In The Stranger's guide to the 26th chapter of SIFF, I wrote that "when SIFF hits town, we become an acquisitive mob, jockeying for tickets, seats, places in line-for our share of the more. This year's festival promises more 'more' than ever before: 210 features, 70 shorts, 50 countries, 200 guests, 140,000 audience members. Do we want to see all these films? Some of us do... More to the point, we want the option. We want more movies than we can possibly see, more time than we have to waste, more than all of everything, from every country and in every language."

As far as I can tell, the only thing that's changed in the intervening five years is that the more-more has gotten even bigger. SIFF 31 presents 347 films, all told, 38 of which are some kind of premiere. As always, the selections veer between artful, esoteric, crowd pleasing, and pandering, but significantly, 150 of the films being shown are without distributors, a higher number than the festival has presented in years.

No one has to tell anyone that Seattle is not a highbrow town-for movies or for anything else. Smart, yes. Curious, yes. But not so choked by the impulse toward cultivation that we can't appreciate that a half-rack of Pabst is often more delicious than a jeroboam of Barolo. That's another reason SIFF reflects who we are. Sure, there's art in it, and an international variety that represents 59 countries. But if the films in this year's festival offer any overarching lesson, it's that there is familiarity to be found in even the farthest reaches of aesthetic and linguistic periphery. This is not to say that there shouldn't be challenging films in the festival-there should, and there are. I'm just suggesting that "art" is best defined as communication, as opposed to mere expression. Major props are due for kicking things off with Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, the perfect film to exemplify the intersection of experimentalism and accessibility that the best of SIFF has to offer.

One of the cinema's profoundest pleasures is the transformation of the parochial into the universal; therein lies the discovery that the mountain forager in Kazakhstan has some of the same hangups as the art dealer in Chicago, that the Native American activist and the slum warriors of South American ghettoes are breathing the same air as the touring rock musicians and legendary cinematographers. It may be a facile point, but it's still worth making: In a world that never stops fracturing, films have a rare power to unite. The medium intrinsically makes the wide world smaller, reducing it to the size of a screen and the length of a story. SIFF breaks its back to fill that screen several hundred times over for a very intense three weeks, during which the even smaller world of a city can collapse further, converging on a few select rooms to share limited space and direct our scattered attention to a fixed point for a couple of sacred hours. Could anything be more democratic?

SIFF can never be all things to all people. Nor should it seek to be. It's a speculative representation, curated by a small group of dedicated film freaks, of the tastes and desires of a much larger small group of dedicated film freaks. Certainly, in the past the festival has been (among other things) uptight, down-market, starfucky, and overpopulated. But I think I speak for everyone when I say that these are picayune hassles when contrasted with the massive moveable feast SIFF serves up every year-a feast designed to ensure maximum satisfaction to as wide an audience as one could expect at a film festival. From the let's-pretend-we're-too-blasé-to-be-excited-about-the-presence-of-even-minor-celebrities audience conceit to the collective pride of discovery that spreads across a crowded auditorium during a great screening-this festival is a reflection of Seattle's best consumptive tendencies. ■