The 25th annual Spokane International Film Festival has kicked it up a notch with an impressive array of films. The festival, which is slated for Friday through Feb. 16, features a laudable combination of quality, quantity and diversity.
“We have three times as many (in-person screenings) as we did last year,” Spokane International Film Festival director Peter Porter said. “We tried to have a variety of movies this year.”
Mission accomplished. There are a number of compelling narratives, moving animation shorts, eye-opening Indigenous films, dramatic LGBTQ+ movies, informative documentaries and films shot in Spokane.
About a quarter of “Daruma,” a drama about a bitter wheelchair-bound man and a double amputee veteran, was filmed in and around Spokane by “Z Nation” director Alexander Yellen. When Yellen was figuring out where to shoot his wife Kelli McNeil Yellen’s road trip script, Spokane was the obvious answer.
“The story has us in New York, Philly, Wisconsin and Kansas, among other places,” Yellen said from Los Angeles. “I knew I could shoot an entire road trip movie in Spokane since you have a downtown, which is close to the mountains and you’re close to an area that’s like a desert.
“I’m very familiar with the area since I worked (from 2014 to 2018) on ‘Z Nation’ in Spokane, which is like a second home for me. I knew how Spokane was the perfect place to shoot the scenes from the road.”
Spokane is also close to the heart of Matthew Modine. The actor-director, who starred in 1985’s “Vision Quest,” which was shot entirely in Spokane, has two films in the festival. “Hard Miles,” is based on the true story of the cycling team at Colorado’s Ridge View Academy. The school has given at-risk youth a chance at redemption through academic rigor, competitive sports and leadership.
Modine also has a short, the lovely “I Am What You Imagine,” which features his daughter, Ruby Modine. The entertaining film is a sensual seven-minute exploration of the unexplainable.
“Punderneath it All” is the quirkiest film of the fest. The sweet and amusing documentary features a clever cast of characters including Seattle’s premier pun slam hostess, Forest Ember, as she forges her own path in the community and builds a pun empire across the Pacific Northwest. Yes, there are some groans, but the breezy film generates some laughs and drops some surprising insights.
“Please Ask For It” is another terrific documentary. The focus is on David “Fox” Caldwell, the revered owner of Aikei Pro’s Record Shop, which opened in 1960. It’s a landmark on the Blues Trail. Such blues icons as Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside used to hang out in the shop, which despite trends, remains open. Local shops have tried to close Caldwell’s establishment, but it lives on as a destination for blues lovers 64 years after it opened.
There are a number of unique foreign movies. A couple of Persian films, such as “The Closet” and “Coming Around,” are can’t-miss flicks. The former is a moving short from an Iranian filmmaker about an effeminate 10-year-old boy, who is loathed by his father due to his feminine tendencies. The protagonist gets kicked out of class for wearing nail polish and hides in the lab closet. When the school is closed, he gets stuck there and so much is covered in a mere 18 minutes.
“Coming Around” is about a young, queer Muslim woman, who is grappling with the decision to come out to her devout mother. She decides to marry her boyfriend to avoid disapproval. The intricacies of the mother-daughter relationship are fascinating.
It isn’t easy for Iranian filmmakers to afford festival fees, so Porter cut the directors a break.
“We want films like the ones we’re screening from there (the Middle East) to be part of our festival,” Porter said.
Senior Programmer Misty Shipman, who led on recruiting, screened a number of films from indigenous filmmakers. The deep narrative “Fancy Dance” and the documentary “Wabanaki Modern” stand out.
“Fancy Dance” is about the complexities and contradictions of Indigenous women moving through a colonized world at the mercy of a failed justice system. The focus of the documentary “Wabanaki Modern” is on Indigenous art in the Atlantic Canadian provinces. It’s a revelatory look into the unsung artists from Indigenous communities and how their story reflects the challenges of Indigenous life in postwar Canada.
There are a couple of exceptional animation shorts. “Harvey,” which is adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, is a poetic tale about bereavement and coping with the loss of a parent. The story is told via a child with quite an imagination.
“A Bear Named Wojtek” is the story of a journey of an orphaned Syrian brown bear brought to Edinburgh, having been previously adopted by Polish soldiers during World War II.
“I’m big on the animation,” Porter said. “We have some really good animated movies. We have a lot to offer across the board. I’m hoping more and more people are going to come back to the movies and see what we have to offer this year.”
Porter has big plans for the 2025 Spokane Film Festival. The fest will mark the 40th anniversary of “Vision Quest,” which was filmed in Spokane. Porter asked Modine, who starred in “Vision Quest” to return to Spokane next year.
“We hope he can make it,” Porter said. “Matthew is the nicest guy and he loved his experience in Spokane. So there’s a chance he’ll come back. We hope he returns. We hope that happens but our focus right now is on this year’s festival.”