By Hans Pedersen, November 2015 Issue.
If an international experience is on this year’s to-do list, you might want to get going on that (you only have two months left). Otherwise, the Scottsdale International Film Festival is bringing a wide variety of international experiences to the big screen Nov. 5-9.
In its 15th year, the acclaimed festival offers audiences more than 50 films from more than 20 countries around the world.
According to festival founder Amy Ettinger, its logo includes a globe and theater seat, since foreign films give you the feeling of “armchair traveling” or being someplace far away for the duration of time between the opening and closing credits.
Ettinger has been involved with film festivals for nearly two decades and is the founder and former executive director of the Valley’s first LGBT film festival, Out Far, which ran for about 10 years.
Still, Ettinger admits that finding such fascinating, must-have selections is not an easy task, and credits a team of programmers with helping her anticipate what will resonate with viewers and select films months ahead of each year’s festival.
Today, she credits the combination of a trip to Paris and her life-long passion for foreign films as her inspiration for creating an international film festival in the Valley.
Ettinger undoubtedly drew on her LGBT film festival experience in selecting these four must-see titles:
Four of the festival’s selections feature LGBT themes, including one of the crown jewels of the fest, the much-anticipated Carol by director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).
According to Ettinger, landing Carol (ahead of its theatrical release, no less) is thrilling.
“The Weinstein Company has been very generous with us … in allowing us to premiere their films in Arizona,” Ettinger said. “Last year they gave us The Imitation Game and it won our audience award for best film, and I think they were very pleased with that. They’re representing Carol and I think they were happy to allow us the honor to show the film.”
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a 1950s Manhattan love story about Theresa (Rooney Mara), a department store clerk in her 20s who falls for Carol (Cate Blanchett), a woman caught in a pointless marriage. As their romance grows more intense, Carol’s home life becomes threatened, and her husband (Kyle Chandler) challenges her ability to be a mother.
Ettinger said she was happy to include Carol in the lineup of screenings without having yet seen it – a testament to such immense faith in the film’s creative team.
The Girl King
The Girl King is a selection in French and English that the festival founder also seems genuinely thrilled to be sharing with audiences. Directed by Mika Kaurismaki, the historic drama focuses on the iconoclastic Queen Kristina and her attempts to end the violent war between Catholics and Protestants.
“When I heard about it … I called the distributors right out of the gate and said I had to have it right away,” Ettinger said.
Amid a tumultuous political backdrop, Queen Kristina is overcome by her love for Countess Ebba Sparre, and her deep affection for her own striking lady-in-waiting becomes a challenge to resist.
“She was a Swedish queen who was raised in a manly fashion because she was taking the throne from her father as a child,” Ettinger said, pointing out how Greta Garbo appeared in an early film version of the story.
Brought up as a young man, Kristina was “split between two worlds by two forces,” she said, “and was probably pushed into a little bit of gender dysphoria. That’s what I took away from it …”
Baby Steps is a Canadian-Taiwanese film that caught Ettinger and her team’s collective eye, despite its cutesy premise about two men in love who want a baby and a disapproving mom.
“Maybe a little too cute,” Ettinger said of her first impression, adding that she saw it as a perfect “palette cleanser.”
Directed by Barney Cheng, the LGBT-themed movie in Mandarin and English is lighter fare. It’s the story of a mother’s shock that her son, Danny, and his boyfriend, Tate, plan to hire a surrogate to carry her first grandchild. And, when mom comes along during their trip to Bangkok for an embryo transfer, her homophobic tendencies simmer to the surface.
“Maybe because it is on the heels of a very difficult year for us all, but so many of the films that were being submitted to us … it was so grim and depressing,” she said. “This was such a nice piece of programming to add that gives people a break. It’s but not because it’s silly or funny … the film is timely, and it’s relevant.”
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile
Another selection that “hit a note” with Ettinger was A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile,” which she calls a real humdinger of a movie.
The Canadian documentary premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was profiled in Echo in August. (Read the review at echomag.com/amina-profile.)
This intriguing documentary traces the online affair between Sandra Beraga and a blogger known as Amina Arraf, who writes about life as a young Syrian-American woman living in Damascus. After the blog becomes a hub for media stories about the resistance movement in Syria, Amina is reportedly kidnapped – and her girlfriend is determined to find her.
As journalists join in the search for the missing writer, Sandra – and viewers – get hit with a whammy of a surprise.
“I was really caught up in the storytelling … bottom line, I never saw it coming,” she said of the twist in this political thriller. “It was delightful, as someone who watches films day in and day out … to be so caught off-guard … I felt off-center, off-balance. And I think that’s what they meant to do. And it worked. I felt like my audience had to see this, because in the long run, it resonated.”
The addition of recreated scenes is one of the reasons it could be called a hybrid documentary.
“I do think they took some liberties with the documentary form,” Ettinger said of the acclaimed film, directed by Sophie Deraspe, which is in English, French and Arabic.
Ultimately, this documentary is just the type of indie gem you can discover at the festival, as well as box-office draws like last year’s The Imitation Game.
The festival kicks off with an opening night event featuring the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra and a movie about their fabulous 24-piece “recycled orchestra” at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, but all 70 screenings take place at Harkins Shea 14.
For a complete listing of films screening during the festival, or to purchase tickets, visit scottsdalefilmfestival.com.
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
7380 E. Second St., Scottsdale
6 p.m. reception; 7:30 p.m.
Harkins Shea 14 Theatre
7354 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale