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REVIEW – “SIFF’s DocFest 2021”: Observances from Seattle’s Arthouse Revival


With the weather having finally shifted out of dry summer air to moist autumn soakers, perhaps normalcy is an idea that no longer appears fruitless. In other words, the timing couldn’t be better for Seattle’s arthouse cinema scene to begin its roaring comeback. Theaters are theaters, at base value. They serve their purpose with varying efficacy. But the collective of screens in the Emerald City makes for a steadfast group, ensuring the divergently separate ecosystems of mainstream and niche filmmaking has a shared terminus for expression, and for unity with an excited audience. While the pandemic does linger just enough to provoke a sense of weariness, that communal experience can never be replaced, especially if one of those hubs were suddenly to disappear.

Had lockdowns lasted longer, that may have been where the conversation would be toward. Instead, it’s conservation, protection, assurance that, with protocols in place, our neighborhood auditoriums, those little (or big) spots daring enough to play those under the radar ventures remain viable, and essential for the community at large. With that spirit firm in heart and mind, the Seattle International Film Festival, whose main event was all virtual this year, is now ready to make up for lost time, reopening its doors with a mini DocFest, showcasing the world of documentaries. Even in an era of structure fading at the mercy of a health crisis, non-fiction filmmaking has only grown in importance.

The stories they share often do more for the human cause than any IP ever could. With a lineup ranging from the musical story about a band who’s been more than one song; to a women’s soccer team with nothing to lose; to bios on the work of Cousteau, Balanchine, and Cullen, there truly is something for every taste. Perhaps the closest we’ve been to a true large-scale film fest in this area, in less time, but still just as impactful for all. Something I feel I’ve personally missed in this time of silent stasis, as the return is not necessarily a stampede, and more of a trot. With an event like this, perhaps the pace of our footprints will be quicker, certainly louder.

As we are still clawing our way out of this pandemic hole, SIFF is allowing audiences to view in person or at home with the fest’s official streaming channel. DocFest 2021 begins at Capitol Hill’s Egyptian September 30th, with the home version launching October 4-7. Do keep in mind, two titles will only be available in-person, all but three will play only for Washington audiences. Capsules for select titles follow below, and this page will be updated regularly over the course of the festival duration.

More information on the event can be found at

Note: SIFF’s Film Center has also reopened; their flagship three-screen location, the Uptown, will return to life in November awaiting the finishing touches of a needed renovation.

A-ha the movie (Opening Night) – September 30, 7PM

The band best known for “Take on Me” and a rather overlooked Bond movie theme finally gets to share their story. Surprisingly, it’s an underdog tale, one involving good friends fighting egos, authorship, and introvert traits. Built from humble working-class roots in Norway, Morten Harket, Paul Waaktaar-Savor, and Marne Furuholmen remain connected to the past while searching for ways to reinvent themselves. It’s easier for this trio to remain faithful to what they’ve known, versus attempting to create newfound lyrical pathways. After years of on and off squabbles over their work, their happy medium is hanging out in the trunk while between tours. Through candid interviews with the trio, healthy amounts of concert footage, and the occasional bits of animation reminiscent of their most famous video, we see their evolution as a group, their inability to achieve persistent global success, and the legacy they continue to create. I will admit, there’s plenty to learn about a group who’s played so often on the radio. And even then, we haven’t heard the other half. Directors Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm forever ensure the volume is properly cranked up with this group’s history. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)


The Neutral Ground – October 3, 2:30PM

Astonishingly timely with the removal of a General Lee statue weeks ago in Virginia, the struggle of protecting history versus reorganizing its darkest shreds is given the brightest spotlight. Comedian CJ Hunt (The Daily Show) dives into this ongoing to remove an array of confederate statues in New Orleans, the journey beginning as early as 2015, as the ominous storm clouds of Hurricane Irma take hold. City residents are unsurprisingly mixed on a decision, with enthusiasts of the confederacy fighting to block the removals, some making death threats to protect these monoliths of the Lost Cause. Think of it as a modern civil war, now tied up within the intense dance of racial divide. And to a lesser extent, the romanticism of those battles, whether told by real accounts, or on film (Gone with the Wind will forever be guilty of perpetuating that idea). The level of context, personal inspiration, and secondary absurdist humor Hunt interjects gives this in-depth analysis of our historical culture a newfound clarity that mere textbooks do not provide. Anything to sharpen that line between historical rights and wrongs, confronting those disconcerting avenues of America’s story. Hunt accomplishes that, with both humor and healing. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)


The Squad #NOTHERETODANCE – October 4, 6:30PM

Covers the wild ride of a single season for the French women’s soccer team Olympique Lyonnais, led by their captain Wendie Renard. She’s responsible for an elite group of top players, two from neighboring countries, fighting for national glory and a holy trifecta at the season’s end. The goals they set are never just on the pitch, and director Stéphanie Gillard embraces every side of the day-to-day. Whether it’s community outreach, openness to the media, their persistence in breaking down the equal pay gap versus their male counterparts, or general team camaraderie. There’s no falsity to what their intents are, proving there’s more to athletics than merely playing the sport. And I found myself equally cheering for each win and swept up by the real nitty-gritty that comes with achieving peer recognition. Quality sports documentary speaking to our inner voice for change. Keep a close eye open for our own Seattle Reign squad making a random cameo. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)


Becoming Cousteau – October 3, 8:30PM

A tender, emotional biography on legendary undersea explorer/conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau that plays very neat and tidy. But director Liz Garbus (All In: The Fight for Democracy) makes no secret of the icon’s failures. His body of work on television, film, and as a military commander was filled with trial and error, between missteps in his family life, accidentally discovering underwater oil reserves, and the vanity of celebrity to name three. What begins as an affinity for our planet’s coral reefs evolves into a crusade for ecological protection, something he pushed for until his passing, and which his family has continued to the present. Garbus allows Jacques to tell his own story, through intimate home footage, archival interviews, and readings of personal accounts (lovingly narrated by Vincent Cassel). It weaves a delightful, rousing tapestry of an admittedly imperfect man looking to do good, and spread knowledge to the next generation. And around this time, nearly a quarter-century distant from Jacques’ passing, on the precipice of our planet reaching a point of no return, his story couldn’t be more essential. (A; 4/5 Horns Up!)

The Rescue – October 2, 8:30PM

Deeply personal stories from the perspectives of experienced divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, along with the others who helmed an international effort, propel this adventurous account. One of an impossible, nearly improbable mission: retrieving a Thai youth soccer team trapped in a network of underground caves. An 18-day ordeal that starts as dire panic turned to vindication of the human spirit, and rouses the soul perhaps more effectively than a fictitious, and slightly more family-friendly version could. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow up from their soaring mountain climbing tale, 2018’s Free Solo, with an equally intense, perhaps more globally impactful, record of history. Hard not to get invested when actual on-the-scene footage is thrown in, participants certainly planning ahead to capture their heroics. Whether anyone who played a part with the mission considers themselves heroes? That much remains to be seen. Experiencing their life-risking endeavor first-hand, almost like we’re in the fight with them, is all the proof we need. (A; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Try Harder! – October 2nd, 5:30PM

This focus on the acrobatics of good grades in any high school senior year brought back a plethora of anxious and unpleasant memories, just trying to survive a high GPA. And there could be multiple reasons why we struggle to make those inroads in transitioning to college. For the kids of San Francisco’s Lowell High. It could be natural ability as much as racial identity. No element sticks out in the wrong way, as director Debbie Lum ensures, the reasons why one student wouldn’t leave an impression in any of the Ivy League schools, could just as easily be similar to why another would fail to make the cut for any UC school, or Stanford. There’s plenty to be said for the high school hierarchy, the rich kids who barely try, and the middle-class folks who are studying like their lives depended on it. Boil it down a tad, and the struggle is one and the same, regardless of background. A real “rooting for underdogs” story, with a strong sense of humor, and a high mark of aspiration. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

The Conservation Game – October 3rd, 11AM

A dry, dark expose on the hidden fears of animal exploitation, blurring the line between celebrity conservation and the real thing. For all the times you’d see an “animal expert” and their “ambassador animals” on television promoting their work or a zoo they represent, there’s always an individual pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes. That’s the focus on director Michael Webber’s mind, continuing his personal crusade for advocacy with author Tim Harrison, an Ohio native having experienced the illegal trade and breeding of animals firsthand. Hard to declare this as the antithesis to the outrageous Greek tragedy that was Tiger King, even as Harrison’s road trip makes wild intersects with the likes of Carole Baskin, Dave Salmoni and Jared Miller. Despite its swings in tone, still poses an effective case for proper protection and relevant government reform. Aspects long decried, but more than overdue. (B-; 3/5 Horns Up!)