Seattle boasts one of the largest film festivals in the world, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF,) which runs for three weeks and curates an audience-driven schedule of screenings of new independent and foreign films that is impressive and unfathomable. The fortieth year edition ran about 450 films (including short films and features) May 15th – June 8th and brought together an estimated 150,000 people to celebrate film with featured guests such as Richard Linklater (for “Boyhood,” SIFF 2014 Best Film), actor/filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Half of a Yellow Sun,”) Laura Dern (“The Fault in Our Stars,”) Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss (“The One I Love,”) Chris Messina (“Alex of Venice,”) Isiah Washington (“Bound: Africans vs. African-Americans,”) and legends such as Quincy Jones and many new filmmakers as well.
How do you get people to keep coming out and seeing films? That’s an important question these days as estimates from the likes of Price-Waterhouse Cooper’s ‘Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2014 – 2018’ projects the major profits in filmed entertainment to be found in the digital landscape. Fortunately for filmmakers and distributors, Seattle does a very good job at continuing to build superfans and a super audience base. Festivals in large part are meant to build audiences for the filmmakers and for the theatres and bring the community together as a whole.
Director Carlos Marquet-Marcet was in Seattle with his film “10.000KM,” which subsequently won the SIFF Grand Jury Prize for Best New Director. Marquet-Marcet’s film was the unanimous winner for the film’s ability to simply and creatively convey the complexity of human relationships. For the director a large part of presenting that emotional fragility was crafted for audiences to see the story in a cinema experience. “I grew up going to the cinema. It’s very important. It gives you a concentration and sharing movies with people becomes more fun.” said Marquet-Marcet. “There is a common catharsis between a whole group of people that you don’t have home alone seeing a film. The fine thing about seeing a film in a cinema, not just with blockbusters but also a small movie, is that you get to experience the subtle artistry of the story in the sound-work or the visual storytelling on the big screen… in a good way. ” said Marquet-Marcet.
To accomplish such a comprehensive landscape of films and events, SIFF works with eighteen programmers who focus across the short films and features, some whom are based in Seattle and others based in Italy and Asia. The programming team is led by veteran Head of Festival Programming Beth Barrett.
“We have eighty-three countries represented this year.” said Barrett. “We do a lot of decision (on film selections) by consensus, figuring out what is going to be the best mix, because in a festival this size, we really want to have the best representation of films from all over the world. You have no idea which film is going to change somebody and every person is going to be struck by something different on the screen… and everybody else is going to have a very different experience, but you’re doing it together. That is one of the key things, our mission, to create these experiences and bring people together to experience film.” said Barrett.
The city of Seattle has recently increased its support for SIFF based on the impact and outreach the organization has in the region, helping SIFF to expand its programming to year-round across five screens and three locations. The paradigm shifted as well due in large part to a grant from The Wallace Foundation and SIFF’s continual community engagement, which elevated its cultural significance to Seattle in the eyes of supporters, city and state civic leaders.
“The entire city of Seattle gets behind us.” said Barrett.
Carl Spence is the Artistic Director of SIFF and has been at the heart of the organization artistically as it expands its reach with SIFF Cinema and SIFF Education.
“The soul of our festival is that it has always been driven more by passion than ego. It’s a relationship between the audience and the filmmakers and the people who put it on, that’s what makes the festival. Over the twenty-five days, you have this ebb and flow and different experiences with people who are here the first week, second week, third week, fourth week,” said Spence. ” That’s what differentiates us from an eight day or twelve day festival. We’re spreading it out and it’s a bit more relaxed in how it all rolls out. ” said Spence.
It was 2011 when Dustin Kasper, the educational programs coordinator and a film programmer for SIFF, became aware of a new docu-drama that was shooting titled “Bound: Africans vs. African-Americans.”
The controversial and illuminating film exposes racism and judgmental views Africans and African-Americans have towards each other. This sensitive subject matter is highly confrontational, yet ultimately looks at shared cultures and heritage to foster a bridge of peace, acceptance and understanding. Directed by actress and first-time filmmaker Peres Owino, Kasper made contact and requested to see a cut of the film. At the time, the film wasn’t ready and over the years Kasper kept in contact with Owino, as she was continuing to shape and work on the project. It was Kasper’s interest and timely persistence that helped motivate Owino to complete the film. “I was going to get my film done. Dustin was not going to call me another year and me not have a film for him. I wanted to make sure I had the film done.” said Owino.
Owino sent Kasper the completed film in 2014. Kasper responded and asked if he could show the film to some members of the African-American community. It was important to Kasper and SIFF that such a hard-hitting film have communal partnership. A special advance screening was presented at The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. The communal feedback was integral to SIFF and their programmers and was a perfect example of how SIFF genuinely listens to its audience and has dialogue with them. Kasper called Owino and offered her film an invitation to premiere at the festival. Owino felt excitement then panic. “SIFF and their team helped me streamline exactly what we needed to do to premiere the film. For me and this film, they made a dream come true. I call them my little angels. They put the film out there and when people do that for you, even thank you is not sufficient. I love Seattle, because I love SIFF. I love all the people here, who became a part of our team.” said Owino.
Peres Owino’s film premiered to a standing ovation closing weekend and was awarded the Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision by SIFF at the Golden Needle Awards.