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SIFF at 50: A conversation with SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett

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The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) — Photo courtesy of MGM
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) — Photo courtesy of MGM

Starting tonight at the SIFF Egyptian with screenings of Eighth Grade, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, SIFF is kicking off its 2024 50th anniversary celebration a few months early. Running through December 3, the "SIFF at 50" series is the first of two planned retrospectives of past Seattle International Film Festival audience award winners and programmer favorites that have played during the festival over the past half-century. (The second event is tentatively planned for April.)

Beth Barrett — Photo courtesy of SIFF  

"It's exciting, isn't it?" asked SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett. "We have so much going on right now, and next year's festival is going to be really special. Having a series like this seemed like a great way of honoring SIFF's history while also starting the clock ticking toward the 50th annual Seattle International Film Festival."

Barrett is right. There is a lot to talk about. Not only is SIFF getting ready for next year's main event — the aforementioned 50th film festival, starting on May 9 and running through May 19 — there's also its recent agreement to reopen and run the iconic downtown Cinerama Theater.

In late October, I sat down with Barrett to chat about SIFF at 50, the reopening of the Cinerama, and what a vibrant film community means to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Here is the edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation:

The SIFF Cinema sign on the former Cinerama theater building — Photo courtesy of SIFF Cinema  

Sara Michelle Fetters: So, you're reopening the Cinerama when?

Beth Barrett: We are thrilled to be opening on December 14 with Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet! SIFF Cinema Downtown will be a home for all cinema, from first-run blockbusters to family-friendly fare to specialty screenings and series. We're so happy to provide a space for film lovers of all ages to see a film over the holidays on the best screen in Seattle!

SMF: That's so exciting! So, we are officially calling the theater SIFF Cinema Downtown?

BB: It is now SIFF Cinema Downtown! The name allows us to really work with the community on a more permanent name, while also reflecting the optimism of a returning downtown and helping make the area a more activated neighborhood space.

SMF: What is the excitement level as you inch closer to reopening Seattle's premiere venue?

BB: With the staff, the excitement level is pretty deafening. They are pretty excited to be getting going on December 14. We will be serving great local beer and wine, and, of course, chocolate popcorn!

SMF: So, when we last talked in April, before the festival started, you were really excited about the 50th anniversary projects and events you had coming up. I admit, when I received the press release for this particular event, I was happily surprised to see you'd be starting in November.

BB: Yeah. Fifty years of films, right? It's exciting. There's a lot of films. Thousands and thousands and thousands of films!

The festival is an organization-wide event. Passes and ticket packages for SIFF members are on sale now. And this series is a way to remind everyone that they saw all of these great films at the festival. These are audience award winners. These are special attractions. These are titles audiences will get excited about.

SIFF started doing the audience awards in 1984. Kiss of the Spider Woman was the first winner, and we've got a beautiful 35mm print. It's going to be emotional, I think, to see it now 40 years later.

But looking at all of these [titles] is like, it's so emotional; these were all films that really touched a large number of people.

SMF: In terms of the lineup of this series, where else are you going to be able to watch The Empire Strikes Back, WarGames, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Facing Windows, and the first, most important entries of The Kingdom all at one venue? And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

BB: Yeah. It's a fun lineup.

SMF: But how do you do this? Where do you start? It seems like a monster task to assemble a series like this from almost 50 years of Seattle International Film Festival lineups.

BB: This series is 21 films. I guesstimated that we have shown somewhere around 10,000 over the course of 50 years. [laughs].

So, yes, it's an impossible task. This is why we used the "it won an audience award" rule when selecting most of the titles. For 16 of the 21 films, we're like, great, that was the audience award winner. We'll go with that. It made it easier than it otherwise would have been.

For the ... years prior to 1984, they were much more my favorites, if I'm being honest. That's how we get things like Multiple Maniacs or The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum — which was the very first film showed at the very first SIFF! So, there's a little bit of a balance.

And then WarGames, of course, was shot right here in Seattle. And, well, The Empire Strikes Back is The Empire Strikes Back. [laughs]

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Photo courtesy of LucasFilms  

SMF: It's not like we didn't know that The Empire Strikes Back played SIFF in 1980. Pretty sure clips from it get used in every single SIFF trailer I've seen over the past three decades or so. What I did not know was that the world premiere of The Empire Strikes Back was right here in Seattle at SIFF. How did that happen? Do you know?

BB: It showed at 12:01 a.m. [laughs]

Seriously, though, it showed at 12:01 a.m. on the premiere day. Thinking back to 1980, this was before it was traditional to do those midnight — followed by 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. — showings kind of thing. That's all very commonplace now, at least it was prior to the pandemic, for many of these big releases. But in 1980, it was not. That was very unusual.

So, we showed it at the UA Theater. They had the print, and technically it was the same day, so we showed it at 12:01 a.m. Crazy, right?

SMF: Is this going to be the "despecialized" edition to honor the original premiere?

BB: No. Sadly, this will be the 1997 special edition. It's all you can [show] publicly right now.

SMF: Back to what you were saying about assembling this lineup, what stood out to you when you and the programming team were looking back through this rich history of the festival?

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) — Photo courtesy of Australian Film Commission  

BB: Every title has such an incredible story, and I always go back to the story. There's comedy. There's drama. There's love. There's heartbreak. There's all kinds of things.

But the characters at the center of all of these stories are all unforgettable when you think about it. You have Elsie Fisher at the center of Eighth Grade, heartbreakingly unforgettable. And then the young girls at Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is one of my favorites, by the way. Of course, William Hurt and Raul Julia in Kiss of the Spider Woman, so magnificent! Then there's Jean Dujardin in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. I can't see him in anything else and not think OSS.

It's the character development ... in these films that catapulted them to an audience award. It is what allowed them to jump out at us when we were programming this first series.

SMF: Somehow, heartbreak looks good in a place like this? That's what you're telling me?

BB: Ha! [laughs] That's exactly what I'm saying.

SMF: For you personally, though, especially considering how long you've been involved with SIFF in your various roles, was it emotional for you at all doing this retrospective?

BB: Absolutely. It's hard because it's a little bit of all of my little favorites. My favorite films from a lot of these years were not the audience award winners, and so there's that challenge, too. But then, I started looking at all these great films, and I was like, 'But I love that one, and I love that one, and I love that one! I remember when that one played! I remember that Peter Weir was here for Picnic at Hanging Rock!'

This was before my time, but Deborah Person used to tell the story of when she was a young guest relations staff person. She went outside to have a cigarette, and there was Peter Weir, and she's just like, I'm smoking a cigarette with Peter Weir. Just that excitement! Can you imagine? Being with Michel Hazanavicius and Bérénice Bejo as The Neptune erupted in laughter for OSS 117, which nobody knew was going to be as successful. Richard Linklater here to talk about Boyhood. Who can forget that? Wonderful memories.

SMF: I felt the same, looking at many of titles in the lineup for this series. Not only was it the memory of how much I loved seeing Black Dynamite, it was remembering watching it at midnight in a packed SIFF Egyptian. Such a magnificent audience experience — and it would go on to win the Golden Space Needle!

BB: And that's essentially what we want to remind audiences of with this series, that we've been doing that thing right there, that audience experience, for almost 50 years!

SMF: From an organizational perspective, it does feel like post-lockdown that SIFF, which has always been such a vital community member, is now taking another step, where it's partnering with other Seattle nonprofits for a variety of events. Like with Scarecrow this month for the Scarecrowber series.

You've always partnered with people to do projects, but it just feels like there is more of a sense of community engagement between Seattle arts nonprofits than I've ever seen before. Is that something that you're feeling? Is that something you're seeing? This has to be a priority for you all, right?

BB: It's incredibly intentional for us to be working with other members of the community on so many different levels, because filmgoing really is an all-boats-rise event. The more people go to the movies, the more people go to the movies. And they should be seeing things at the Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion and The Beacon, and even at an AMC.

There are so many movies out there. We can't show them all by any stretch. So, the more people go out and experience and remember what that moviegoing habit feels like — and I think COVID really broke us of that habit of "I go to the movies once a week" — I think the better that is for everyone. The more we get that habit back into our interaction with our arts and cultural sector here in Seattle, the more all of us are going to see audiences return in the ways that we need them to in order to remain vibrant and growing arts organizations.

SMF: How do you manage that from a programming perspective? Right now you've got this archival Scarecrowber series going, you just finished DocFest, you have the Polish Festival, you have so much happening. But you're also playing the Taylor Swift concert documentary.

BB: It's a careful balance, but, really, all it is for us is going back to that original mission, which is creating experiences that bring people together around film. So, is that experience Taylor Swift and being surrounded by 13-year-olds? Sure. Is that experience the amazing Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of the Fall? Absolutely. Is that experience seeing Near Dark in 35mm? Is that experience enjoying one of our partner organizations, the Polish Film Festival? The Romanian Film Festival? The Seattle Queer Film Festival? Of course it is.

There's so much film exhibition, and there's so much community film interaction, happening in Seattle that we want to use the opportunity that is given to us by Taylor Swift to introduce some of those folks to something like Joan Baez: I Am a Noise. There's a through line from Joan Baez to Taylor Swift. It's a straight line...

We've actually seen an uptick in Joan Baez tickets because people saw Taylor Swift, or they were looking for Taylor Swift tickets, and they're like, "Oh! It's Joan Baez." Isn't that fun?

For a lot of us through the pandemic, we watched whatever we could get our hands on. We tried things that we might not ordinarily have tried because we had to. That was all that was available to us. Keeping that sense of adventure and that sense of really looking at different kinds of films — films that are subtitled, films that you may not have known about, films from a partner organizations — that's important. The more people go to the movies, the more people go to the movies. That's a good thing.

SMF: Back to the former Cinerama, now SIFF Cinema Downtown, what did it feel like when you saw the signage go up?

BB: That made me cry. It was like, yeah, we're really doing this. But it also made me nauseous, because, oh, God! We're really doing this! [laughs] Taking on the opportunity, but also the responsibility, of the former Cinerama is massive. I can't wait to have people in there to eat chocolate popcorn and watch movies with us. It's going to be great.

SMF: Are events like this 50th anniversary series, the Scarecrowber series, the recent sci-fi series, and other events and series that you've worked on with other partner organizations something you want to keep doing?

BB: Yes. I think that there's an entire generation of people who have never seen these films on the big screen, and that generation is everyone from 0 to 50 in some cases. ...

When we showed Alien in March and asked who had never actually even ever seen it, half the audience had never seen the film. Then we asked who had never seen it on the big screen, and it was three-quarters of the audience. It's amazing to me as a cinephile that that was real. The idea that this is one of the formational films of the genre that people haven't had access to, to see it as it was meant to be seen on the big screen, with a bunch of people, and we got to remedy that? Extraordinary.

SMF: I guess then, the best way to sum all of this up is to say that 50 years of SIFF is 50 years of building community?

BB: Absolutely. Yes. That's perfect. That is exactly right. It's a 100% of our mission. It's what we exist to do.

The "SIFF at 50" series runs at the SIFF Egyptian from Nov. 3 thru Dec. 3, 2024. A second series is in the works and will be announced soon. SIFF Cinema Downtown — the former Cinerama Theater — reopens on Dec. 14, 2024, with Paul King's Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet. More information on these and other SIFF events, including the 50th annual Seattle International Film Festival, can be found at https://www.siff.net