The SIFF, or Seattle International Film Festival, is the largest film festival in the United States and has the catchy and appropriate motto of “See Interesting Films First”. The 2011 festival ran from May 19 – June 12 at venues, cinemas, and theatres across the entire Seattle area.
I arrived in Seattle towards the end of the SIFF and generally too late to enjoy premieres or celebrity appearences, or even meet and greets with directors, producers, and the like. So I’m sorry to have to tell you there will be none of that in this article. It will focus on venues and primarily on the films themselves. The original plan was to watch four films, but jetlag and other circumstances whittled it down to two. These two films were “The Hunter” and “The White Meadows”. WARNING: This article contains spoilers!
“The Hunter” (2010) screened at the Egyptian Theatre on Capitol Hill on June 3, 2011 at 4:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time. Originally built in 1915, the Egyptian Theatre has a theatre stage with a cinema screen. The room is curtained on the sides with red curtains and boasts a slightly cheesy (or whimsical, if you prefer) Egyptian decor. In a corner to the left when seated in the theatre/cinema was a sign that read “Aladdin’s Magic Lamp”. As you can perceive from that fact, the aim in decorating the theatre was not accuracy, but a fanciful Westernized version of Egyptian decor. Still, the antique nature of the place favors that, and it was pleasant surroundings. The Egyptian has been home to the SIFF since the 1980s.
“The Hunter” was introduced by SIFF Programmer Justine Barnum who gathers films for presentation at the festival from mainly North Africa and the Middle East. This information was greeted with applause by some. We were told about the new SIFF Film Center that was opening soon and would provide similar films and services year round instead of just at the festival proper. There would be an opportunity following the screening to linger and mull over various meditations and opinions regarding this and other films at the SIFF Lounge at The Noodle. We were also informed that our ticket to that night’s showing would gain us discounts on tickets to see other Iranian films, such as “The White Meadows” and “Circumstance”.
“The Hunter” falls under the genre of thriller. It is an Iranian/German film by director Rafi Pitts who also plays the lead role. I was under the impression that the movie was in the Farsi language, but further research online reveals that it is Persian, with English subtitles. The soundtrack is sparse, but effective. It allows the everyday noises of Tehran to dominate the soundscape. In fact, for the first half, the viewer hears mostly traffic, and, for the second half, mostly rain. The story centers on a very quiet, meditative ex-con Ali Alavi. In the midst of the Iranian elections of 2009, he struggles to reintegrate into free society and shows every likelihood of becoming a reasonably obedient citizen. He earnestly tries to spend as much time as possible with his beloved wife Sara and six-year-old daughter Saba. But one day, Sara is killed in the crossfire during a clash between police and insurgents and Saba goes missing. We follow Ali in his desperate quest to find his daughter and get answers from the police. But, in the same way that he fails to receive any real information from the police, so he fails to locate his daughter. Eventually, she is found, having been beaten to death. This is where Ali’s efforts to reintegrate end. His profound grief turns into resentment against the police that he believes murdered his family, so in a sniper-like fashion in broad daylight he shoots two policemen, leaving them dead on the road. It isn’t long before he is chased down. Here begins the second half. Now in a forest nearby to Tehran where Ali used to take hunting excursions, he is arrested. But the two policemen who have him in custody are not familiar with the woods and all three are soon lost. The clear line between hunter and hunted then blurs as the policemen decide to take justice in their own hands and the viewer is confronted with outright corruption in the system. The startling last scene, in which Ali dies, leaves the question: who is right and who is wrong when everybody are criminals? The applause following was short and sparse. Perhaps the audience was still processing what they had just seen.
Trailer for “The Hunter”.
The next day, June 4, 2011, “The White Meadows” (2009) enjoyed one of its final screenings for the SIFF at The Kirkland Performance Center at 6:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time. The Kirkland Performance Center also had a theatre stage with a somewhat larger cinema screen. The decor was more modern with stadium seating, blush colored seats (the bottom six rows nearest the stage were red), and a gray and black stage that clearly was meant to disappear and focus attention fully on whatever was happening on it rather than the stage itself.
“The White Meadows” is a drama by director Mohammad Rasoulof, for which he and its producer Jafar Panahi were jailed. While Rasoulof has been released, as of the date of this screening, Panahi had not. The film itself has been banned in Iran. It was introduced by SIFF Programmer Clinton McClum who was eager to update the audience on the current status of the director and producer as it was known. Judging by the general conversation of fellow viewers, this movie was a real hit at the festival. The film is in the Persian language, with English subtitles.
“The White Meadows” follows the long tradition of allegory in Middle Eastern literature. In artfully beautiful shots, a world of fable is created using Lake Daryacheh (or Lake Urmia) in North Iran as the setting. It is a stark world of salt islands (called “salt marshes” in the film) in a lake as calm as glass where everything is a sparkling, maddening white. Rahmat, played by Hassan Pourshirazi, paddles through this dream-like world on a small boat and does not interfere in anything that he witnesses, except to collect the tears of the mourning, the oppressed, and the suffering. He patiently listens to complaints, sins, burdens, cares, grief, and woes. In this way, he gives comfort and a measure of relief to the people he searches out. He silently watches their various rituals, superstitions, customs, and punishments. For most of the movie, the audience is awe-struck as they follow his long and arduous journey. This film has the feel of both Homer’s “The Odyssey” and the classic collection of tales “The Thousand and One Nights”, commonly known as the Arabian Nights, for it has both the element of the epic journey by sea of Homer and the grandiose, mythical events of the Arabian Nights. It is not until the final scene that the viewer is shocked with the sight of green, the sound of birds, and an odd conclusion that plays upon several elements encountered in the journey in a symbolic, meaningful way. This movie is both powerful myth and a thoughtful meditation on human suffering and oppression. The overall effect is that one is transported into a fairy tale realm with anything but a happy-ever-after ending that holds a merciless mirror up to the human condition into which the viewers are not forced, but rather tricked into being willing, to gaze at and the serious questions asked cannot be denied. As the credits rolled, the Center was filled with a dead silence for all of two minutes as the audience stared- absolutely stunned by the heart-wrenching import of the film. When the applause finally broke out, it was heartfelt and prolonged. “The White Meadows” is a movie through which one feels changed a little- almost imperceptively- but permanently.
Trailer for “The White Meadows”.