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The Spokane International Film Festival returns with a mix of films from the Pacific Northwest and around the world

Feb. 2, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 2, 2023 at 4:06 p.m.

Sam Harkness and the search for his mother is at the center of “Sam Now,” a documentary filmed by his half brother, Reed Harkness.
Sam Harkness and the search for his mother is at the center of “Sam Now,” a documentary filmed by his half brother, Reed Harkness.
By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

If first impressions are indeed significant, the 24th annual Spokane International Film Festival is well worth checking out.

“Sam Now,” the opening night movie, which will screen Friday at the Bing Crosby Theater, is compelling, surprising and poignant.

It’s not easy being 15 years old, especially for Sam Harkness. The mother of the focal point of the film, Jois Harkness, left her son at an age when many teenage boys are confused and perplexed. Thanks to Sam’s half-brother, Reed Harkness, who has been documenting much of his brother’s life in a series of five films, a film about his mother’s disappearance was made.

Jois Harkness abruptly left her family in Seattle in 2000. After finding some clues, Reed and Sam Harkness drove down Interstate 5 in search of Sam’s mother.

“I had no idea what would happen,” Reed Harkness said from his Portland home. “I didn’t know how Sam would deal with this since it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But I was the one starting to break down and Sam lifted me up.”

It’s a remarkable story, which is a reminder that truth is stranger than fiction. However, the latter can be entertaining. Another film featured at SpIFF, “Mountainside,” is a road comedy filmed in Seattle that pokes fun at filmmaking. The charming romantic comedy is amusing and is a delightfully meta film, which will close the in-person festival Sunday at the Magic Lantern.

There are a collection of documentaries, narratives, short films and animated movies.

“This year we’re bigger than last year,” co-artistic director Chase Ogden said. “We’re trying to get back to where we were pre-pandemic.”

But it’s ultimately about quality over quantity. Ogden and company have curated a festival full of entertaining and provocative films and many of the productions are from Pacific Northwest filmmakers.

“We want to feature as many voices as possible but we also want to champion as many regional voices as we can,” Ogden said. “There’s a lot of talent in the Pacific Northwest.”

However, it is a worldwide film festival with movies from Portugal, Armenia and Bulgaria.

“We looked at a wide range of countries and we received so much great content,” Ogden said. “We’re trying to balance and provide the best entertainment possible.”

It’s a labor of love for Ogden, who teaches film production at Eastern Washington University.

“I love being an instructor and working on this film festival, but people don’t realize how many moving parts there are. I deal with submitted films, and we had over 300 submissions this year. We only have room for a small percentage.”

Ogden’s stunning “Adrenaline Sucks,” a short film focusing on world renowned skier, surfer and base jumper Matthias Giraud, made the festival. Ogden stressed that he didn’t pick his own film. Co-artistic director Drew Ayres made the selection and it is appropriate since “Adrenaline Sucks” is a stunning, visceral blast. Giraud emphasizes that he doesn’t risk his life for adrenaline but for a higher purpose.

“I want something good to die for to make it beautiful to live,” Giraud said. “After all, a good life and a good death are all that we can hope for.”

Ogden, a Gonzaga Prep alum, believes that the film festival’s growth is vital for Spokane.

“I think our city needs this,” Ogden said. “We need an active and vibrant film scene, and we’re getting there.”

For those who can’t make it to the Bing Crosby Theater or the Magic Lantern, it’s possible to view 20 films virtually through Thursday .

“At least one good thing came out of the pandemic,” Ogden said. “You have the choice to see the films at our festival in person or at home. There’s no excuse to miss out.”

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