"To send light into the darkness of men's hearts – such is the duty of the artist." — Robert Schumann
Volunteering at SIFF
Taken at the Neptune Theatre
Now that you’ve read about my movie-going experience at SIFF, I’ve decided to post about my volunteering experience (minus the Opening Night Gala, which you can read about here and here). All my volunteering was as a venue volunteer, which is what they called “ushers” this year. All of the volunteers at each venue were under the supervision of a house coordinator, who was himself or herself answerable to the venue manager. The venue manager stayed the same for each venue (so, for example, the venue manager for the Neptune Theatre was always Lily), but the house coordinators were often different. In the absence of a house coordinator (which did happen on occasion), the volunteers were under the venue manager’s supervision. Also, the number of volunteers varied from two to six, depending on how many volunteers the shifts called for, and how many people filled those shifts.
To help you figure out when I was volunteering versus when I was watching movies, I’ve included the dates and the hours that I volunteered for, plus (in chronological order) the movies that I watched. As for why I volunteered, I had two reasons: 1.) it’s a great way to get acquainted with the festival, 2.) every two hours worked means a volunteer voucher, good for a free movie at the festival (excluding specially priced events, like galas and the Edward Norton tribute). So, here goes:
Opening Night Gala: Thursday, May 20, Benaroya Hall, 4-8 pm, Venue Volunteer (should have been Line Manager, 4:30-6:30 pm); movies playing: The Extra Man @ 7 pm (more like 7:45 pm)
I Am Love: Saturday, May 22, Egyptian Theatre, 7 pm
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 23, Neptune Theatre, 8:30-10 pm; movies playing: Rapt @ 6:30, Castaway on the Moon @ 9:30
I saw neither film this first official night of venue volunteering, but I did learn an important lesson: when standing in front of a door on a cool night, wear a jacket. I had placed my jacket under the table in the lobby, but I should have grabbed it while handing out ballots to people for Castaway on the Moon.
I also noticed that I did not have a sticker on my SIFF badge, whereas everyone else did. Most of that night was spent talking to Rei, a college student from China attending UWa. We mainly talked about Chinese movies playing at the festival that have been banned in China (this came up while discussing City of Life and Death, which I was going to see that Tuesday). Unfortunately, though she sounded like a really interesting person to talk with about films, I never worked with her again.
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, May 30, Neptune Theatre, 3-8:30 pm; movies playing: Mediterranean Diet (changed to Mediterranean Food) @1:30 pm, Vortex @ 4:30 pm, The Dancer and the Thief @ 8 pm
This was my longest shift, resulting in three vouchers (one for every two hours worked). This is also where I got one of my fellow volunteers (Haimi is how I think you spell her name, pronounced HI-MEE) to take two pictures of me: the one at the beginning of this post, and this one:
Yep, those stairs go up to the balcony (the Egyptian Theatre has one, too)…and the bathrooms. At first, I was in charge of going outside and making sure everyone in line was there for the right movie. As it turned out, I found two people who had tickets for a 4 pm show…at SIFF Cinema. I directed them to the will call window, where they were able to exchange their tickets from that show to another show (not sure if they changed them to Vortex or not).
After that, I was in charge of counting the passholders who came in (I had a counter with me, or as I call it, a clicker). This task was difficult because, while they were supposed to come in the side door (to the right of the stairs in the photo above), they often snuck in the front, once that door was opened, and I didn’t realize that the person in front was keeping a mental tally of the passholders who came through that door, so all I had to do was to get an accurate count for the back door (at least she did for Vortex. For The Dancer and the Thief, she thought I was keeping track of them all, since I had tried to do that for Vortex, by positioning myself so that I could see both entrances–which didn’t quite work).
Anyway, I got to see two hardcore filmgoers in action while doing that job. Both were Platinum Passholders, which means that they gave a TON OF MONEY to the festival (in fact, one of them had a bag with all sorts of passes in it). So while I waited for other passholders to come in, I watched them open up their SIFF guidebooks and decide on which movies they were going to see. I met one of them later. His name was Craig, and I subsequently found out that he owns or runs a car dealership in town.
Once we were done with our duties for Vortex, we had time to go grab food or watch the movie. The person I had been volunteering with (Haimi) and I decided that food was more important, so we went out on University Ave and found an Asian restaurant. We returned in plenty of time, which allowed us to watch part of the film.
Vortex is a film from Lithuania, shot entirely in black and white, about one man and his life under Soviet rule. The part I saw dealt with his “final, fatal love” (according to the free siff GUIDE), a woman named Maska. The main character’s name is Juzik. Most of those ten or twenty minutes that I saw dealt with her story, and how she was sexually assaulted by some neighborhood boys. 140 minutes long, this movie isn’t even listed on IMDB, but was directed by Gytis Luksas and stars Giedrius Kiela, Oksana Borbat, and Jevgenija Varencia. The man working the will call line walked out of the movie near the beginning (hated it), but after the movie was over, I ran into the guy whom I had volunteered with at the Opening Night Gala (Alan), and he said it was excellent (I also ran into him again at Garbo: The Spy, but with our roles reversed, as he was volunteering for that film).
Once the film ended, it was time to collect and count ballots, and get ready for the next film. As mentioned, I had the same role as before, Haimi passed out ballots to passholders as before, but this time, I didn’t stick around and watch the film, even a small portion of it. After all, I had work the next day, and blog entries to write. 🙂
Venue Volunteer: Monday, May 31 (Memorial Day), Neptune Theatre, 10 am-2 pm; movies playing: Rouge Ciel @ 11 am, The Big Dream @ 1:30 pm
I had a BBQ to go to in the afternoon, so I left right after my shift was over (and they tended to end a little early, dependent upon the house coordinator). I did, however, get to see quite a bit of Rouge Ciel, a documentary from France about the art brut movement and its practitioners. Had I stayed around for the whole thing, I might have given the movie a 3 or a 4. I felt it lingered too long over the artwork, and used too much text on the screen as opposed to interviewees (although the information about Henry Darger’s several thousand-page graphic–and I mean it in both senses of the word–novel was fascinating). Case in point: one artist they highlighted was Kunio Matsumoto. Did they talk to his family? No. Did they talk to him? No. We just get a camera following him around in his daily routine, and words on the screen to describe what his day is like, and what his artwork is derived from.
The movie ended with a Czech artist who sounded interesting, but I had to leave and get ready for the next film. For both films, my job was to go outside and make sure that people were in the right line for the right film. Our house coordinator was strict about who had what role and what the chain of command was ( for example, she reserved the right to tell the passholder counter if any passholders had come in through the front door, and didn’t want any of us to tell the passholder independent of her), but, because I had gone outside on a somewhat chilly day, I got a free coffee voucher from her. Sometimes the most exacting people can be the kindest.
25th Hour: Saturday, June 5, Neptune Theatre, 10 pm
Venue Volunteer: Sunday, June 6, Neptune Theatre, 8:15-10 pm; movies playing: Little Big Soldier @ 7:15 pm, Animation for Adults @ 9:30 pm
Saw brief snippets of Little Big Soldier (with Jackie Chan) through the large peepholes placed in the doors that lead to the theater, but got to see more of Animation for Adults, which I had thought about seeing on its original release date, on Friday, June 21 (but had gone to a work-related BBQ instead). So glad that SIFF decided to add a screening (then again, tickets had sold out fast for that first showing).
As a volunteer, my job involved helping to clean the theater after Little Big Soldier (lots of popcorn on the floor–had people jumped a lot during the movie?). I grabbed a broom for that purpose. Then, I decided to be a ticket tearer for the 9:30 showing. At about 9:45, all the volunteers were allowed to sit down and watch the movie.
Animation for Adults is actually a series of animation shorts. I missed all of the first one (“Wisdom Teeth”) and most of the second one (“Dried Up”), but saw the rest, including the one I really wanted to see: “Little Dragon.” So, of the twelve shorts, I saw ten. Of those ten, the best were “0 (zero)“, a hand drawn minimalist animated short from Korean with an ironic ending, “The Astronomer’s Sun,” which had no spoken dialogue as it tells the tale of a son who attempts to rejoin with his father, “Kings,” done by students at the University of Washington about a card game unlike any other, and, finally, the aforementioned “Little Dragon,” in which the spirit of Bruce Lee inhabits a rubber Bruce Lee action figure.
Venue Volunteer: Monday, June 7, Neptune Theatre, 3-7:30pm; movies playing: Cell 211 @ 4 pm, Upperdog @ 7 pm
This was my last shift at the Neptune Theatre. I picked a good time, as I was the only guy volunteering with more than five women. Funny enough, I didn’t notice this was true until around 7 pm.
I collected ticket stubs again, though they only really needed one person tearing tickets. Often, in fact, my job was to hand the ticket stubs over to our house coordinator.
I ended up working in tandem with someone who had worked with me the night before. Her name was Alexis, and as I mentioned in this post, I saw her again at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though she didn’t see me. We tore tickets for both films.
I got to see much of Cell 211; enough, in fact, to know that it deserved all the Goya awards that it won (Luis Tosar, who played Malamadre, ended up winning a Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actor to add to his other acting awards). Enough to also plan on seeing it tonight, when the Best of SIFF is showing at SIFF Cinema. What a movie! In a nutshell, it’s about a prison guard who gets caught in the midst of a prison revolt. There’s a good synopsis here, except that “Badass” should be replaced by “Malamadre” (which may, in fact, be what the name means).
During a lull, either between movies or between stragglers to the 7 pm showing, I found out that Jean Renoir’s The River played at SIFF–and I missed it! One of the other volunteers said it’s become quite popular, especially after Wes Anderson remarked on how the film had influenced him. The funny thing is, I saw that it was playing, but I didn’t connect the title with the title of the movie that I had just read about on this blog and on Ebert’s Great Movies webpage. Damn.
Also, I was shushed by Lily near the beginning of Upperdog (sound from the lobby easily travels into the theater). To be fair, she might have just heard a male voice, saw I was talking, and shushed me, since she came out a second time and shushed another guy (another manager?) who was being much louder than me.
Imani: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 4:30 pm
Venue Volunteer: Friday, June 11, Harvard Exit Theatre, 8-9:45pm; movies playing: Paris Return @ 7 pm, This Way of Life @ 9:15 pm
After seeing Imani, I walked around Capitol Hill (the neighborhood that the theater is located in), looking for a place to eat. I finally settled on Bella Pizza, and had a 12″ sub, which didn’t fill me up as much as I hoped, or as much as the waitress said I would be when I finished. Guess I was hungry.
Still, it filled me up enough to get me through my volunteer shift at the same theater, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a wonderful lobby (which I, er, didn’t photograph), which includes an old movie projector (like, turn-of-the-century old):
The venue manager at Harvard Exit is Sarah (or, perhaps, Sara). Once again, my job was tearing tickets, which one does outside the doors. Even better, passholders and ticket holders come through the same entrance, so it’s easier to count both of them.
The last night of the SIFF festival, I volunteered–once again–at Harvard Exit Theatre. As luck–or fate–would have it, the 8:30 show was an added screening of RoboGeisha, which I had mentioned, partly in jest, as a film “worth a look for the title alone.” For this shift, in addition to helping clean the theater (and we had to hurry, since a Q & A session followed Plug & Pray), and passing out random SIFF fliers in plastic bags to people, I got to count passholders for RoboGeisha (if I remember correctly, there were 18). The crowd was mostly young, but somewhat diverse in age. I knew, however, that a film such as this would attract the right crowd, no matter what they looked like, and the right crowd for this film would be composed of nerds, geeks, super otaku, college students, or a combination of the four. If a crowd of college kids make up the best movie audience, this comes a close second.
As an added bonus, because this was the last night of the festival, and because we showed up, all of the volunteers got double vouchers! That also meant, however, that I had a dilemma, since I now had five vouchers: would I use it to purchase a SIFF membership (discounts on movies year-round, free screenings, invitations to special events), or would I end up seeing five moves at SIFF cinema this year? Since I plan on seeing Cell 211 tonight, and since I don’t see that many movies at SIFF, anyway (especially if I have to pay money for them, hehe), I’m probably going to see 5 movies, as it’s a better deal.
Before going in to see RoboGeisha, I partook of the free popcorn and drink that we volunteers are allowed to have, the first and only time that I did so.
For this film (which I watched from the balcony), I figured that I didn’t need to see the beginning to know what was going on.
I was right.
If there were ever a movie that is a guilty pleasure, that movie is RoboGeisha. Fun and funny as hell, it includes ridiculous dialogue (that it knows is ridiculous), overacting (that it knows is overacting), a giant robot, geishas, assassins, machine gun bustiers, hair napalm, and acidic breast milk. Really, though, I could’ve told you everything you need to know about this movie using just two words: ass swords. Stay for the ending credits song, too: the lyrics (translated) include lines about it “snowing in your breasts,” and other such ridiculous images.
Here’s a synopsis of the plot, but I think the trailer that comes with it tells you all you need to know about this film. During one scene, where RoboGeisha’s bottom half turns into a tank, I heard the loudest laughter I’ve heard since Ben Stiller’s character got his “pork and beans” stuck in his fly in There’s Something About Mary. Not as sustained, but just as loud.
* * *
I had such a great time during SIFF. I only paid to see two films (one of which I probably wished I hadn’t seen, but if I hadn’t, Roger Ebert wouldn’t have tweeted my post on it), got to see twelve-plus films for free, attended to four Q & A’s, met two directors, and listened to Edward Norton speak–twice. Plus, I got to volunteer with like-minded movie lovers, who I hope to run into again.
As this picture shows, I started my first film festival with an artsy bore, ended it with a guilty pleasure, and saw a hell of a lot of great movies in between.