Stress, Speed, Scripture, and Schizophrenia

Four quick takes from the Local Sightings Film Festival.

Just as the Seahawks draw fans from as far away as Anchorage and Missoula and Boise and even (gasp!) Portland, the Local Sightings Film Festival has become a regional showcase for cinema from the greater Northwest. Now in its 16th edition, the fest has grown to nearly 20 features and docs this year, plus several packages of shorts, offsite screenings, and seminars featuring talent like Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely, Humpday). There’s no theme per se besides low-budget indie regionalism, so you never know what title will resonate.

Opening night, Walking Against the Wind (7 p.m. Fri.) is the black-and-white debut of Seattle’s Brendan Flynn, a film “about the marginalized,” he says, shot in Pioneer Square and other recognizable locations where panhandlers ply their trade. One is Frank (Tom Ricciardelli), a recently widowed alcoholic trying to manage his rebellious teen daughter. His dead wife’s sister arrives too late for the funeral (none is planned); the ashes are still in an urn among the empty beer bottles that litter Frank’s squalid apartment. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’s being evicted and is soon fired from his dishwashing job. And if that weren’t bad enough, Frank is a mime. O, the pathos of a street mime! Hardly subtle or structured, the film reads like a chapter from what might be called Tales From the Great Recession. While the one percent’s stock portfolios have now recovered, there’s no such upside for Frank and his kid (who dreams of being a tattoo artist). And Flynn offers no phony deliverance for the pair, despite the visiting aunt’s good intentions. Of life’s unrelenting adversity, says Frank, “It’s a test.” So is the movie.

Considerably more cheerful is the old-timey and mostly re-enacted sports doc The Mountain Runners (5 p.m. Sat.), about a race from Bellingham to the top of Mount Baker, contested between 1911 and 1913 as a promotional stunt. Commenting are modern ultramarathoners, including Scott Jurek, and mountain climbers, who marvel at the daring contestants. The athletes were transported by rail and auto to the town of Glacier, where they then slogged roughly 30 miles to the summit and back, despite crevasses and foul weather. No ropes, no crampons, no Highway 542—“There were no rules,” says Jurek, both admiringly and incredulously. With archival stills, newsreels, and historian interviews, the doc is perfectly suited to the Whatcom Museum or local public television. More important, the race helped inspire the Ski to Sea event 60 years later, now one of the biggest adventure races in the nation.

Venturing south down the Sound, Nicole Teeny’s documentary Bible Quiz (7 p.m. Tues.) melds Spellbound and American Teen as members of the Tacoma Life Center memorize scripture for competitions few of us here in secular Seattle might know exist. Teeny, whose younger brother is a “quizzer,” gains intimate access to the team, and she makes 17-year-old Mikayla Irl her Claire Danes/Molly Ringwald–style heroine. Mikayla’s parents appear to be separated, her mother is a drunk, and a brief home visit “is weird and kind of creepy,” she says. Obsessively studying the Bible with her teammates, says Mikayla, gives her “this love I didn’t feel like I was getting at my house.” It also helps—and torments her—that the dreamboat team captain (JP O’Connor) is the object of her mad crush. Teeny is a savvy NYU film-school grad who doesn’t condescend to her subjects. Bible Quiz shows us the non-angry, non-crazy home lives of the Beck-Palin-megachurch-red state community. These teens are likable goofballs who are somewhat thrilled yet overwhelmed by a field trip to Seattle—where atheists hassle them—and the national championships in Green Bay. The topic is ripe for a Little Miss Sunshine treatment, but Teeny doesn’t judge. A postscript, made years later, indicates how Mikayla and JP don’t belong together but end up just where they belong.

The best and most infuriating title I previewed for LSFF is a documentary set in Portland’s trendy Pearl District circa 2006. In Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse (3 p.m. Sun.), its 42-year-old schizophrenic subject is football-tackled to the pavement by a cop for peeing in public. A dozen ribs are broken, a lung is punctured, Chasse is hogtied and taken to the station, and he soon dies of respiratory arrest. The case is like Seattle’s scandalous 2010 police shooting of John T. Williams, made even more timely by the recent Sounders stabber, Donnell D. Jackson, evidently also a schizophrenic failed by the system. Chasse was at the other end of the mental-health spectrum—a shy, frail, fearful man living in assisted housing who loved coffee shops and the library. Friends and family tenderly recall an avid music fan during the punk-rock ’80s who published a zine, then succumbed to schizophrenia during his late teen years.

In pursuing a story that was well-reported in Portland but not quite national news, director Brian Lindstrom spent a half-dozen years following public demands for police accountability and the lawsuit against the city. Depositions and station-house videos are damning, though Lindstrom grants a police-union rep space to respond. Incoming mayor Sam Adams eventually fires the old police chief, but as in Seattle, street-level cops are maddeningly untouchable—they have all the protections and benefits that Chasse was denied in his unhappy life. These overzealous officers also inevitably recall our own 2009 case in Belltown: Christopher Harris, permanently brain-damaged by King County sheriffs with a similarly aggressive tackle.

Alien Boy is a sad reminder of how, from Pioneer Square to the Pearl District to Times Square, our public places attract the indigent, the mentally ill, and those committing illegal acts. How we treat or police those people is a matter of public policy and spending priorities. The easiest option is to do nothing, making the life of James Chasse seem very cheap.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

NORTHWEST FILM FORUM 1515 12th Ave., 800-838-3006, localsightings.nwfilmforum.org. Tickets $6–$12, passes $12–$150. Runs Fri., Sept. 27–Thurs., Oct. 3.

 
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