May 18, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans

This is a great year for documentaries of interest to classic film fans at the Seattle International Film Festival. In this first week of the festival I will be attending Dawson City: Frozen in Time (2016), a film about the discovery of a stash of nitrate films in Yukon territory.

In the weeks to come, classic film fans will also be treated to screenings of the highly anticipated My Journey Through French Cinema (2016) and Robin Lung's film about the Chinese American woman behind the first Academy Award-winning documentary, Finding KUKAN (2016).

I was able to preview these films and enjoyed both. My thoughts:

Tickets are already beginning to sell out for the two SIFF screenings of My Journey Through French Cinema, featuring director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight [1986], Coup de torchon [1981]). While it covers many films, filmmakers, actors and craftspeople, the movie has a relaxed feel, like an afternoon spent wandering a museum with a knowledgeable art expert. The film has been aptly compared to A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995); both men explore their passion for film with a similar wonder, knowledge and excitement.

Tavernier began his career as an assistant director and press agent to director Jean-Pierre Melville, and has thus met some of the filmmakers and actors he admires. Aside from tales of his somewhat contentious relationship with Melville, he shares his conversations with Jean Gabin and stories of Jean Renoir. He talks about how it felt to watch these films in a post-war French theater and then how those kinds of experiences were later filmed by other directors. Actresses like Simone Signore and Romy Schneider are also given their due and Tavernier pays great tribute to the composer Maurice Aubert (L'Atalante [1934]), who had an enormous influence on the mood of classic French cinema. There is an overall feeling of being enveloped by the experience of cinema.

Having only experienced French cinema from an American point of view, I found it fascinating to learn about a wider breadth of films from an expert on the country's output. While most of the movies that Tavernier considers classics are familiar to many fans around the world, he introduced me to some new faces and lesser known works of directors I admire.

It's hard to believe this film is over three hours; you get caught up in its easy flow, drifting from one film, star or conversation, to another. I am delighted that a second installment is in the works. Can't wait to hear what this man has to say about Jacques Tati.

In 1942, KUKAN:The Battle Cry of China (Bitter Struggle) won the first Academy Award for best documentary. Then it disappeared. For decades, no one seemed to care than a pioneering Oscar winning work had dropped so completely out of sight. 

That changed when filmmaker Robin Lung became curious about the film, suspecting that the technical advisor Ling-Ai LI had played a more significant role in its production. Finding KUKAN follows Lung on a search of seven years as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of the film and Li.

It is both a personal and wide-ranging film. As simple as a fourth generation Chinese American digging into her own culture and as complex as decades of relations between Americans and Chinese. Lung shares the frustrations and triumphs of her quest, and in the process communicates why learning the truth about Li is so important to her and film history. The camera captures her joy when she makes a new discovery and her disappointment when film going to vinegar, disinterested interview subjects and the limitations of the restoration process impede her progress. 

Li, with her confidence, charisma and undying energy is appropriately the spiritual center of the film (a fascinating 1993 interview she gave in her eighties is heavily featured), but KUKAN filmmaker Rey Scott is also given his due. It is interesting to watch Lung begin to appreciate more fully the sacrifices the adventurous photographer made to capture his footage, acknowledging his contributions while helping Li to receive credit for her full participation. The film is as much about Lung coming to terms with her discoveries as it is about the journey she makes to uncover the truth.

Here's the schedule information for these documentaries. Links go to the film's page on the SIFF website:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Friday, May 19, 6:30 pm, SIFF Film Center
Saturday, May 20, 9:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Finding KUKAN (2016)
Saturday, May 27, 12:00 pm, SIFF Cinema Uptown
Sunday, May 28, 7:00 pm, AMC Pacific Place
Friday, June 2, 4:30 pm, Ark Lodge Cinemas

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
Saturday, June 3, 3:00 pm, SIFF Film Center
Friday, June 9, 7:00 pm, SIFF Film Center

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

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