The Film Buff
Doesn’t sound like a bad gig—getting paid to watch movies. That’s just what Carl Spence, Festival Director and Chief Curator of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) does. Of course, there’s much more to it than that: the festival requires a massive amount of planning. Spence decides which movies have the potential to touch his Seattle community and which artists should be given their due on the big screen. We spoke to Spence about Seattle’s film community, how he selects submissions, and which movies you should see from this year’s selection.
What’s unique about the Seattle film community?
The Seattle film community is a group of fiercely independent artists with strong vision and high standards of excellence for their craft. As a community of collaborators, they are very supportive of each other.
You went to school in Washington, then left the state, and are now back. Could you speak about your trajectory and how your years elsewhere impacted your relationship to Washington?
Living in a foreign country or even a different city provided a unique perspective and the ability to look at things through a different lens. In terms of other cities such as San Francisco, New York, Palm Springs, and Tokyo, each of them had so many different attributes and attractions that Seattle may not have had. At the same time, living elsewhere allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty and rhythm of living in the Pacific Northwest—from the vibrancy of Seattle to the tranquility of the San Juan Islands and the majesty the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges. I don’t think I would live anywhere else as my place of permanence—though to this day, I love to travel and visit far away locations.
What’s your process for curating the films for the festival?
It is a year-long process. Starting in July, we travel the world, visiting other film markets, festivals, and regions to look for films for the Festival occurring the following May. Our open call for submissions goes out in August. We research and track all things film throughout the entire year and usually end up with a list of about 5,000 films to consider, review, and discuss that include unsolicited submissions as well as films we reach out to directly.
What are some of your favorite films this year, and why?
MOON IN THE 12TH HOUSE—The only politics in this film are the politics of an estranged and broken family. The two young actresses in this film are mesmerizing and the film is beautifully crafted by emerging female talent, Dorit Hakim.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA—A 13-year-old African American teenager and his father struggle to fit into the very white town of Heidelberg, Germany. The challenges of being black and misunderstood in a foreign country balance the film’s comedy and levity.
NEWS FROM PLANET MARS—Terrific Belgian comic actor Francois Damiens stars as a middle-age man with a humdrum existence and Vincent Macaigne is the highly erratic meat cleaver carrying nutcase who wakes him up to the excitement of life.
RED GRINGO—I never knew who Dean Reed was, but I’ve always been fascinated by the repressed and overlooked history of Latin America and this film opened my eyes to a crazy but true story of someone who was beloved almost everywhere else in the world except his country of birth. Another discovery from my visit to Buenos Aires.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU—Sweet as ice cream, this is a lovely and romantic fictionalized account (though painstaking researched) of the first date of our current president and first lady.
WELCOME TO NORWAY—Winner of the audience award in Goteberg, this is a wacky Scandic comedy with atypical plot lines as a down and out but lovable loser comes up with a plan to turn his failing resort into a bustling refugee center for profit.
BEING 17—The directing chops of André Téchiné (Wild Reeds) with screenplay duties shared with Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) sets the stage for an explosive and contemporary take on the coming of age genre in a way that only could be conceived and portrayed by the French.
What’s the best way to watch a movie (theater vs. couch, popcorn vs. M&Ms, alone vs. on a date vs. with a friend, etc.)?
My favorite place to watch films is in a cinema, where there are no distractions. Just true escape with endless possibilities. It’s a great place to let your mind wander and get out of the realities of responsibility and obligation. Outdoor cinemas and drive-ins are also a favorite but I haven’t made that happen as much lately. The best drive-in experience in my life was probably in a classic 1970s Cadillac convertible filled with a bunch of friends.
I often watch films by myself for work but prefer to see movies with a packed house of people. Some of my best movie memories are from those collective experiences of seeing something unexpected in a communal setting. I love that we now have the option of wine or beer instead of sugary soda at our SIFF Cinema locations. Popcorn tastes great with wine.
Couches are way too comfortable and usually put me to sleep, which leads to watching things again the next morning. I will watch films on small screens when on a plane, but otherwise I like to see films projected!