Being the brightest one in a sky full of stars is a tough task. How does a story stand out among several hundred titles in a program that rolls out over 25 days with audiences from all walks of life who have endless choices?

At the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival (May 18–June 11, 2017), America’s largest cinema event both in length and number of works screened, trying to be memorable can be an overwhelming conundrum. Considering the extensive list of top-notch narrative features and documentaries viewed by the crowds, the Audience Awards—in this case known as the Golden Space Needle Awards in honor of the city’s landmark—take on a significantly more prestigious connotation. Especially when a single film wins the two top prizes awarded by moviegoers.

Enamored with its sharp gallows humor and clever twisty plot, SIFF attendants voted Rodrigo Grande’s At the End of the Tunnel as the Best Film of the festival and also named him Best Director. The love for this dark cop thriller was aplenty. Grande’s third feature (after Historias Breves 2 and Gangs from Rosario), his most ambitious to date, centers on a disabled man who realizes a group of criminals is building a tunnel under his house in order to carry out a lucrative heist. Myriad odd characters and high-stakes situations ensue.

Based on his previous experience, Grande initially believed it would be easier to continue making smaller films that did not require a budget for more technically intricate set pieces. “I thought I would find more interested producers in the comedy genre because, in general, for comedies you don’t have to built complex sets. In a comedy what’s complicated is maintaining a consistent tone,” the director explained during a festival panel devoted to Iberoamerican artists and moderated by programmer Hebe Tabachnik. Rather than canning this idea, he embraced the aesthetic risk it posed. At the End of the Tunnel is an Argentine-Spanish co-production, a partnership that meant more resources but also more responsibility to deliver a financially viable product.

Rodrigo Grande on the set of At the End of the Tunnel

“I always need to be writing or developing something, otherwise I’d go crazy. I was going through a time in my life that made me feel as isolated as the character. There are parallels between what I felt and the movie,” said Grande. His sincerity regarding personal woes might have sealed the deal in the love affair between him and Seattle’s audience. A drunken Q&A session following one his film’s screenings turned into one of the most memorable moments at the festival and what many on social media called the best post-film conversation they have ever seen. Grande got on stage and invited fellow director Jose Maria Cabral, one of Cabral’s relatives, and myself to serve as interpreters to convey his answers more clearly in English. Quickly the conventional inquiries were ditched for a two-hander confessional in which Grande and Cabral dished out on their recent romantic failures. As the tragicomedy unfurled, the affair was received with warmth and laughter by those who had just enjoyed the intense film. Spontaneity won that night.

Woodpeckers, Cabral’s film, was the first-ever Dominican feature to premiere at Sundance, and it made its way to the Pacific Northwest via SIFF. During the discussion with the other Latin American directors, the director shared anecdotes about the one-of-a-kind production inside an overcrowded prison with real inmates on camera. In his quest for authenticity, Cabral had to forge relationship within the correctional facilities so that the shooting could go as smoothly as it possibly could under those conditions. “It was like going into a city [made up of] people that have committed crimes. I thought, ‘How am I going to convince 8,000 prisoners that I’m here to make a movie, that I want them to be part of the movie, and that I want them to act?’”

Woodpeckers, a film by Jose Maria Cabral

Police inside the jail couldn’t guarantee his safety, so a significant leap of faith was vital to pull of Cabral’s unorthodox filmmaking feat. A seasoned creator who crafted his first feature at 19, and got it theatrically distributed at home, Cabral was fascinated by the sign language people behind bars in two major Dominican prisons designed, a language of love– the title of his film comes from the Spanish-language term used to describe this communication practice.

Having its U.S. premiere at SIFF, Everardo Gonzale’ Devil’s Freedom is a solemn nonfiction portrait of the drug war in Mexico. Always conscious of the magnitude of the subject at hand, the documentarian use his time on the panel to speak about the ethical challenges and concerns brought about by the delicate nature of what he was capturing. The film includes multiple interviews with families that lost someone to the cartels or the federal police that aides them, as well as first-hand accounts from sicarios, or hired killers, about the atrocious murderers they have committed. One of the most harrowing moments in the film comes when a teenage boy describes killing for the first time, and the repercussions this had on his humanity.

Gonzales hides his subjects’ faces with identical, otherworldly masks. “I used a mask in order to block all the expressions in their faces, and in order to make them all equal. In a way I was putting victims and perpetrators in the same place,” he explained. That very decision was source of internal conflict, because in order to follow the security protocols he had devised, he had to conceal the victims’ names and faces. They must remain in the shadows, yet the masks allow everyone in front of the camera to speak freely, even those who have blood on their hands. Devil’s Freedom was awarded a Special Jury Mention from the festival’s Iberoamerican competition jury.

Slightly lighter, Chilean first-time director Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s Chameleon enjoyed its North American premiere to audiences whom you might describe as “captive” in a double entendre about the film’s premise. The film, which was entirely shot in three days (following three months of rehearsal), dives into the mind of a young psychopath who walks into the home of an affluent lesbian couple with malevolent intentions.

Chameleon, a film by Jorge Riquelme Serrano

“The amount of material we had to build the film was very limited. Many key scenes were shot only once. That was the biggest challenge,” said Serrano, about the production model that only afforded them 72 hours for principal photography. Using a beachfront home as its only location and revolving around just three characters representing the Chile’s social strata, Chameleon is an effective chamber piece that constantly demolishes expectations and shines for its precise execution. Gastón Salgado’s calibrated performance as the shifting intruder is a key piece in the overall potency of the storytelling. Among other noteworthy distinctions, the film was the first of its size to be crowdfunded in the South American country, and, on a fun note, its psychological gruesome themes propelled a handful of SIFF audience members to run away. Those who stayed had endless questions for the director.

Other notable Iberoamerican films include Emiliano Torres’ The Winter, winner of the top award in the region’s competition; controversial Cuban drama Santa & Andres by Carlos Lechuga, and Sebastian Rotstein Terror 5, a segmented horror film in the style of Argentine hit Wild Tales. Packing the enormity of the world in a month-long parade of images, sounds, and subtitles, SIFF continues to be a prime launching pad for international cinema in the United States, and in spite of its massive size on all fronts, it runs like a well-oiled, four-decades-old machine. MM

The 43rd Seattle International Film Festival ran May 18 – June 11, 2017, in Seattle, Washington. Visit its website here.