Film Festival

SIFF Gala Guide

What to expect of the films, guests, and after-parties.

By Laura Dannen May 19, 2011

Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo) holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to go to primary school.

Each year the Seattle International Film Festival encourages cinephiles to throw on something other than jeans and celebrate at one of its galas and tributes. I had a chance to screen two of this weekend’s "event" films, so here’s a rundown of what I know:

The event Opening night gala, May 19, Benaroya Hall.

The film The First Grader, 2010.

How is it? It’s a feel-good Disneyfied flick based on a true story: Maruge, an 84-year-old Kenyan man who spent his formative years as a Mau Mau rebel fighting the Brits for independence, takes advantage of a new education initiative and goes back to school. Way back, Billy Madison style. He’s a poor, proud man wearing self-hemmed shorts and knee socks, surrounded by 200 of the most adorable, well-behaved children to ever enter first grade. Clearly, the film trades realism for drama, but the story at its core is one worth knowing. If only director Justin Chadwick let history speak for itself.

The guests The First Grader director Justin Chadwick (also director of The Other Boleyn Girl), producers Sam Feuer and Richard Harding; actor Tom Skerritt; filmmakers Minh Duc Nguyen (director, Touch ), James Fox (director, The Darkest Matter), Caleb Young (director, Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes?), Eliaichi "Elle" Kimaro (director, A Lot Like You), Matt Wilkins (director, Marrow ), Megan Griffiths (director, The Off Hours), Sean Nelson and Steven Schardt (directors, Treatment ) and Taylor Guterson (director, Old Goats); plus a slew of local notables, including Dale Chihuly, and Seattle Sounders Patrick Ianni, Tyson Wahl and Brad Evans.

The party There is a red carpet (though it’s only about 12 feet long) and the mood is festive. It’s a mix of people in gowns and fleece—one of the biggest crowds of the fest—with plenty of good booze and a dance party after the screening.

The event A Tribute to Ewan McGregor, May 22, Egyptian Theatre.

The film Beginners, 2010.

How is it? Watch the trailer, and you’d think Beginners was just about a 70-year-old father coming out of the closet to his grown son. Not so. At its core, this is a love story—a heartbreaking tale of true romance. McGregor is outstanding as thirtysomething Oliver, who loses both of his parents to cancer and can’t shake his depression, preferring to sit at home chatting with his dog (who talks back). Life throws him a meet cute—Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party—and their hopelessly endearing love affair enfolds as the film flashes back to Oliver with his parents. This is the indiest of indie films, full of quirky roller-skating-through-the-hotel moments, but it still manages to feel true.

The guests Ewan McGregor, Beginners director Mike Mills, and enigma Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly: an Oscar writer with a sunny disposition.

The tribute The evening starts with a screening of Beginners at 4, followed by a Q&A with McGregor and Mills. McGregor will then receive the Golden Space Needle Award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting and do a short onstage interview with Karger, followed by a career highlight reel.

Seattle International Film Festival runs May 19-June 12. For more galas and tributes, go to

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