2022 Seattle International Film Festival preview: A conversation with Artistic Director Beth Barrett

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Beth Barrett — Photo courtesy of SIFF
Beth Barrett — Photo courtesy of SIFF

The 48th annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) began an 11-day hybrid run with the local premiere of the documentary Navalny at the Paramount Theatre. Concluding April 24, this year's festival features its usual eclectic mix of features, documentaries, shorts, workshops, forums, and numerous additional programs.

While the majority of screenings and events will be happening at theaters throughout Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, there is also a virtual option for almost two-thirds of this year's selections. It's an exciting cinematic smorgasbord, and while still not quite the massive 25-day feast SIFF has typically been known for, the festival still remains a massive, eye-opening opportunity to indulge on tasty storytelling treats from all around the globe.

I sat down with longtime SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett to chat about this year's festival. The following are edited transcripts of what they had to say:

Image courtesy of SIFF  

Sara Michelle Fetters: Last year when we touched base, SIFF was virtual only. Now we're back in theaters, but there's also still a virtual option. What has all of this been like? Was utilizing this hybrid model even more stressful to program?

Beth Barrett: Yes and no. The in-person part of it was actually surprisingly easy. I've got nearly 20 years of muscle memory of how to do this, about how we put a film in a theater, so that part all felt really familiar. It was interesting talking to distributors about the hybrid [option]. Some we're very receptive. We were clear about what we were trying to do, which is recognize that the pandemic is not over and people are at varying different levels of comfort in coming out to a physical space.

But there's also this accessibility that we gained over doing the virtual festival [in 2021]; we had audiences across the country watching films. We recognize people "festival" in different ways. When we were trying to set up the structure of the 2022 festival, we were trying to do it as pandemically safe and accessible as possible, while still being celebratory and ecstatic about being back in cinemas.

With the hybrid, and especially if you have a film pass or even a six-pack, you can choose to see a film in a cinema on a Saturday and then, on Sunday afternoon, you can watch a couple [films] at home. You can then see two more on Monday night. You can design your festival experience in your own way, theatrical or virtual with the films we have on the SIFF Channel or a both. It's exciting.

SMF: There really does seem to be this freedom of choice this year. I mean, there's never been one way to SIFF. You've always had many different ways that you could try to SIFF. But this year, it's like you've embraced this concept of what makes you feel the most comfortable. You really seem to embrace the potential viewer in a warm little virtual hug. It's like you're saying, "We're going to let you do what you want to do, and we're still going to try to show you as much as we can." That had to be the plan, right?

BB: It was. But it's also getting filmmakers and getting those stories out to people that don't have physical access to the festival. We have a lot of access here in Seattle in terms of in cinema experience, but go an hour out and that access to independent and international films is much, much less. Go two hours out and you don't have that access at all. But you still want to engage with the programming. You still want to have the experience that SIFF can bring. Having the virtual option allows that to happen.

SMF: And, looking at the guide, it does seem like several distributors and/or filmmakers were open to you being able to do this. It does seem like you've got many more virtual options than I admit I expected was going to be the case.

BB: Yeah, me too. To be perfectly honest, I actually thought that we'd get about 30%, maybe 40%, and we have around 60% of our titles with a virtual option. I think that in the last two years, people have recognized that the value of the festival is in the exposure to the audience. I think distributors are starting to see that if they want their films to be seen by audiences. embracing this hybrid model is one great way for them to be seen outside of those traditional hubs.

SMF: But, for those eager to get back to a traditional theatrical experience...

BB: It's back!

SMF: Right. It's back. For SIFF, it had to have been nice that you were able to reopen your theaters in a tiered process, one where you brought people back incrementally. I feel like this helped you be even more prepared for this year's festival than you may been had everything just opened back all at once.

BB: Absolutely. We would never have been able to reopen the cinemas with the festival. That would have been impossible.

We began reopening our cinemas in October of 2021, and there's new processes and a different way that we're doing things. There weren't very many silver linings to the pandemic, but one of them was the ability to look at what we were doing and how we were doing it from an exhibition standpoint. It's been amazing to have had these months under our belts in terms of people coming back to the cinemas, having some bigger shows, and getting more comfortable. I think it's going to take us all a while to be as comfortable as we were three years ago, but we're hopefully going to get there.

SMF: Did it also help that you were able to do DocFest and Noir City festivals before this one? Personally, when I went to my couple Noir City showings, I was surprised how comfortable I felt and how streamlined that process was of getting back into that theater in a festival setting.

BB: I think it's absolutely right that we were able to give some of the staff and some of the house managers experience through those events and with the mini-festivals. It's a different feeling, these festival and special events, so I think it really did help us to be able to practice and to try some things before we got to SIFF.

SMF: So let's talk more about this year's SIFF. I shouldn't be impressed, because you and your team always seem to be able to this, but this year you were able to come up with this really cool, very diverse program in the middle of all of the craziness that's still going on right now.

What was that like? Putting these pieces together, talking to these filmmakers, getting films programed, and making all your selections so that you could have this rich diversity over a two-week period?

BB: All your great words are all because of our programmers. We work as a team, and they are some of the most dedicated, savvy, smart people that I've ever worked with. They are able to understand what we're looking for, which is that depth of well-roundedness while yet also remaining a tiny bit shallow, if that makes sense. It's not all documentaries or it's not all films from France. It's not all of one anything.

SIFF is a little bit of everything. There's depth everywhere. There were the fights — we should have, this but we can't have this, but we need this film — but that happens every year. And, in the past, we would have about 250 features in the festival. This year we're down to about 150 features. But that's still up from 2021. Last year we were at 92.

The increase is nice. It allowed us to have a little bit of breathing room in terms of numbers of films that we could book, but also allowed us to take chances on some of the smaller titles that we would not have been able to program last year because we were so limited.

But we have a unique vision, and these are the kinds of films SIFF is known for, those discovery films. So 60% of our filmmakers this year are, this is their first or second film. Also, another 60%, do not currently have US distributions. So these films are a real chance for the audiences to connect to stories and to see something that they otherwise may never get another chance to see. That's exciting.

SMF: Speaking of films a person may not get another chance to see, you've got the work-in-progress forums back.

BB: We do! We're really excited about the two work-in-progress forums this year. They'll be on Thursday and Friday, the 22nd and 23rd. One of the programs is Motherland, and the filmmakers are coming from some pretty tough situations right now in the world. The fact that they're still making their film is really extraordinary.

The team behind Ten Meter Tower, the short film, they're back with Broadcasts, which is all told with extemporaneous video. It's a really interesting process of being able to hear from the filmmakers, see what they've got, and then be able to give your feedback and have discussions about what they're thinking and hear where they intend to go next. It's exciting.

Another thing we're really excited about this year, we're bringing Kaltrina Krasniqi's Vera Dreams of the Sea. That was one of our work-in-progress selections last year for the virtual festival. Now she's finished the film based on some of that feedback and then went on to win a prize at the Venice Film Festival! We're so excited to have Kaltrina back at the festival this year.

SMF: Let's talk about guests. You have in-person guests back this year!

BB: Yes! Isn't it great? We've got guests with about 55 of our features, which is a lot. It's actually roughly about the number of guests that we would have in a 25-day festival period. This is only roughly an 11-day period. So it's a lot.

There are days that are full of guest screenings, and we've got all of those listed on our website in the SIFF blog, in the news area, where there's a whole list of films that have special guests. Granted, as we know, in this world, with how everything is right now, things do change rapidly. But these are the folks that we are all very hopeful that they will be able to attend.

SMF: Well, in regards to the state of the world and everything that's going on right now, you're opening night film Navalny, it suddenly couldn't be timelier.

BB: Yeah. When that decision was made, to have Navalny open the festival, Russia had not invaded Ukraine. There were still posturing and so sadly, every day, it has become just a little bit more timely in looking at what is the human cost to standing up to authoritarianism. Film creates conversations, and the conversations that we're having in the US right now, and not just in the US but around the world, they're massive. What is democracy? How do you maintain human rights and human dignity and freedom of choice? How do we be the world that we want to be even when faced with all of the horrible things happening around us?

Film provides a way to have those conversations without them being philosophical conversations because they're lived experiences. You're seeing those stories play out in real life or, in the case of Navalny — which is crazy, because it really plays like a thriller even though it's all true — play through the lens of a documentary. This is true with documentary and it is also true in a scripted film. People are still looking at those same big questions. They're just asking them in different ways.

SMF: And, speaking of asking big questions that have gained additional resonance due to current events outside of the control of the filmmakers, with what just happened in Alabama and with what's going on in Florida and Texas, you have a fairly hard-hitting LGBTQ slate this year, I think it's safe to say.

BB: We do. There's a lot going on in the world right now. We sought to try to represent, again, not the depth of the LGBTQ+ experience, because Three Dollar Bill and the Seattle Queer Film Festival do such a great job, and Translations does such a great job and can go into more depth than we can. But the broader questions, like how are rights around the world being talked about or how is the experience in other countries, these are questions we sought to answer.

We've got the world premiere of Craig Boreham's Lonesome, which is a sexually explicit coming-of-age drama. We've also got Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's Neptune Frost, which is an electro-pop, Queer, musical, experimental, Rwandan experience. Those are both quite exciting.

But filmmakers are expressing themselves and expressing Queer ideas in so many different ways! One of my favorites, actually, is the Icelandic comedy Cop Secret, which takes the toxic police drama and makes it a Queer thriller comedy. It's pretty great.

Honestly? Those Scandinavians really showed up this year. There's Girl Picture, a Finnish film of three young women. So Damn Easy Going is another great one, a really wonderful Swedish young Lesbian drama, and the Lesbians don't die in the end! I'm hoping that we have gotten past that narrative where the queer drama has to include some sort of punitive damage to the queer characters. We're done with that.

SMF: Another thing that I noticed this year: there are quite a few films dealing with humanity's relationship to nature. Was that a conscious decision? Or was this just a random trend that happened with this year's submissions?

BB: I think it just sort of happens. Seattle's a very environmentally conscious city, and so we're always looking for ways to incorporate those films into the festival, films like Raul James' Invisible Demons. It's interesting, because the way he tells his story, it is not just about the environment or just about how Delhi's air is unbreathable and the water is undrinkable. It also ties how class plays into all of that. What are the economics of a destructive environment? James comes at these questions from a place of privilege when he says, very early on, my family had an air conditioner.

The very simple fact that his family was at a certain class and had a certain status and had a certain privilege, they had an air conditioner and they didn't have to breathe the Delhi air. It's a really fascinating look at the emotional toll that environmental disaster takes without going deep into the environmental disaster itself. It looks at it from a different, unexpected angle.

But the air and the water in Delhi remains an endemic challenge. It really is not safe to live in parts of Delhi.

SMF: And, of course, the "Northwest Connections" section of the festival is back, as it should be, and we also have the return of local filmmaker Megan Griffiths.

BB: I'm so excited [for] the world premiere of I'll Show You Mine. It's a pretty intimate film. There's just two characters and it wasn't shot here, but crew are all Seattle folks who are either still living in Seattle or still consider Seattle their home. I'm really, really, really excited to be able to share this film with audiences.

SMF: Another Northwest Connections entry I'm looking forward to is Sweetheart Deal.

BB: You should be looking forward to that one. It's a really deep look at the women working on Aurora, and the filmmakers have been working on it for almost a decade now. They went into the film thinking it was going to be one thing, and like many documentarians, they discovered their story was about something totally different. They got to know these women. We're so thrilled to be able to present the world premiere and to finally get these stories out there for audiences to experience.

SMF: This is the second year in a row that we're in the April timeframe and not in SIFF's traditional spot of the week before Memorial Day. This is also a two-week festival and not one that runs for 25 days as in the past. How has this April timeframe been for you all? Are you sticking here going forward? Or do you want to move back to that traditional early summertime spot at the end of May?

BB: April has been really good. I love it. For years, the festival has fought with the sun. SIFF was never intended to be a summer festival, and so being in April has really allowed a lot of different access. Kids are still in school. Universities are still in session but they're not in finals. This means university and college students have access to the films in a different way.

I really enjoy April. There's a lot of different festivals that happen roughly at the same time across the country. We're sharing a guest with Cleveland. We're sharing a guest with Hot Docs. We're sharing three guests with San Francisco. Because we're in April, we can work together as a festival community on films that we have in common to support each other, to bring international guests in because when not all having to bust our guest relations budget. When you get to pull it all together and work as a team, a flight from Kosovo to bring in a director suddenly seems reasonable.

SMF: For somebody who's grabbing a festival six-pack, what are you sending them to?

BB: I'm sending them to Fire of Love, an incredible documentary from Sara Dosa. I'm sending them to The Pez Outlaw, which is hilarious. It's about a Pez collector who finds a line to Pez dispensers that are not available in the United States. He flies to Eastern Europe, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia... and brings them back into the United States. He essentially becomes a Pez smuggler and it's a great, great film.

What else? How about Daughter of a Lost Bird, which is directed by Brooke Swaney about her friend, Kendra Potter, who was... from the Lummi Nation and was adopted as a baby to a white family, grew up, and as an adult found her birth mother. There's the journey that they go on as a mother and daughter, but also the journey they go on discovering — and rediscovering — what it means to be indigenous and Native American. Really extraordinary film.

I would also send people to see Girl Picture, which is one of my favorites.

Also Kaepernick & America. Colin Kaepernick is one of those social justice warriors that is somewhat enigmatic but also caused giant change in one of the most staid conservative sectors of our world: professional sports. By taking a knee, he threw a spanner in the works. It's terrific film, and it's also another world premiere.

How do I choose just one more? I am going to go with Flux Gourmet, because this random six-pack person deserves something that will just make them say, "What am I seeing here?" It's a Peter Strickland film, the director behind In Fabric and Berberian Sound System. It centers around an alimentary band. They create experimental noise music with food, but, of course, they're sequestered away in a giant mansion with... it's hard to even explain.

It's Peter Strickland, so it's confrontational and it's squirmy, but it's also just like, I don't know... beautiful.

SMF: Lastly, for you, what is going to make this year's SIFF a success?

BB: Just seeing people engaging with film and seeing people coming out and being there and being together in the cinema and having these experiences. There's nothing quite like it, to walk into a cinema and to see people sitting and watching a movie. Learning, laughing, crying, being infuriated, all the same things, all of those things. Together.