPSE, which ended up being one of my very favorite films of the year (and was just released to theaters and VOD), as well as AMIRA & SAM, recently released by Drafthouse Films. I caught Brad Wilke, the SIFF programmer who spearheads Catalyst, in between screenings of the festival to chat about the upcoming ‘Catalyst Weekend,’ and the drive behind the new(ish) and exciting program.
“Collectively as a programming team we realized that the New American Cinema section at SIFF was screening a lot of films that would eventually be out in wide release,” Wilke says. While audiences always want to see the best films out of Sundance and SXSW or high profile studio films set for a release in a few months, film festivals often tumble over each other to play the same set of ‘new’ films. Finding undiscovered U.S. independent films can become a curatorial risk, and many programmers develop a ‘Cover-Your-Ass’ mentality. If they play a film that has a long festival circuit track record, and no one shows up, at least they can defend why they thought audiences would be interested. Wilke and I tend to agree on nearly everything that matters, I’ll admit right now, which is one of the reasons I’ve been following his programming so closely since I was programming Austin. He and I both know that film festivals are about stimulating the audience rather than playing the films already vetted by Sundance or Cannes etc.
For SIFF, one of the most important fests in North America, the answer was simple, highlight the indie scene in a way quite unlike any other festival. The six films in the Catalyst section speak to the current state of filmmaking in the U.S., highlighting new, exciting voices, covering all sorts of genres and budgetary levels. Some of these films were put together entirely through crowdfunding. Others have budgets smaller than many shorts. All of them were made outside of the traditional system. “These are good movies that are out there that are being overlooked because everybody wants to play what has already been played,” Wilke says, “there is a duty for film programmers to find stuff that is not only good but hasn’t been screened widely.”
Wilke doesn’t go into Catalyst selection with any particular checklist in mind, or programming themes. Instead he allows himself to be impressed by the talents of each individual filmmaker, most of which are delivering their first or second film. However, looking back at the program as a whole, after the fact, he believes “each of the films have a protagonist that doesn’t fit a mold necessarily that you might see in more typical mainstream films.” For FRONT COVER, this is a Gay Asian Male in the fashion industry, in HAPPY 40TH, this is a woman celebrating her birthday from the confines of a wheelchair. “They’re very idiosyncratic,” he continues, “I feel by saying the theme is idiosyncrasy, that would almost say it’s like there’s no theme, but each of these films have a very strong point of view. If you look at it as a whole program, I think that’s one of the defining characteristics that make something a catalyst film, it has a strong point of view and is a story that can only be told by this filmmaker.” Even though the program has a little something for everyone, Wilke says he would be surprised if a filmgoer who saw all of the films, liked all of them. “You want to challenge people,” he says, “these are not meant to be experimental films, they’re all narrative films, but they’re not all meant to be crowd-pleasing.”
In addition to the six films, the catalyst weekend also includes a ‘Catalyst Keynote,’ this year given by Amy Dotson, Deputy Director and Head of Programming for the Independent Filmmaker Project. And though he never has a design going into the films of the weekend, Wilke will admit to shaping the conversations in the panels. “The catalyst keynote has always been given by a woman, or a person of color,” he says, “it’s never been like a white male saying ‘here’s what I think is happening in the industry,’ so there has been an agenda on my part. I don’t need to hear that because I hear it all the time. So I’d rather hear about what else is going on out there.” Also on the docket is The $6000 Layover: Rethinking the Indie Film from filmmaker Joshua Caldwell, whose film played in the Catalyst program last year. There are panels on Composer-Director Communication, Contemporary Indigenous Cinema, Crowdfunding, and Documentary Distribution, as well as the Catalyst Filmmaker Panel. “All the catalyst filmmakers and producers, 90 minutes unfiltered,” describes Wilke, “‘how you made your movies, what got you to this point,’ I think that’s always my most fun panel that we do.”
And what are those films? Here are the six Catalyst selections, and what makes them special (according to myself and Wilke).
Directed by Pablo Valencia
Synopsis: Meet sassy tabby Leonard and his emotional wreck of an owner, in a world where domesticated cats are able to communicate with people and pass judgment on their all-too-human foibles. Hard-of-hearing actors provide the feline voices in this hilarious black comedy.
Bears: It’s hard to resist the crowd-pleasing possibilities of cat videos, and this one features some very mean-spirited cats (usually in the right). It’s like a mumblecore film hijacked by Grumpy Cat.
Wilke: The voice over actors are all deaf and hard of hearing actors, and the reason they picked those actors was they wanted to give them a chance to play a role that had nothing to do with [being deaf or hard of hearing], and I thought that was pretty amazing.
Directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione
Synopsis: Could you trust a jury of your peers with your life? The contestants of a mysterious death game must make harrowing decisions as they strategize for survival in this psychological SciFi thriller.
Bears: This is a film that just throws you in the deep end and it’s sink or swim, just like all the characters experience. A ticking clock drives the action, and you never quite get enough information to know where anyone stands. A very original concept done very simply.
Wilke: It’s a genre film but really it’s a mash up of like Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, so while very much of the moment, it also has a structure that reflects classic genre storytelling, a closed space, people trying to figure out a puzzle, stakes getting higher and higher.
Directed by Andrew Nackman
Synopsis: On his 24th birthday, Adam, a small-town mechanic, decides it’s time to finally tell his friends and family that he’s gay. Will his straight-as-an-arrow best bros have his back? A lighthearted and unexpectedly subversive comedy about coming out of the blue-collar closet.
Bears: It’s funny, it’s crass, it’s got the excellent Jordan Lane Price (from The Nymphets) in it, as well as the youngest brother from the criminally cancelled Enlisted, and Director Nackman did one of my favorite shorts of a few years ago, Paulie, there was no way I wasn’t going to like this. And it did not disappoint. Surprisingly sweet.
Wilke: Funny thing about that movie, I was going to turn it off after about 10 minutes, because I thought it was just another ‘bro movie’ about these guys, drinking, and then they wake up the morning after and this one guy says to his pal ‘I’m gay’ and it’s like ‘oh that’s interesting, now what happens.’ It’s a gay movie for straight people, I could see my parents watching this and liking it.
Directed by Ray Yeung
Synopsis: A mature, nuanced drama that explores the relationship between two Asian men as they battle the cultural norms that keep them from living an honest, authentic life.
Bears: Very developed characters make this film feel fresh, and the discussion of feeling out-of-place in one’s own culture is very well-balanced with the imagery and interactions. This is the kind of film that thrives at festivals, but usually smaller niche (Asian-American or LGBT) festivals, so it’s nice to see it getting the attention of a major one like SIFF.
Wilke: Wow this is a story that you don’t often see, underrepresented protagonist, culture clash, and the LGBT scene. The director had made one film before this, so this film is sort of a transitional film, taking him to the next level of as a filmmaker, it’s a film that might make people think ‘oh I didn’t know people were making stories like this.’ That was a really strong selling point for me, to be able to share a movie like this with a mainstream SIFF audience.
Directed by Madoka Raine
Synopsis: A middle-aged woman, wheelchair-bound for the last two years, invites her three friends over for a long, emotionally fraught birthday weekend in this drama about marriage, friendship, betrayal, and ultimately survival.
Bears: Another film that should have a healthy life on the festival. Female director, pulling amazing performances out of a (mostly) female ensemble, that never falls victim to the usual clichés of these kinds of stories. Beautiful cinematography in a frozen north east setting.
Wilke: It takes a very traditional set-up – how many movies have we seen where friends go to the cabin – I feel like what I hadn’t seen before is the female lead dealing with the after effects of losing her mobility. I thought it was a really strong feminist story.
A RISING TIDE
Directed by Ben Hickernell
Synopsis: After the horrific Hurricane Sandy destroys his family’s restaurant in Atlantic City, young chef Sam Rama must start from scratch, forming new relationships that instill in him hope for the future.
Bears: A generational and class clash that plays out across a culinary battlefield. Spectacular cinematography and the most conventional love story of the group, this film showcases a cast of fresh faces who turn in gritty performances.
Wilke: Daryl Freimark and Kristin Fairweather, the producers, met at the first catalyst four years ago. Catalyst isn’t just about the six films ever year, it’s about the community that’s being built. This is a great example of that.
CATALYST Weekend begins tonight, May 28th and continues until the 31st. For more information, see www.siff.net.