Ten questions with Festival Director Sophie Donlon
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
NORTHWEST FILM FORUM
Beginning this evening with the Opening Night Gala 'Party On Set,' the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.) kicks off the 21st annual Local Sightings Film Festival with a proverbial bang. Running through Saturday, Sept. 29, the festival features a collection of features, shorts, events, workshops and archival presentations focusing on the various communities living here in the Pacific Northwest. It's an ambitious lineup, and viewers of all ages should be able to find more than a few screenings that pique their interest.
I was able to ask Festival Director Sophie Donlon ten questions about this year's festival. Here are her responses:
Sara Michelle Fetters: This is the 21st year for the Local Sightings Film Festival and your second year as director. Why has this festival endured? What makes it so special?
Sophie Donlon: I believe Local Sightings has endured for 21 years because of the filmmakers. They're the heart and soul of the festival and that's why we really work to make the focus of the festival the people involved in the film community. Over the years, Local Sightings has become a place where filmmakers can connect with their peers, develop collaborations and find resources, and that's something we actively cultivate through industry events and workshops.
This year, to further those goals, we've expanded the awards structure to better recognize the many different facets of the filmmaking process and to offer prizes that will provide resources for filmmakers to aid their artistic pursuits, including cash prizes, gear rentals, a SIFF Industry Pass, gift certificates to Glazers and more. So, in addition to our traditional prizes of Best Feature and Short, Best Original Composition for a Feature and Short, and Audience Award for Feature and Short, we're also awarding Best Cinematography, Best Sound Design and Emerging Filmmaker for first time feature or short director, and an Impact Award in recognition of a film that motivates taking action for social change and movement building.
Another reason the festival has endured is because of everyone at Northwest Film Forum. Their passion and commitment to supporting film and filmmakers in our community and region is endlessly admirable. What makes Local Sightings special is that it is different from many other traditional film festivals. It mixes and melds screenings, panels and events and brings together diverse facets of the community. It's not uncommon at Local Sightings for an established filmmaker whose film premiered at Sundance having their Seattle premiere next to a young director presenting their first feature. Local Sightings is a place where these bridges can be built and that's something worth cultivating and protecting. I'm so excited to see what the next 21 years of Local Sightings will bring!
Sara Michelle Fetters: What are the challenges of programming a festival like this?
Sophie Donlon: One of the challenges of programming is finding ways to pursue all of the incredible ideas and opportunities that are brought to us and to fit it into a weeklong festival! One thing I love about Local Sightings is the way it engages with different parts of the arts community in Seattle, from music to dance to visual arts, and one of my goals moving forward is to expand on those relationships even more.
Another challenge is also what makes it so rewarding. We're a very small team, so everyone has a part in everything. At certain points, it's felt like I'm living and breathing Local Sightings, but that's really not something to complain about at all!
Sara Michelle Fetters: What surprised you the most about this year's submissions?
Sophie Donlon: It wasn't exactly a surprise, but I'm always awed by the vibrance of the experimental scene in the Pacific Northwest. Features like the experimental animation North of Blue and the experimental documentary Essays of a City, are simultaneously profound visual and intellectual experiences and are really like nothing else I've seen.
Something that struck me in this year's submissions overall was a sense of rumination and gravity in the stories filmmakers are choosing to tell. Whether the films are personal narratives, like Kadazia Allen-Perry's deeply intimate account of living with cystic fibrosis, Chronic Means Forever, or documentaries with a global lens, like Vancouver: No Fixed Address, about the Vancouver, BC housing crisis, or a romance in the tradition of classic Hollywood cinema, like Forgotten Man, the films in the festival approach their topics with a real sense of reflection. I believe this speaks to our current moment, which often feels tumultuous, and filmmakers in our region are responding to that by focusing intently on examining with care and poignancy what it means to live and make art in this world.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me about this year's workshops. Why are these important? How do you hope audiences/attendees get involved?
Sophie Donlon: The workshops this year showcase stunning emerging projects, including Shontina Vernon's workshop and discussion around her juvenile incarceration project Grrrl Justice, and the screening and panel around the new short film speaking to the forgotten histories of people of color, The New Frontier, with director Kanani Koster and the team of writers.
With the festival workshops, we strive to provide filmmakers with both education and resources, and further to prompt discussions about the impact of film in communities. Matt Longmire's workshop 'The Indie Filmmaker's Guide to Captions & Subtitles' is part education and part advocacy for the importance of adding captions and subtitles to indie film projects in order to make independent films more accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, as well as to the rest of the world with subtitles.
A workshop that is not to be missed is 'Shaping Stories, Building Power,' taught by one of our jurors, Paige Watkins. Paige is the associate director of Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA), which works to incubate quality and compelling stories that will shift the dominant narratives about Detroit towards liberation and justice. In this workshop, participants will be able to gain a deeper understanding of the Detroit Narrative Agency's model and values, view the recent short films supported by DNA and discuss how to build systems for accountable, community-based filmmaking in a local context.
Workshops are so important because they are a crucial way for festival filmmakers and attendees to share knowledge and perspective. They're a crucial tool and a great way for filmmakers and audiences alike to learn more about media and communities!
Sara Michelle Fetters: And then you have quite the eclectic lineup of special presentations. What is the process for programming these?
Sophie Donlon: The special presentations came together very organically. A few of the programs are a part of ongoing relationships with partner organizations, such as our Indigenous Showcase series co-presented with Longhouse Media, which this year features the documentary Mele Murals, and our co-presentation with Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound (MIPoPS) of Vi Hilbert's informational films that promote the preservation of the Lushootseed language. In our other special presentations we're always looking to highlight the emerging work of creators in the region. That's really what sparked events like the screening of It Happened at the World's Fair at SIFF Cinema Egyptian with live commentary by Charles Mudede, Ahamefule Oluo and Lindy West, who are all collaborators on the upcoming film Thin Skin. Another example of this is the 'GIFgantic Comic Event: Kelton Sears presents Trash Mountain.' I was so excited when I first saw Kelton's work because it's so sharp and funny, and because it's exactly the kind of alternative multimedia storytelling that I want to highlight. In that sense, I look at the special presentations both as a way to honor the history of the Pacific Northwest and celebrate new works.
Sara Michelle Fetters: The level of inclusion and diversity in this year's full lineup is remarkable. Is it difficult to program such a richly inclusive festival? How do you make sure to showcase features and shorts that represent the entire Pacific Northwest as a whole?
Sophie Donlon: It is definitely something I feel very strongly about and so was very intentional with when I was programming the films. It wasn't difficult, per se, because the stories are out there and are being made all over the Pacific Northwest. A large part of what me and the programming team did was research the films that are being made and reach out to groups that have worked with the Northwest Film Forum in the past to solicit the submissions. I feel that my role as the director is to provide a platform to filmmakers to present their work, especially those who haven't been traditionally recognized by established structures. In addition to considering the filmmaker and the subjects of the film when programming a diverse and inclusive festival, we took care to include films from all over the region that told a wide range of stories and perspectives.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As mentioned before, this is your second year as director of the festival. How much fun are you having? What's it mean to you personally to be bringing a festival like this one to the people of Seattle?
Sophie Donlon: Local Sightings means so much to me. It was the first film festival I ever attended and to be the festival director for the second year in a row is such a surreal beautiful honor. Through my work, I've learned so much about the Pacific Northwest film community and about the region itself. It continually inspires me to expand my own perspectives on film and pushes me to bring our audiences screenings and events that inspire them.
Watching a movie is a very personal experience, but for me movies come the most alive when you talk about them with friends and peers. One of the things I love most about Local Sightings is that it creates opportunities to connect filmmakers and audiences in a shared space that cultivates discussion. These discussions about form, subject matter, artistry and impact begin in Q&As and panels with filmmakers, and I see them extend to the lobby after a screening and even to festival parties.
Everyone at Northwest Film Forum and I have worked so hard to put this festival together, and it's been so fulfilling and fun! We're all very serious about what we do, but we're also very serious about play. For the opening night 'Party on Set,' we're transforming the Forum into a filmmakers' playground where attendees can make and star in their own mini-films! One of the stations is a green-screen open script reading set, and as part of this I made all these hand puppets; it really gave me a chance to develop my Nicolas Cage impression. So yeah, I'm having a lot of fun!
Sara Michelle Fetters: What part does the Local Sightings festival play in the overall mission of the NW Film Forum?
Sophie Donlon: Northwest Film Forum was founded as a collective with the goals of providing support and resources to Seattle filmmakers. Local Sightings embodies those community-based values. The core values of both Northwest Film Forum and Local Sightings are to get people talking about film and creative action, and to get them creating and collaborating together. I see Local Sightings as a microcosm of the work we do all year long to celebrate and uplift the local film community.
Sara Michelle Fetters: When you think about this year's festival, what brings the biggest smile to your face? What gets you the most excited?
Sophie Donlon: It's really hard to choose! I mentioned many amazing screenings and events previously which are must-sees. I think the entire program is incredibly strong this year, and there's so many I can't wait to watch again myself on the big screen! I'm also so excited to meet and spend time with all of the filmmakers and hear more about their work in their own words.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What do you hope attendees take away from this year's festival? What do you hope they're talking about?
Sophie Donlon: I hope that audiences come away enlivened by the remarkable and important work being made in the Pacific Northwest. We want to share stories that inspire action and collaboration, and moreover, leaving audiences with a sense of the impact that movies can have on the world starting in our own communities.
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