My Favorite Films at SIFF 2011
June 15, 2011

Maria Tomchick

Here’s a list of the best films that I saw at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival:


How to Die in Oregon (directed by Peter Richardson) – Oregon’s Death With Dignity law has been in force for a while now, and Richardson wanted to find out who is using it and why. The film is a finely crafted, humane, and hopeful examination of a subject that no one wants to think about until it happens to them or someone they love: if you’re nearing the end of your life and the pain becomes too much to manage, what do you do? This was, hands down, the best documentary that I saw at this year’s festival. It will have a repeat showing as part of The Best of SIFF program at the SIFF Cinema (in the Seattle Center) on Sunday, June 19, 2011, at 1 pm.

The Interrupters (directed by Steve James) – My second favorite documentary this year is about a group of Chicagoans, many of whom are former gang members, who are working to decrease the number of shootings and related gang violence in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. They call themselves “violence interrupters,” and this film follows them around as they do their jobs. It’s a long documentary (over 2 hours), but each story is important and complex, just like real life.

My other favorite documentaries, in no particular order, are:

Mama Africa – a film directed by Mika Kaurismaki, one of the Finnish Kaurismaki brothers (Aki is the better known brother here in the US, and his film Match Factory Girl is a must-see). Mama Africa pieces together the story of South African singer Miriam Makeba, who was exiled from her home country for her anti-apartheid activism. She came to the US to pursue her career in the early 1960’s, but was blacklisted after marrying Black Panther spokesman Stokely Carmichael. Then the two of them moved to Africa, where she proceeded to have a long and illustrious career singing (and teaching) African music in numerous native languages. Add to that her incredible voice and some great concert footage, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Project Nim (directed by James Marsh) – It was the Sixties, so why not adopt a chimpanzee into your family? This film follows the fortunes of the first chimpanzee to be raised like a human baby, as part of an experiment to try and teach an animal human language (and, almost coincidentally, human culture). In the process, it also reveals the shocking treatment of animal test subjects in laboratories. After watching Nim frolic with his human brothers and sisters and hang out with his 20-something friends at a university laboratory, it’s difficult to watch him get sold off to a medical laboratory. Will Nim be rescued? What happens to the other chimpanzees who were sold along with him? Watch the film and find out.

Revenge of the Electric Car (directed by Chris Paine) – A follow up to Paine’s very popular film Who Killed the Electric Car, this documentary will probably also get a wide release. It’s slicker than its predecessor, with a bigger budget and a lot more access to the movers and shakers in the auto industry. That access shows in the tone the film takes: it unquestioningly portrays all efforts to build an electric vehicle, whether it’s Tesla Motors’ fits and starts, Nissan’s drive to be the first with a vehicle on the market, GM’s new Volt, or some random guy in a battered warehouse converting gasoline cars into EV’s. I suppose you could call that being objective or comprehensive. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Why all this fuss about the personal automobile, when we should be trying to get more people out of their cars and into mass transit?” Still, this a great film for your car-loving, beer drinking buddies; take a few to see this (when it gets wide release) and have a good argument afterwards.

Best documentaries I didn’t get to see:

At the top of this list is If a Tree Falls (directed by Marshall Curry), a documentary about the Earth Liberation Front. I had a ticket to see it, but the film was cancelled by a twitchy theater manager who thought there might be a bomb in the building (there wasn’t). Shame on SIFF for sending 90% of the audience home, then continuing the screening for an audience of only 20 people, and then not giving one of its “to be announced” slots to it so it could be shown again in Seattle. (It screened in Everett, but who’s gonna go all that way to see one film?) Fortunately, it will be showing again in Seattle sometime in July.

Another documentary that deserves a wide release is the film that won the Grand Jury Prize at SIFF for best documentary, Hot Coffee (directed by Susan Saladoff). Also, animal lovers and nonviolence activists should see a great little film entitled Buck (directed by Cindy Meehl) about Buck Brannaman, who trains horses (not breaks them) and trains people how to get along with, and communicate with, their horses.

Feature Films:

I love a good feature film, but there has to be a theme or message that resonates with me. My favorite this year was the following:

King of Devil’s Island (directed by Marius Holst, in Norwegian with subtitles) – A prison for boys on a rock off the coast of Norway is the setting for this historical film that examines how young people choose to resist abusive power, and the consequences. This powerful film will have another showing at The Best of SIFF at the SIFF Cinema on Sunday, June 19, 2011, at 8 pm. I highly recommend that you see it.

There were four other feature films I enjoyed, in no particular order:

Route Irish (in working class British English, so you should turn on the subtitles) – one of Ken Loach’s better films about a security contractor returning from Iraq who investigates a cover-up surrounding the death of his best friend.

All Your Dead Ones (directed by Carlos Moreno, in Spanish with subtitles) – Shot in the director’s home province of Cali, Colombia, this black comedy is about a simple farmer who finds a pile of bodies in his cornfield, but can’t get the local officials to do anything about it because it’s Election Day. Sounds a little like here, doesn’t it? This film hasn’t been shown in Colombia yet, but (gulp) the director wants it to be. My fingers are crossed.

The Names of Love (directed by Michal LeClerc, in French with subtitles) – Sexy, French, funny, leftist Characters who can laugh at the themselves. What more do you need for a fun film experience?

Maybe a little chaos and a lot of sound? Sound of Noise (directed by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, in Swedish with subtitles) subverts the film musical genre by supplying an entertaining film about experimental music. One scene of tuxedoed and diamond-clad audience members fleeing a concert hall reminded me of a recent Seattle Symphony audience’s tepid reaction to a fantastic program of modern music. As one of the movie’s heroes puts it: “You have to forgive them. Music is all they know.”