Now a Seattle Staple, the Local Sightings Festival Showcases the Spectrum of Northwest Film

Medieval mockumentary, a DIY gameshow, indigenous documentaries, moody sci-fi, and films about milk.

The autumn movie calendar brings a handful of essential annual events to local screens—for instance, the Seattle Art Museum’s Film Noir series (kicking off Sept. 29) is the world’s longest-running showcase for noir, and SIFF presents its yearly French Cinema Now festival (also Sept. 29). An increasingly important mainstay is the Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Film Festival. Launched in 1997, Local Sightings draws its roster from movies made throughout the Northwest, casting its net far enough to include Alaska and Montana as well as near-flung Canadian provinces.

The result is inevitably a mixed bag, but that’s part of the point. Some of the films are authentic finds, some are not ready for prime time. But all movies need air, and the festival provides a way to get these things onto a screen and exposed to audiences, where they can flourish or wither. Almost as important, Local Sightings surrounds a year’s worth of regional films with panels, workshops, and parties, all part of maintaining the we-can-do-this-here energy. The real coup in that department is the Sundance Institute Artist Services workshop, a daylong event on Oct. 1. Visiting heavy-hitters from Sundance will collaborate with locals for a series of discussions, including the nuts and bolts of marketing and funding. This marks the first time the workshop has been held in Seattle.

“Mixed bag” also describes the actual range of films on view. With something like 50 shorts and more than 15 features, the subject matter is wide-ranging enough to happily smudge the image of what an indie film is supposed to be. I am amazed that this year’s slate boasts an “animated oral history … brought to life with paper figures and a Super 8 camera” of World War I soldiers (And We Were Young), a feature-length documentary devoted to the glorious kickoff return that ended the 1982 Cal-Stanford football game (The Play), and a comedy about misfits creating a medieval commune in the Washington woods (The Village of Middlevale).

In other words, the festival has titles that sound far from the indie-Sundance-wannabe profile. Two programs, for instance, highlight Native American issues: Kivalina (see sidebar), and Promised Land. The latter tracks the efforts of the Duwamish and Chinook tribes to restore treaty rights (it will be shown at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, an exception to the rest of the schedule). Short programs are all over the place, and will be grouped by theme. For one, the Seattle Web Fest has culled a best-of selection from its online programs. The NWFF also makes room for its own film school in a Filmmaker Showcase that features projects made by students at the end of their first year in the program.

The festival will also feature a retrospective screening of River of Grass, the 1994 film that launched the impressive career of Portland-based Kelly Reichardt, the director of Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. Going back further in time, there’s a story to be told behind High Treason, the first British talkie, from 1929. Long thought lost, a print of the movie—reportedly a Metropolis-like depiction of the future—was discovered in storage on Vashon Island, which is as good a reason as any to include this curio. Virtual reality may not have been in that film’s envisioned future, but VR will get a look-see during Local Sightings, during free all-day drop-ins dubbed X-Sightings (Sept. 24 and 25). Visitors can experience VR at one of a half-dozen or so stations set up onsite. No details yet about the content, but with the rumors that VR technology is about to escalate big-time, content may not be the point.

This being the Northwest Film Forum, parties are built in, from the opening night’s game show (you will be part of something called “The Future Is 0”) and a closing-night bash with a cakewalk event that literally involves cakes. Many, many cakes. Which can’t be a bad thing. Some Local Sightings movies will not be heard from again; others may go on to launch careers or make a difference in the world. For any of that to happen requires an audience, and the particular fun of this kind of festival is taking a chance on something and being part of the process. That, and possibly cake.

Local Sightings’ Must-Sees

Makoshika Jessica Jane Hart, a Billings filmmaker, journeyed to Montana’s Bakken oil fields to catch some of the frenzy around the boom times there (makoshika is a Lakota word for “badlands”). You may have heard the basics of this subject before, but this 50-minute documentary finds strong characters and a ghostly visual representation of eastern Montana’s beastly winters. 3 p.m. Sat., Sept. 24.

Voyagers Without Trace Portland director Ian McCluskey’s film literally follows the trail of three French adventurers who took kayaks down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1938—an amazing true story that was copiously documented (in color 16mm film, no less) by the French trio and recreated for this documentary. McCluskey interviewed people who actually remember the French visit—or at least remember their parents talking about it—and time collapses along this watery American back road. 5 p.m. Sat., Sept. 24.

Milk Men Portland-based Jan Haaken grew up around dairy farming, and Milk Men is a present-day nonfiction study of area farmers grappling to make sense of the business in an era of mega-dairies and robotic milkers. It raises lots of intriguing questions—one dairyman frankly states that the business of raising cows is “the business of managing disease”—and you could make an entire documentary feature out of the prickly issue of how farms are handed down through generations. 7:15 p.m. Sat., Sept. 24.

Kivalina The village of Kivalina sits on a small barrier island in Alaska 80 miles above the Arctic Circle. Documentarian Gina Abatemarco captures the daily rhythms—especially concerning food—of the Inupiaq people there, as well as their frustrations with authorities searching for effective responses to climate change (the government’s determination to build a sea wall—a seemingly absurd gesture in the face of rising oceans—supplies a rich central metaphor). It’s a visually striking film, and haunting in its portrait of a place that may literally vanish. Screens with the short film So Sad I’ll Wish a Ton by Seattle filmmaker Chai Adera. 5 p.m. Sun., Sept. 25.

A Morning Light Local Sightings festival director Dan Hudson suggests that if you like the enigmatic films of Upstream Color director Shane Carruth, this narrative feature might be on your wavelength. That’s about right, as A Morning Light, an outdoorsy mood piece with a sci-fi undertone, spares storytelling in favor of a vaguely creepy sense of place. LaGrande, Ore., director Ian Clark catches the unreal clarity of Cascadian exteriors along with something sinister beneath. 7:15 p.m. Mon., Sept. 26.