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By KJ Doughton | May 23, 2012

Where’s the sunshine?

It’s a question Northwest residents have been asking themselves for six moisture-saturated months. Bone-chilling rain pools onto park benches, soaking butts of inattentive squatters. Walking over glistening cement sidewalks, pedestrian feet create an audible “splat” with each downward step. Skies are so oppressively black, it seems a strange, novel oddity when the sun actually does peek through.

So why does 2012’s Seattle International Film Festival further enhance the drizzle, with so much celluloid sadness and digital despair? Forget SAD. This is Seasonal Affective Cinema.

But so what? Even if this year’s SIFF is stained by teary sobs and sniffles, it’s still a joyous phenomenon –  the ultimate visual energy drink for cinema fans. Starbucks? Nah. No coffee required during this three-week buzz of eye-candy overkill. We’re talking 273 features and 187 shorts representing 75 countries, at the largest and most highly attended film festival in the United States.

Still from "Killer Joe"

Oh – and let’s not forget the red-carpet guests, including Sissy Spacek, William Friedkin (whose latest NC-17-rated “Killer Joe” apparently skewers Matthew McConaughey’s good ‘ol boy gregariousness with depraved glee), and local golden-girl director Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister,” her current onscreen opus,  opens this year’s fest).

As with past SIFF’s, emerging trends can be spotted from the aisle seat. Human trafficking, for example, exists in a discreet, hidden world that enables this seemingly invisible crime to thrive. At SIFF, however, it’s front, center, and in your face. Hot on the heels of last year’s festival sleeper “The Off Hours,” Seattle-based filmmaker Megan Griffith presents “Eden.” Based on the true story of Chong Kim, a Korean American whose adolescence was literally bought and sold by underground sex traders during the mid-nineties, “Eden” is reportedly a mesmerizing, unsettling ride.

From Romania comes the similarly-themed “Loverboy.” Director Catalin Mitulescu follows a charming Casanova hired to sweep unsuspecting girls off their feet – and into the hands of unscrupulous pimps. And while it’s not about human trafficking per se, word on the street is that “Compliance” treads similarly slimy waters in its examination of how blind allegiance to authority results in the reprehensible exploitation of a female fast-food clerk. Ditto for “Coming Home,” described as a young woman’s adjustment to freedom after eight years of secret imprisonment.

Another thematic thread running through SIFF’s ambitious programming is the fallout resulting from contemporary war. “The Invisible War” exposes rape in the military, “The Long Ride Home” follows a bicyclist’s 4,200-mile journey promised to his fallen friend, and “Recalled” concerns the iffy military ethics pulsing within a National Guard unit.

Again, “cheerful” is not an adjective that these scenarios bring to mind.

But wait! The clouds are lifting a bit.

Still from "High Ground"

My initiation to this year’s SIFF screen-gazing was the emotionally raw “High Ground.” Following 11 wounded warriors as they ascend the 20,000 foot peak of Lobuche, “High Ground” juxtaposes horrifying, vivid combat stories with the staggering beauty of high-altitude vistas. A five-time Everest summiter, director Michael Brown is no stranger to this subject matter. Your jaw will drop into your popcorn as the group reaches each successive vantage point, where they’re privy to magnificent eye candy: tucked into the valleys below, Brown’s camera captures jade-colored lakes, snow-sprinkled spikes of ancient rock, and wispy, cotton-colored clouds. It’s indescribably beautiful.

First, however, the ugliness is purged. Participants offer vivid recollections of limbs, vision, and sanity lost via IED blasts, helicopter blades, and rocket-propelled grenades. After surviving these traumas, soldiers explain that their lives are disconnected, neural wiring forever frayed and frazzled. “I feel like an old man on his death bed,” says one warrior, unable to share in the upbeat vibe so easily generated by friends and family. Others confess that battle stress is often the catalyst for post-deployment misconduct. Coming home, describes another veteran, it’s hard to “put out the flames of the nuke.”

Contrasting these dark memories, however, is crisp, colorful cinematography. Ripe images of green and purple neoprene, red hard-hats, and orange backpacks stick out like Christmas lights amidst the stark white carpets being re-shaped, literally, by an army of metal-fanged boots. And when a blind soldier reaches the summit, all outstretched arms and smiling face, “High Ground” hits an entirely different level… euphoric, spiritual, and overwhelmingly human.

Can outdoor adventure help to cauterize deep, damaging battle wounds? “High Ground” offers hope and optimism. Brace yourself. There will be tears.

And there will be rain, as SIFF 2012 continues. Stay tuned…

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