The problem with STIFF starts with the "T." Seattle's True Independent Film Festival, now in its fifth year, puts the accent mark in its dick-joke-entendre acronym over the "True"— "Somebody needs to help these TRUE Independent gems find an audience on the lookout for the unusual," reads the STIFF website—and it waves that "True" like a fist at Seattle International Film Festival. It's a bratty, punk-as-fuck younger brother trying to get the goat of the more-composed older sister. There's a fine tradition of this sort of institutional fight-picking—Slamdance thrives in the shadow of Sundance, after all—but the STIFF producers have been blinded by their own fuck-the-man glee; the only one they're hurting, really, is themselves.
Slamdance makes sense as counterprogramming to Sundance; the former festival is always packed with wealthy Hollywood elites and offers limited screening opportunities. It's possible for someone stranded in the relative isolation of frigid Park City, Utah, to integrate both festivals into their routine. But STIFF is trying to counterprogram the largest film festival in the United States, which itself is trying to counterprogram the first few weeks of beautiful Seattle spring weather.
When I ask Clint Berquist, managing director of STIFF, why he doesn't move the festival to the fall or winter, when Seattleites are practically clamoring for more diverse indoor entertainment, he acknowledges that they "have discussed the possibility" of a move, but the parallel timing is "a statement" against SIFF's "homogenization" and lack of coverage of local filmmakers. Berquist has a point about the shameful state of SIFF's local coverage—not counting the local students who competed in the Adobe Youth Voices short-films showcase, only 28 SIFF films are locally produced this year—but to decry the "homogenization" of a festival that includes 406 entries from 67 countries seems ridiculous. Berquist rails against SIFF's $11-a-pop ticket prices—STIFF provides $50 all-access passes—and he is especially proud of the fact that 50 of STIFF's 150 films are locally produced and that all of them are "independent," a label determined by a panel of 20 screeners. "We turn down stuff that has really recognizable talent," Berquist says, noting that STIFF routinely rejects films for having too high a budget or too many celebrities.
In the last week, I've watched eight STIFF movies. The two locally produced films that Berquist suggested that I watch—A Visitor in the Night and Still Life, both shorts—were entirely awful. The writing, cinematography, and acting were subprofessional and clichéd. And of the six other films I watched, one (Scream of the Bikini, a parody of sexploitation spy films, would have been a hilarious half-hour short but was basically one joke stretched out to a nauseating 99-minute running time) was not actively terrible, and only one movie (Scrap, a documentary about bizarre roadside attractions that succeeds because of its subjects and not its amateurish filmmaking) made for an enjoyable viewing experience. The other four were uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch because they were so poorly written, directed, and acted. In the past, I've seen STIFF films that I liked. I've also seen many more that I hated (after I write negative reviews of them, I usually get e-mails from the directors chastising me for not understanding what, in the words of one filmmaker, "truely Independent cinema" means), and STIFF's ratio of good-to-atrocious movie experiences has always been unfavorable.
Here's a two-step plan for what STIFF needs to do if it wants to stop being a hater and start being a player. First: Give up on the dumb-ass counterprogramming idea and move the whole festival to February. It's unfair to the very independent filmmakers they're trying to promote—many of whom are doing their own marketing—to make them compete with Edward Norton or Spike Lee for the fleeting attention of the press. Second: Trim the schedule by about a third to remove some of the real stinkers. This obsession with Truth and Independence is supposed to make STIFF the X Games to SIFF's Olympics—daring, bold, exciting—but this all-inclusive, every-movie-is-special-and-has-value bullshit makes it more like the Special Olympics, where everyone gets a medal for showing up. If it focused on quality (SQIFF?) and made STIFF a destination instead of branding it as a fuck-you, SIFF might actually take notice.