The 28 Films You Must See at SIFF 2017

The Seattle International Film Festival Runs May 18-June 11
May 17, 2017
In the "amazing and maddening" Forever Pure (playing May 21 and June 4), director Maya Zinshtein delves deep into a fascinatingly volatile situation: the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club who broke tradition in 2012 and signed two Muslim players.

SIFF, still America's biggest film festival, runs May 18-June 11, and we have a complete guide to its every aspect on our SIFF calendar—from showtimes and ticket links to trailers and reviews from Stranger critics. During the 25 days of the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, there will be screenings of 400 films (many of which will play more than once, 36 of which are world premieres, and 86 of which are Stranger-recommended), plus about a dozen parties and special events. In case all of those numbers are overwhelming, we've picked the films you absolutely must see throughout the festival (28 of them!) and compiled them here. Click through to each film for ticket links, specific showtimes, and trailers. See you at the cinema!

MAY 19-20, 24

The Farthest
Now that we’re stuck with an administration that has nothing but disdain for science, a documentary about 1977’s Voyager mission seems more nostalgic—and necessary—than ever. After all, it was in 1972, under soon-to-be-disgraced President Richard Nixon, that the project came into being. Each probe contained a golden record with greetings and songs for aliens that might be encountered while exploring Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond. Scientists involved with the project talk about the thinking behind it, which can get jargony, but their passion generates a warm glow—until the reality of 2017 sinks in again. (KATHY FENNESSY)

MAY 19-20

Chavela introduces American audiences to the eponymous Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica–born Mexican ranchera singer who rose to fame (and infamy) in the 1940s. The film documents the artist’s solitude as a semi-closeted lesbian in macho Mexico and her struggle with alcoholism, all while dazzling audiences with Vargas’s powerful and soul-crushing performances. Director Catherine Gund blends frank and funny interviews with Vargas in 1992 with evocative glimpses into the artist onstage, and also sit-downs with those who know and love her. She died in 2012. If you thought mariachi bands were the only musical export Mexico had to offer, Chavela is here to remind you how wrong you are. (ANA SOFIA KNAUF)

MAY 19, 22-23


A bedraggled outback cop (Aaron Pedersen) is sent to investigate a missing-person case in a small mining town, and, in the best noir tradition, quickly stumbles into a whole nest of vipers. Writer/director Ivan Sen’s stand-alone sequel to his earlier Mystery Road is exceedingly well-crafted, smuggling some potent themes underneath its drum-tight narrative. A fantastic example of genre filmmaking, chock-full of shady people doing shady things, cars vrooming through breathtakingly wide open spaces, and a brilliantly staged shoot-out in a maze of industrial trailers. All this, plus Jacki Weaver as a suspiciously burbly mayor, to boot. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

MAY 20-21

The Force
Dash-cam video shows a police officer approaching a vehicle as a black suspect, who is reportedly wielding a knife, opens the passenger door. The officer yells, “Don’t you move or I’ll shoot you,” before the man climbs out of the car. The officer fires multiple shots into the suspect’s body. By now, we’re used to seeing videos of this kind—black men killed by police officers. In Peter Nicks’s documentary The Force, it’s Oakland police cadets who watch the video and dissect the timeline of events leading to another black man dead. Nicks secured incredible access to the department from 2014 to 2016, when it had already ticked off more than 10 years of noncompliance with a negotiated settlement agreement. As the nation turns its eyes on its police departments, Nicks offers an interior view of one trying to adapt to the dictates of policing in the age of #BLM. But his lens doesn’t make any judgments. He leaves it up to the footage to tell the story—no interviews, no narration. We see one captain repeatedly tell officers in training that a single misdeed can ruin the reputation of the department. We see the police chief, with his public-relations team, anticipating questions from the press following a fatal police shooting. We see community members decrying slow response times and protesters stomping through a police cruiser’s windshield. Toward the end of the film, news breaks that several Oakland officers raped and trafficked a teenage girl. The police chief resigns. So do his two next replacements. The Oakland Police Department finds itself, once again, at a nadir of community trust. And we’re watching it all unfold in real time. (STEVEN HSIEH)

MAY 20, 22, 25

Bad Black

The genius of Wakaliwood films, which are made in the slums of Kampala, the capital of the English-speaking African country Uganda, is that they cannot be improved. The way they look is exactly how they were made: with almost no money. The raw action scenes and stunts, the super-cheap CGI special effects (the kind you find on an iPhone), the poor quality of the sound, the disorderly editing, the crazy mesh of English and Swahili, and the improbable plots are precisely what make these films so enjoyable. Because the poverty of the production is so proud of itself, so brazen, so lacking in shame, it directly mocks first-world production values. If, say, the special effects were upgraded, then these films would lose a lot of their political and comic power. Another aspect of Wakaliwood films is their benshi (a performer who provides narration) bringing the whole mess together. If the benshi does not make you laugh until it hurts, then he has not done his job. Bad Black is a Wakaliwood masterpiece. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

MAY 20 & 22, JUNE 3

A Dragon Arrives!

A cemetery located in the middle of a desert island and under the shadow cast by a rusted shipwreck, an exiled political prisoner who made the wreck his home (and wrote all over its walls) found within it dead from apparent suicide (or was it murder?), an earthquake that hits every time a fresh body is buried in the cemetery (is it ghosts or something more mythical?), and the detective who investigates it all with help from a sound engineer and a geologist (all of whom end up disappearing under unknown circumstances) make up the plot of Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives! The Iranian film is one part cleverly done mockumentary (it’s presented as a true story and interspersed with interviews that include Haghighi as himself), one part supernatural mystery dosed in light political intrigue, and the result is just as noteworthy for its truly epic landscape shots as it is for the compelling manner in which the story unfolds. (LEILANI POLK)

MAY 20, 27

The Fixer
Radu (Tudor Istodor), the wiry Romanian at the heart of this sly procedural, is always on the move. Rumpled and unshaven, the trainee photojournalist zips from assignment to assignment. When he isn’t working, he’s berating his girlfriend’s son for his swimming technique. He expects everyone to work as hard as he does. As a fixer, he assists a crew of French journalists in investigating a sex-trafficking ring, where his impatience meets its match in tough nuns and traumatized victims. Director Adrian Sitaru avoids moralizing as he depicts Radu’s dawning realization that there are things in life more important than winning. (KATHY FENNESSY)

MAY 21

Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess: Four Enchanting Tales

Kirikou and the Sorceress animator Michel Ocelot produced this lush and vibrant children’s feature in his signature silhouette style. It’s anchored by a cleverly meta premise: a projectionist and his two apprentices try to avoid expected plot devices while bringing four magical tales to life, which follow a girl who learns to master monsters, a magician-in-training who must outwit his devious master, an abused ship boy and his canny cat, and the film’s eponymous story, about a young man trying to save his father’s life and the shape-shifting princess who decides his fate. It’s short and sweet (a manageable 57 minutes), inherently charming, and clever enough to be enjoyed by adults, though children who see it will need to be able to read—it’s in French with English subtitles. (LEILANI POLK)

MAY 21-22


Recall Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary about two black American teenagers who dream of becoming pro-ballers and making millions. Step is not like that. Though having the same urban and class setting as Hoop Dreams (this time Baltimore and not Chicago), these black American teenagers are not dreaming of fame or riches. There are no such illusions for them. Their goals are more realistic: graduate from high school, get into college, obtain a degree, and secure stable employment. As for step dancing (which is not really at the center of the documentary), it provides pleasure, discipline, and a way to discharge a lot of inner-city pressure. Life for these young women is not easy at home or in the classroom. Sometimes there’s no food in the fridge; other times, homelessness is one unpaid bill away. The documentary is straightforward and powerful. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

MAY 21, JUNE 4

Forever Pure

The Beitar Jerusalem Football Club was long known as “the team of the underprivileged,” forming an apparently unbreakable bond with its adoring working-class fans. Once the team broke tradition in 2012 by signing two Muslim players, however, the atmosphere in the stands quickly became toxic. Director Maya Zinshtein delves deep into a fascinatingly volatile situation, exploring the bewildered team members, the nuclear passions of their former fans, and the club’s owner, a Freon-veined Russian billionaire who baldly states that he bought the team as a propaganda tool in his failed bid to become mayor of Jerusalem. Amazing and maddening. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

MAY 23-24, 27


In 2007 Mali, an honest prantiké (bus driver), Ladji, is disheartened by his lack of prospects in the driving business and breaks into drug trafficking. In this new criminal world in which Al-Qaeda drug lords reign, life is expendable. The protagonist quickly ascends in wealth and status at the expense of life as he once knew it. While others benefit from his sacrifices, the ghosts of his past come to haunt him. Cinematically, Wùlu offers a Malian aesthetic, beautiful in its realness. Politically, the film reveals the sinister undercurrents that led up to Mali’s devastating 2012 coup d’état unraveling. (KAIA CHESSEN)

MAY 24-25, JUNE 1

Becoming Who I Was

This gorgeously shot, touching documentary by director Moon Chang-yong follows the story of Padma Angdu, an adorable young boy who lives in northern India and is believed to be a reincarnated lama from Tibet, aka Rinpoche. As such, it’s expected that his disciples will fetch him to live in their monastery, but as the years go by, young Rinpoche’s hope begins to fade. His aging teacher, Urgyan Rickzen, refuses to give up, however, and their intimate bond keeps both of them going, even against seemingly insurmountable odds. (KATHLEEN RICHARDS)

MAY 26-27

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World

Catherine Bainbridge’s important documentary traces the impact that Native American musicians have made on blues, rock, jazz, hiphop, and heavy metal. Using Link Wray’s menacing 1958 instrumental “Rumble” as its anchor (akin to Do the Right Thing’s use of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”), Bainbridge relates stories of several influential, distinctive performers, including the Band’s Robbie Robertson, activist folkie Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mildred Bailey, Charley Patton, and a cat named Jimi Hendrix. Rumble asserts the primacy and resiliency of Native culture despite the government’s concerted efforts to suppress and erase it. (DAVE SEGAL)

MAY 27-28

A Date for Mad Mary

The titular character, Mary, played by Seána Kerslake, reminiscent of an Irish, redheaded Scarlett Johansson, is indeed mad. Mad at the world, mad at her family, mad at her best friend, Char, who is getting married. Mary has been sprung from prison for an assault, has a bad rep around town, and gets drunk and thrown out of clubs in her small Irish town, Drogheda, located near Dublin, on the regular. Ostensibly, much of the movie is built around Mary trying in vain to find a date for the wedding. Her high-school best friend has become a bridezilla—a snobby perfectionist trying to shed her lower-class roots—and she clearly merely tolerates Mary and needs Mary’s date to be “acceptable.” But the usual rom-com plot unfurls to reveal something more touching and nuanced—as well as an unexpected love story. (TRICIA ROMANO)

The Hero
Lee (Sam Elliott) has cancer, he smokes a lot of weed, he is divorced from his wife and has been neglectful of his adult daughter, and his successful acting career is in the past. This is an intense, quiet movie about a man possibly facing his death and evaluating his life. There are some nice moments of levity provided by a drug-dealing friend (played by Nick Offerman). Sam Elliott is wonderful, and so are his eyebrows and mustache. (But a small—okay, big—quibble: Why can men in movies not date women within their own age range?) We root for Lee’s revitalization even as he questions whether it is worth it to try to buy more time. (GILLIAN ANDERSON)

MAY 29, JUNE 5

Endless Poetry

With this autobiographical film, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist genius behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, has created the most accurate portrayal of a poet’s life in cinema history. When young Alejandro discovers a book of Federico García Lorca’s, he escapes his family’s house, becomes a poet, moves into a weird artist co-op, and only physically ages after having major life experiences. Every non-artist in Santiago de Chile, where the action takes place, is either a sleeping drone or a murderous pervert. Life in this world seems impossibly lonely until he meets a pink-haired woman warrior who kicks and spits at everyone she encounters. Equal parts goofy and gorgeous, plus violent and theatrical. Very magnifico. Highly recommended. (RICH SMITH)

Pow Wow
Fourteen brief chapters about the life and times of selected residents of the Coachella Valley, ranging from history-minded lifers to recently retired transplants. (Also, Shecky Greene!) The latest from Robinson Devor (Police Beat, Zoo) is gratifyingly, absorbingly odd, stocked with a cast of real characters who are all effortlessly off-kilter. (“What would my life be like if I died?” is just one of the wobbly, near-gnostic sayings on display.) Hypnotic viewing, with an eerily majestic use of drone shots and the goddamndest helicopter you’ll ever see. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

JUNE 2-3

Lane 1974

This excellent debut feature from Seattle-based filmmaker SJ Chiro tells the story of 13-year-old Lane and her siblings, who are being raised by their counterculture mother in 1970s Northern California. The mother, Hallelujah (The L Word’s Katherine Moennig), is the opposite of the helicopter parent: Putting her own drama and needs first, she lugs her three kids from one ill-advised situation to the next. She rejects the mores of established society, leaving the children desperately yearning for regular stuff: cheese, sugar, fashionable clothes, a nice house. The feeling of the era is well-reflected in the clothes, music, and bucolic locations. And young star Sophia Mitri Schloss has an appealing, serious presence—and as Lane, she shows the helplessness of watching her mother spiral their life out of control, unable to do anything to ground them. (GILLIAN ANDERSON)

JUNE 2-3, 7

The Reagan Show

There is no narrator in this documentary, no talking heads, no experts, no direct analysis. The entire thing consists of archival footage from network news and the machinery that manufactured the images of America’s 40th president. Ronald Reagan and his team changed the whole game of American politics by transforming the White House into a movie studio. These men understood that he wasn’t a president, but playing one in Hollywood. Without this understanding (make everything a movie), the new conservatives (or neoliberals) would not have finally and effectively defeated that five-decade truce between workers and capitalism called the New Deal. The Reagan revolution was indeed televised. The documentary also makes it clear that Donald Trump is a rank amateur and completely lacks Reagan’s art and discipline. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

JUNE 2-4

At the End of the Tunnel

As Americans, we have completely forgotten how to make great crime thrillers. And this is exactly what we find in every scene, moment, and line of the Argentinian film At the End of the Tunnel: a superb crime thriller. Directed by Rodrigo Grande, the film concerns an elaborate bank heist, a broken man and his traumatized dog, and a nosy stripper and her traumatized daughter. The timing of the plot’s many twists and surprises is just perfect, and its interior spaces (living room, kitchen, bedroom, basement, tunnel) and exteriors (overgrown garden, city streets) are filled with shadows. What is the man in the wheelchair up to? Is the stripper his friend or foe? What is the little girl whispering to the dog? This is how you do it, goddammit! (CHARLES MUDEDE)


The Dumb Girl of Portici

Anna Pavlova was a prima ballerina, a superstar and a dream, and in this restoration of Lois Weber’s 1916 silent ballet film The Dumb Girl of Portici, she’s on-screen. Commanding and emotive, she dances like an unusually graceful goblin or a small child. Her performance, the bloody revolution against the aristocracy, and intertitles reading things like “With her own hands the Princess had embroidered a scarf that was destined to play an important part in her life’s tragedy” make the film a must-see combination of frivolity, drama, politics, and art. (JULIA RABAN)

My Journey Through French Cinema
For fans of Martin Scorsese’s essays on the cinematic histories of both America and Italy comes this like-minded clipfest by longtime SIFF fave Bertrand Tavernier (best known for Round Midnight, Coup de Torchon, and L.627). Footage from an astonishing breadth of films from the 1930s to the early 1970s, archival interviews with many of its greatest artists, and an overarching sense of personal thralldom to the form itself make this an absolute must-see for experts and newcomers alike. Bonus features: Investigations of French national identity feel more urgent than ever AND it’s useful to recall that no matter how important the New Wave was/is, it was only one chapter in a story that can truly be called epic. (P.S. There is reportedly an 11-hour version of this doc being shown on French TV, to which I say: Bring it on!) (SEAN NELSON)

JUNE 3, 5

The Paris Opera

What you must not do with this superb documentary about the workings and the ups and downs of one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, Paris Opera, is compare it with Frederick Wiseman’s work. Wiseman’s documentaries are simply exhaustive. They are not beautiful and have very little or no poetry in them. This documentary by Jean-Stephane Bron, a Swiss director, has the pace, the editing, the appearance, and the mood of a big-production drama. A young man from the Russian sticks auditions and, to his surprise, is hired by the opera. He hardly speaks any French, and now he is at the center of this civilization and this institution (which has a view of the Eiffel Tower, the business district, the gray and black rooftops of the great old metropolis). There are certain sequences in this doc that will lift your spirits up to the highest states of feeling that this art can reach. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

JUNE 4, 9, 11

The Landing

In an era when reality is defined by the pleasing lies of documentary filmmaking, the ability to seize that language to make fiction is a great artistic asset. The makers of this brilliantly speculative reconstruction of the fateful Apollo 18 moon mission utterly nail every formal note of the here’s-what-happened school of talking-head storytelling, and then assemble those notes into a smart, dark, disconcerting concerto on international conspiracy theory, big government cover-ups, and the eternal engine of jealousy. Like a NASA mission, every atom of this film had to be executed perfectly, and all systems are go. (SEAN NELSON)



This science-fiction flick is Natalie Wood’s last film. It was mostly shot in 1981, and was released in 1983. It’s also the film that explains why Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUID) are illegal in the 1995 film Strange Days. This device, which makes its first appearance in Brainstorm (but instead of recording personal experiences onto a mini-disc, it records them onto a thick reel of tape), stores not only experiences but emotional states. The scientists who made the device soon realize that human-to-human virtual reality is not pure, but mixed with how the recorded subject feels about an experience. This and other aspects of the technology cause serious ethical problems. The scientists rebel against their own machine. Christopher Walken plays one of the scientists. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

JUNE 5-6

Pavlensky - Man and Might

Peer into the mind and motives of Petr Pavlensky, a Russian dissident artist best known for nailing his scrotum to the pavement in the middle of Red Square (yes, they do show it, but only for a wince-inducing few seconds). The documentary follows Pavlensky’s various “actions” as well as his dramatic home life—combining silhouetted, animated re-creations of court testimony and sweeping cityscapes paired with an ominously tinged score. The result? A riveting (pardon the pun), nuanced depiction of using self-violence as an apparatus of declaring absolute artistic freedom in the face of authoritarian state power. (AMBER CORTES)


The Grifters

For reasons that are deep and complicated, the last decade of the 20th century saw the revival of a class of crime films categorized as noirs. And one of the best noirs of this period is The Grifters, which stars John Cusack, Annette Bening, and Anjelica Huston (the daughter of the man, John Huston, who directed one of the greatest noirs of the classical period, The Maltese Falcon). The Grifters launched Anjelica Huston’s career. Before the movie, she was just the daughter of John Huston; after the movie, she became Anjelica Huston—the actress SIFF is honoring this year. Her performance in The Grifters captured the essence of the smooth criminal and introduced to noir a figure, a type, that had never been seen before: the middle-aged mother as the femme fatale. (CHARLES MUDEDE)


Taste of Cherry

The well-to-do, middle-aged Tehranian man has the saddest face ever, as he drives a Land Rover around the dusty city, looking for someone to bury him after he kills himself. This is the whole story. He offers a lift to a stranger, talks with them for a little bit, and then asks them to do this awful task (for money) after he puts a bullet in his head. He has already dug the hole, so the job will be pretty easy. All that needs to be done is to roll his corpse into the hole and cover it with dirt. The film enters the zone of existential philosophy when one stranger finally accepts the offer (he badly needs the money). It is not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest Iranian films ever made, and its director, Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away last year, played a leading role in developing the program, tone, and mode of this country’s distinctive cinema. (CHARLES MUDEDE)