Around the World in 21+ Days: Five Mesmerizing SIFF Films

A little not-so-secret: I love film festivals!  The home-base for is Seattle, Washington, so we are lucky to have the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) in our backyard.  SIFF is celebrating its 41st year (oldest North American film festival), shows over 450 films (full-length and shorts) from over 80 nations, and hosts 150,000 people each year, making it the most attended film festival in North America (or is it the world?).  This year the festival runs May 14-June 7.

I love film festivals for many reasons, but here I will focus on my #1 reason—the chance to travel!  How else can you visit–in a three-week period–such exotic places like Kyrgyzstan, Estonia, Georgia (the country, not the state), Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Palestine, Mauritius, Chile, and even Roslyn, Washington?  If you can’t afford to actually visit these places, if some seem too dangerous, or the cost of airfare too high, come here to experience them, or after the festival, seek these films at the cinema, on DVD and streaming, on Indie TV channel or documentary channels like National Geographic, PBS, History Channel, or catch a film festival near you.

As I write, we have reached SIFF’s halfway mark and I have already traveled to 21 different countries and four continents.  Central or South America and the Australasian region still await.  I have visited small mountain villages and cities seething with humanity, entered people’s kitchens, stood by the side of a Japanese farmer cultivating her crops and a French plissier making pleated garments.  I walked the most dangerous streets of L.A. and listened to the silence of the Arabian Desert. Do I enjoy everything I see?  No.  Do I grow in my knowledge and understanding of the world and creatures—human or not—within it?  Always.  I have selected five of the most exotic spots on my itinerary so far from SIFF 2015 to share with you.


Kyrgystan: Kurmanjan Datka, Queen of the Mountains

This is a truly epic film strongly reminiscent of classics like Gunga Din or one of my childhood favorites, Taras Bulba with Yul Bryner and Tony Curtis. It is based on the true story of Kurmanjan Datka, a Central Asian woman of the steppes who in the 1800s comes to unite the warring Kyrgyz tribes, who are under the political dominion of the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand (does this sound like something from Lord of the Rings or what?!).

Later she must preserve them from total annihilation under the rule of Tsarist Russian.

What makes her story so compelling is that her people’s culture is strongly patriarchal, where women traditionally had no political voice and received no respect from their menfolk.  This low regard shown to females in this nomadic culture is strikingly depicted in the first scene of the movie when Kurmanjan, at age 6, accompanies her parents to a famous wise man and seer.  The father seeks help because his wife cannot have children.  The seer asks, “Is this not your child?” indicating little Kurmanjan, and chides the father by exclaiming that she will be worth 10 times a boy to her people.  The father is furious about the words of this ‘stupid’ wise man and stalks off.

Of course, the wise man’s words are in fact prophetic.  This is a made-for-the-big-screen film with breathtaking scenery, dramatic action, and high quality acting, especially by the four women who play Kurmanjan through different stages of her long life.  It teaches us about courage, about the human spirit, and most of all about fighting for freedom.  We Americans speak big about our country being the land of liberty, but most of us take our freedoms for granted.  To learn what it truly means to value freedom, we must learn from those like the Kyrgyz and the Afghans who have fought for more than a millennium to have it and keep it.


Georgia: The Village (Tskhra Mtas Iqit)

This is another film of great beauty set in a high mountain village of Georgia.  Do not confuse it with M. Night Shyamalan’s film of the same title.  In short, a Georgian professor travels to the area of his childhood with his wife and two of his students, one a Georgian and the other a beautiful red-headed English girl Amy, to collect lore from elder villagers.

We feel tension from the very beginning.  The other student is Amy’s boyfriend, but their relationship is unraveling, and when he tries to give her some advice on how to behave among these very traditional village folk, she takes umbrage at what she perceives as his male chauvinistic need to control her.  While the others do their work, she wanders the lonely hills with her camera and becomes obsessed with two lone and mysterious young men who appear at unexpected moments on horseback.

I think the director does a magnificent job of ratcheting up the tension over the course of the movie.  Different characters drop hints subtle and not so subtle that there are lines not to be crossed.  As a cultural anthropologist by training, I wanted to throttle Amy for her oblivious naivety, her disregard for the fine line she is walking.  But I also related to her because as a woman traveler who has ventured in traditional foreign lands I have myself been naïve and oblivious to the danger I put myself into with just being myself.

I should have, but I didn’t realize in certain instances, that a friendly smile and a direct gaze between myself and a man in another culture, even an old grandfather, could be misconstrued and badly misinterpreted.  It was only sheer luck that I escaped a few situations before realizing the mistakes I had made.

The screenplay was well-written, the editing and direction artfully done, and the acting strong.  Not everyone in the audience at the screening seemed to share my high regard for the film.  I was surprised when a couple people asked questions that revealed they had missed the point of the movie that to me seemed so obvious.  One man, presumably a Georgian himself, did not like that some of the villagers appeared ominous and he thought they were stereotyped.  I did not agree with him at all.  The director showed the villagers as people reserved toward strangers but capable of great warmth with each other and with newcomers given time to get acquainted, but he did not hide the dark judgmental side that is true in probably all conservative communities, including those in the U.S.

The bottom line: The Village is a movie I will remember for a long time.


South Korea: Seoul Searching

A Korean teen summer camp movie.  What can I say?  I had low expectations.

I held my breath.  Okay, Scene One.  1980’s. Characters straight out of Grease or Xanadu parade out of the gates at Seoul’s Incheon International airport one-by-one to meet their teachers for a Korean Heritage camp.  Stereotyped but sort of funny.  Scene Two.  Boys and girls forbidden to mix at night.  Boys decide to take alcohol and party with girls.  Ho-hum, same ol’ same ol’ teen party flick…

Well, I was wrong.

From here on we have some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in years (not without some gross-out humor).  I guess I should have known it would be funny when the three boy roommates first meet:  we have Sid Park, American kid with chip-on-shoulder, then Klaus Kim from Hamburg(er), Germany, and the one who really steals the show, Sergio Kim from Mexico.  All the kids at camp are children of Koreans who immigrated to other countries, but as they became youth of these cultures, their parents just shook their heads—they could not understand them; ergo, sent to Korean summer camp.

Besides totally hitting it with the humor, director and screenwriter Benson Lee really draws fine performances from his cast.  Almost all of the actors and actresses were auditioned on Youtube and few were professional actors, including Esteban Ahn who plays Sergio.  Lee also does a really praiseworthy job of developing his characters from one-dimensional stereotypes in the beginning to sympathetic characters with depth and each with unique life stories by the end of the film.

The character of Sidney Park is based partly on Benson Lee’s own experiences at Korean summer camp, which he says was the most pivotal summer of his life.  He worried when his parents saw the film that they might be a bit taken aback at what they had gotten their son into back in the ‘80’s, but I have no doubt they are very proud of their son the director now.

This movie is actually in English and it could hit the American big screens with proper marketing and be a hit.  It is lively, colorful, meaningful, and totally hilarious—great job, Benson Lee and fellow crew and cast of Seoul Searching!


North Pakistan: Dukhtar (Daughter)

Dukhtar is a stunningly beautiful dramatic thriller set in Northern Pakistan with the Himalayas as backdrop.  Here tribes are ruled by men, the society is patrilineal with inheritance passing from father to son, and young women and girls from time immemorial marry out of their communities and may never see their families again.

It is a story that could be set, with the same theme, in most Muslin countries, most African countries, and any other place where traditional cultures remain intact. In this particular story, when a sweet innocent 10-year old child is to be forced into a marriage with a cruel elder leader as the price for forging peace between two feuding tribes, the mother takes action: she escapes with her daughter.  Now, by custom, the husband is required to seek his wife’s death for the dishonor she has brought upon him, and he must find the daughter to keep his word on the marriage pact.

Like most movies and films set on the Indian subcontinent, it impacts all the senses:  vivid colors, vibrant music, smells and tastes of the marketplaces, grit of the arid mountain roads.  The fact that we have a woman director Afia Nathaniel commanding a mostly, if not entirely, male crew to create a film with such a controversial theme is remarkable enough.  The sensitivity in which she portrays not only the dilemma of the women, but also the hardships to the men whose culture demands they do mortal harm to the ones they love, is remarkable.

Interestingly, the movie has been released in Pakistan and has been well-received there despite (or maybe because of) its controversial theme.  Viewers at the screening also heard that there is a strong movement in Pakistan to end child marriages and to legislate that girls must be 18 years or older to wed.   Samiya Mumtaz who plays the mother and Mohib Mirza who plays Sohail, a truck driver who is an ex-Muhajedin, are both well-known actors in Pakistan.  In fact Mirza hosts the Pakistan version of American Idol and he is also in a popular sitcom. And yes, I admit, he is a heartthrob!  Saleha Aref who plays the little girl Zainab is less experienced but she is wonderful in the film.  She is on a Sesame Street-like show in her country.  The three above and the rest of the cast are top-notch.

Dukhtar is my favorite SIFF 2015 movie so far as of writing.


Iceland: Paris of the North

Paris of the North is not as high of quality as the four movies mentioned above, but I include it because, face it, how often do we get to see a film from Iceland?

The main character Hugi (Björn  Thors) is a thirty-something alcoholic schoolteacher who after a break-up with his girlfriend in the big city (Reykjavik, population 118,000+) moves to a small coastal village (population 169).  He still fails to find happiness.  The actor and the director both do well in visualizing boredom in this film.  The latter does so by ignoring Iceland’s grandiose beauty, instead focusing on the dingy back alleys and drab local buildings of the town.  In essence he refuses for most of the film to broaden the lens.

Hugi’s self-awareness of himself as a boring person is accentuated when his heavy drinking, virile and overshadowing father decides to come for a (permanent) visit.   The slow pace of this “sleeper” film threatens at times to put us to sleep, but we are rescued by one thing—that quirky Scandinavian humor.  The scenes at the local Alcoholics Anonymous are precious.  The movie just needed one more scene at these meetings, to have the father talk about his new girlfriend.  I can tell you no more without giving away the punch lines.

We, the viewers, also have an epiphany moment while watching this film—the gene pool is small when you live in rural Iceland!  Hugi’s one romantic relationship in the village lacks spark—but what are the options?   I wanted to see Hugi’s personal transformation (his search for “unboredness”) be made more evident at the end of the film—but then this is Iceland, not Italy.  Effusiveness is not a national trait.

Paris of the North is not a movie you must see on the big screen, but would make for a quietly cozy watch at home.

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: Drama Movies, Foreign Films