Toronto, Venice, Cannes – these are the familiar locations of international film festivals that everyone hears about, but Amy Ettinger has worked for the past 17 years to put Scottsdale on the map a premier location for screening the best of world cinema.
The initial concept came from Ettinger’s trips to France, where she realized that if she wanted to see international films, she had to bring them to Arizona herself. From there she built the Scottsdale International Film Festival, which started in 2001.
“People were really ready to do something artsy, but not too crazy,” she remarks. “I call it armchair traveling – they got to visit the world without having to leave town.”
Ettinger also finds pride in the fact that 30 percent of the films chosen for this year's festival come from women directors. She claims that they do not do this intentionally, but that it just happens when they choose films based on merit.
“And in the end, we sit down and look at it and we say, ‘Why is Hollywood having so much trouble supporting women directors?’” Ettinger exclaims.
Ettinger expresses that this is the year she’s most excited about. She’s getting feedback from regular attendees saying they want to see them all, an impossible feat.
“I think that this overall program is thrilling,” she says. “We’ve got laughs, we’ve got very revealing documentaries, we’ve got an immense amount of programming that is very timely to the moment that we are now in for history.
Choosing the films that get shown is quite the task. A panel of around seven people preview hundreds of submissions. In addition, Ettinger and a group of trusted film aficionados pay attention to what other film festivals are programming. Finally, Ettinger talks with distributors and watches screeners for about eight months out of the year.
There’s a plethora of interesting and unique films, but the following seven films are ones that stick out in the lineup of 45 features, including Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which Ettinger believes will go down as “one of the finest films that’s been made.”
The trailer of Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film contains no dialogue but features wistful stares across the room from the two leads. Cold War follows a love story in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris set amid the Cold War. Just like Pawlikowski's last film, Ida (which won for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars), this one is in black and white and features sweeping cinematography and a haunting soundtrack. Lukasz Zal, again partnering with Pawlikowski on cinematography, told Variety that the decision to shoot in black and white came from their view that Poland was only in shades of gray in that time period. The movie received great reviews from its premiere at Cannes, with Time calling it a “terrific, smoky-cool love story” and Film School Rejects lauding it as a “masterpiece.”
In his seventh turn at Cannes, Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme d’Or for this film in somewhat of a surprise victory. The film is about a family in Tokyo that shoplifts to survive, from the youngest children to the patriarch. When they find a child left out in the cold and adopt her, they soon realize she may not be theirs to hold on to. Cate Blanchett, leader of this year's jury at Cannes, said the judges were “completely bowled over” by the film. Kore-eda has worked in television and documentaries but is best known for intimate family dramas like Still Walking, which was based on his own life.
If you only watch American films, you probably know director Alfonso Cuarón from movies like Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This film, his latest after the Oscar-winning Gravity, took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year. To make Roma, Cuarón took inspiration from his mother and childhood to showcase a story of a domestic worker who takes care of a middle-class family in Mexico amid the political turmoil of the 1970s. Cuarón had been thinking of making an autobiographical film since he finished with Children of Men back in 2006. Now, he’s seized upon the chance to create an intensely emotional film through which he can examine the racial and social dynamics that he grew up around.
Told through colors as vibrant at the lead actresses, the story is about two daughters of Kenyan politicians who become more than friends. That’s where their battle and the struggles of director Wanuri Kahiu lie: Despite being the first Kenyan filmmaker to show at Cannes, the film was banned in her home country, where sexual activity between people of the same gender is punishable by lengthy prison terms. Despite this, Kahiu pushes forward; She and the film surmounted one setback when the Kenyan government temporarily lifted the ban for an Oscar-qualifying run.
This past year has been hailed as a time of reckoning for women in America, but it begs the question – what do women’s rights look like internationally? The Judge highlights the first woman, Kholoud Faqih, appointed to Sharia court in the Middle East. The director Erika Cohn is an Emmy winner and was named one of Variety’s top 10 documentary filmmakers in 2017. Faqih serves in Palestine and Cohn was previously the U.S. Ambassadorial Film Scholar to Israel/Palestine. The documentary is an inspiring look at a woman who has been able to break one of the most seemingly impenetrable glass ceilings. She’s not without her critics: The film features interviews of scholars and citizens on the street who believe a woman is emotionally unfit to serve in that position. Nevertheless, Faqih continues on; Next year will be her 10th year on the court, and the film offers another story about female empowerment, something audiences seem increasingly hungry for.
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I Am Not a Witch
Growing up is hard to do and recently, Hollywood seems even more inundated with coming of age stories. This one, from Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni, takes a satirical twist: The girl in it is accused of being a witch. Sent off to a witch camp, she's tied to a piece of ribbon and told that if she cuts it off, she will become a goat. Soon, she is exploited by an employee in the ministry of tourism and traditional beliefs, who uses her “witch” powers to make a quick buck. The film deals with themes of misogyny and the negative effects of tourism, while attempting to remain comedic.
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Scottsdale International Film Festival. Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 11, at Harkins Shea 14 Theatres, 7354 East Shea Boulevard; 480-948-6555; scottsdalefilmfestival.com. Tickets are $7 to $250 via scottsdalefilmfestival.com.