Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Getting SIFFTY with it: Chatting about SIFF's "50th anniversary" with Artistic Director Beth Barrett

Share this Post:

My first experience attending the Seattle International Film Festival came in 1993. I was one of the last few people who managed to cram their way into the Egyptian Theater, now the SIFF Egyptian, to see the much-ballyhooed director's cut of James Cameron's 1989 underwater epic The Abyss. At that time, there were still "view limited" seats in the balcony, and I got stuck in one of those, which put a serious crick in my neck as I watched all 171 minutes in fascinated rapture.

It was glorious.

Fast-forward to today, and I can't begin to count how many incredible experiences I've had during SIFF. Many of my favorite moments came watching films that never got another release, not even on home video (or even streaming, now that the industry has twisted in that direction). Many of the venues themselves — the Harvard Market, the Neptune, the Guild 45th, etc. — are no longer with us in the same form.

But while so much has changed, including the addition of a virtual festival (to allow audiences to watch certain selections from the comfort of their own home) and the reduction of the festival schedule to 11 days instead of its traditional 25, the central mission remains the same: great films, diverse films, eclectic films from around the globe, all coming to Seattle at one time for audiences to enjoy at venues throughout the city and surrounding region.

What can be better than that?

I sat down with SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett to chat about this year's event. Here are the edited transcripts of our conversation:

Beth Barrett — SIFF  

Sara Michelle Fetters: How are things going? We're roughly two weeks out from the start of the festival. I'm betting that internal clock is ticking right about now.

Beth Barrett: Oh, yes. The clock absolutely ticking. [laughs] All of those things that we're like, oh yeah, we've got weeks to do that. Now it's like, oh no, it has to actually be done today. You have to do it today. We're out of time.

SMF: Even so, I bet you're ready to "get SIFFTY with it" right about now.

BB: Absolutely. [laughs]

SMF: We've chatted ephemerally in the past about how difficult it was going to be to put on a 50th anniversary celebration. Now we're actually here. How difficult was it to program, plan, and put forth a celebration for a festival of this historical significance?

BB: It was both really hard and really easy. With the 11 days, we don't have as many slots as we used to. One of my big concerns was how are we going to be able to celebrate all of the amazing films from the last 50 years, or at least some of them, while yet still presenting brand-new work and new directors. Starting in January, we've done three different sets of "50 Years of SIFF," which have been audience favorites, jury winners, staff favorites, poll favorites, and films that really speak to what the festival is and what we've done for 50 years.

We also have been working on our archive site, which is really, really exciting. We had all of our catalogs scanned, so you can flip through them and look at all the old...staff photos and be like, "I remember that! I remember that screening. I remember that event."

How do you actually go about doing an archive? That's been an incredible amount of work. It's been a really interesting project, but it's going to be just the beginning. That's the great thing about turning 50 — that things don't end when you turn 50. They just keep going, and you can build on them and make things more interesting and better.

So then, how do you program for a 50th, but using current films? The way that we've done that is really lean into all the things that make SIFF, well, SIFF, which is the immense amount of international representation that we have. We're representing films coming from 84 different countries and regions around the world. We really lean into new voices and films you can't find anywhere else. More than 60% [of selections] don't have US distribution or are from first- and second-time filmmakers. That's what SIFF has always been known for.

In looking at this year and then the next 50, how do we bring those filmmakers to Seattle? How do we bring those visions and those stories to then build on for the next 50 years? That remains the mission.

SMF: I don't know how it will necessarily affect you, but I will say that from a personal standpoint, when I was informed that the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington was doing a 50th anniversary retrospective on the Seattle Gay News, I had to see it. I was not anticipating how emotional that would be to see that special display in a setting like Suzzallo. I did not realize how it would hit me.

When the SIFF archive site goes live, I'm going to assume, even though you've done all this work on it and you're being informed as to what it's taken for things to go live, that it's going to be pretty emotional, especially considering how much of your professional life you've spent working with SIFF.

BB: I think it's going to bring up a lot of things. [Festival Programming Manager] Stan Shields and I were trying to figure out what year he started, and so we pulled out the 2006 guide. Maybe it was 2007... But we pulled out the catalog and, flipping through it, we got to the staff list and the staff photo and it was like, I haven't thought about some of those folks in well, nearly 20 years. It was so emotional. I couldn't help but wonder where they all are now.

It brought back a lot of good and hard memories, because working on those festivals, it's a lot. It's always a lot. It's hard work. But also, there's a lot of pride in what we accomplished... what we were able to build on a year-round basis, the seeds were planted there. Where we are now, that was the idea then. Our six screens, our 365-day programming. We knew we could get there. A little bit of archival here, a little brand-new thing here, a little mini festival, a little documentary, a big raunchy comedy. Everything that film does and that film speaks to audiences about, we do over the span of our six screens every day of the year.

SMF: Even with only 11 days instead of the old 25-day schedule, it really feels like this is the first festival post-COVID where we have visitors on a continual basis. Would you agree with that?

BB: Yeah. It does feel that way. But it did last year, too. Last year, we were still building, coming out of things [COVID].

It's interesting, though. We actually have about the same number of guests coming in over the 11 days this year than we had over the old 25. But because ... they'll be here for three or four of 11 days, it's very different than three or four of 25 days. There's so much more of a concentration, and it's really led to some great things, like with filmmakers meeting each other, being able to get to know each other, and for audiences to be able to have experience after experience after experience that they won't typically have anywhere else.

In the before times, we would very often have a couple of days where we had no guests. There was nobody in town. Now, there are none of those days, and there are some days where every screening or almost every screening at the SIFF Uptown has a guest.

But that's our mission. To create those experiences that bring people together around film. By keeping the filmmaker and audience connection [foremost], we're about to facilitate those unique experiences. It's exciting.

SMF: Diving into the schedule and making sure that you have everything running as smoothly as possible, I wanted to pick your brain as to how much interaction is there between SIFF and the other film organizations and their festivals that traditionally also happen at this time of year. The last weekend of April, we have NFFTY and the Seattle Black Film Festival, and then the Translations: the Transgender Film Festival historically has been about the same time as where SIFF is this year. (They've moved to June instead this year.)

I'm wondering, what is the community interaction to make certain that everybody gets their spot on the calendar and that nobody loses their momentum?

BB: That's a great question. As festivals, we talk, and here in Seattle, it starts with the Asian American Film Festival in February/March. We'll touch base in January and say, "Are there films that you all are going after that we should just not even look for?" And the same with the Jewish Film Festival in March, because that's our big deciding time. It becomes a little more complex with the Black Film Festival, because their deciding time is a little bit after ours, but we're in great conversation. "Hey, we invited this film. Do you need a link? How can we work together and make sure that films are getting seen and getting their audiences?"

NFFTY is slightly different, because it really only overlaps with our short film program for FutureWave. But we often have a film that shows in NFFTY that also ends up in the FutureWave short film program for young filmmakers under 18.

The great thing, I think, about Seattle and the film festival community is that we're very communicative. We had a big meeting in January where everyone was able to interact and get to know each other. We'll have another big meeting in June where everyone is like, "That was wild! How can we support the fall festivals now, because winter and spring are done? How can we support the summer and fall festivals?"

It's a really interesting landscape. There's obviously competition, because there are only a certain number of big films in a certain genre or from a certain community, so there is some competition. But overall? It's incredibly collaborative.

SMF: I don't know if this was part of that collaboration, but one of the things that I noticed when I was previewing NFFTY is that Sean Wang is teaching a forum for NFFTY. Then you've got his narrative debut, Dìdi, at SIFF. How cool is that?

BB: I know, right? It's so cool!

We had Sean's narrative short last year, which won the jury award, and then he's going to be at NFFTY, and that's great. I think it really points out, one, his talent because, man, is he on a serious trajectory — just a very talented director. But two, that sort of collaborativeness, we all just really want to support these filmmakers while they are growing. And the way that Seattle can support these filmmakers is with audiences, it is in connecting them to those people that want to see their films.

SMF: Let's dive into the festival. Northwest Connections, cINeDIGENOUS — I'm in love with your picks. Every program is probably difficult to program, but it does feel like there is a special focus this year on Indigenous filmmakers. How much fun was it to program these programs?

BB: Northwest Connections is a hard section to program, because there's so many great films, and we're always going to end up saying no to people that we know personally or that we've worked with before, because we can only show so many of them. But we really want to get a cross-section of the kind of work that is going on in Seattle. We've got a really strong documentary set this year, and it's always great being able to focus in on showcasing all of those different parts of Seattle that are working and that are making films.

Fish War is an interesting crossover title between our cINeDIGENOUS program programming. cINeDIGENOUS is led by Tracy Rector, and it is incredibly strong. We're so blessed to have her on the team. It's actually one of the biggest Indigenous programs in a festival in North America. imagineNATIVE in Canada is bigger and is beautiful. But for us, it's a real way to bring those stories into the spotlight, both with the cINeDIGENOUS program and with Northwest Connections. We're able to elevate some of those films that maybe wouldn't find that national stage or get the attention of industry members and other filmmakers from around the world.

SMF: On the flip side, how do you balance bringing in bigger films or some of the more notable titles from Sundance that are going to be getting a general theatrical release with all the other titles you program? Or films that may be playing theatrically here in Seattle almost immediately right after they have their SIFF premiere?

BB: Like the very week after, sometimes.

SMF: Exactly. I mean, I just watched Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Evil Does Not Exist the other day, because it's opening in New York and LA on May 3. Its SIFF screenings are on May 10 and 11, and then it opens in general release right after the conclusion of the festival.

BB: One of the big balances that we need to do is bringing in audiences while yet introducing them to new work. Introducing people to new work is easier when they recognize some films that they want to see and then they're like, "I want to see I Saw the TV Glow. Oh, wait. This WTF section has this crazy film called Killing Romance? What is that? Like a South Korean comedy or musical? That sounds cool." We definitely use some of those bigger titles as — it sounds terrible to say — but sort of a gateway drug of like, you really want to see the new Hamaguchi, but our Asian Crossroads section has a very deep, deep look at what else is going on in Asian film. Let's find something interesting there?

Plus, we love those films, and we really want to show them to our audiences. We really want to be able to showcase them.

But it is that balance of how you look at how you see your festival. We are first and foremost — always have been, always will be — an "audience festival" that is programmed ... for the people. It's a very populist way of programming in terms of trying to use interest in known titles to introduce audiences to titles they otherwise might not take a chance on.

Thelma — Magnolia Pictures  

SMF: Your opening night film, Thelma, balances those aspirations in that it's a little bit lesser-known as far as the big Sundance films were concerned, and yet still offers up a pretty big, audience-friendly bang for the buck.

BB: June Squibb. Richard Roundtree. How can you not get excited? It's so good. Such a great comedy.

I mean, it has a serious part to it, which is this scam that is happening around the world in which scammers are calling up older people pretending to be their grandchildren and getting money from them. That's a very serious thing, and there are very serious moments in this as we look at what happens with our own parents or our own aging relatives and how we interact with them as younger people. Then when does it happen to us?

But at the same time, June Squibb has such great comedic timing, and then you pair her with Clark Gregg, and Parker Posey, and Richard Roundtree. It's a revelation.

And the fact that this is her first leading role after being in the industry for 60 years! One, that's appalling, but two, she couldn't be a better leading actress for this film. She's the grandma you want to put your arms around and go, "Please, don't send that money." [laughs]

SMF: Two of my favorite SIFF memories are seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Battle Royale at the Cinerama.

BB: Wow. Those are good ones.

SMF: I guess I'm probably one of a very scant handful of people that can say they watched those two very different movies at the Cinerama (now SIFF Cinema Downtown).

How much fun was it to program the SIFF Cinema Downtown for two weeks and realize you could put a documentary followed by a first-person POV slasher there? Did you get excited about knocking an audiences' socks off by showcasing such a wide variety of features at Seattle's preeminent cinematic venue?

BB: We really thought about what we were putting there in terms of what is going to need the biggest screen possible. We then made sure it was there. It is going to be very interesting to see people interact with some of the titles. I think it's going to be fun. I can't wait to see some of these films. Songs of Earth on the biggest screen possible is going to be transcendent.

SMF: And, I mean, we haven't even spoken about the few archival selections in this year's festival, and you've programmed the 4K restoration of...

BB: Wings of Desire. Yep. Wim Wenders's masterpiece on that gigantic screen. It's not a bad archival to put at the SIFF Cinema Downtown. Not a bad one at all.

SMF: I do wonder, your closing night film Sing Sing is on a Saturday, but then you have a whole full program of Sunday films. How does that work?

BB: They're all repeat films [on Sunday]. They're all second screenings of titles. I don't know who said it, but I heard a quote yesterday that at 50, SIFF has finally discovered school night, and having the party be on Saturday night, not on Sunday night, is the way to go. [laughs] It is hard to go to a party that starts at 8:30 at night on Sunday.

By moving the party to Saturday night, we can have a full set of screenings, second screenings, of lots of different films that you can catch up on. Then at midnight, we start with the virtual part of the festival. Great, right?

SMF: For those who may not know the lore around how this is SIFF's 50th anniversary — because the first one was in 1976 — and are sitting at home doing math and likely scratching their head, do you want to explain how that works out?

BB: Yeah. Hashtag "great at films, bad at math." [laughs]

Unlike human beings, events start at one. You have your first annual, then your second annual, third annual, blah, blah, blah. Unlike humans, which start at zero and then become one a year later.

That's one missing year. The other missing year is that Daryl McDonald and Dan Ireland, our co-founders, they were deeply superstitious. So, one year we had a 12th annual and then the very next year we had a 14th annual. We just never had a 13th annual. There's your two missing years.

SMF: Backtracking a little. For me personally, when I went to go look at that anniversary exhibit at the UW regarding the SGN, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I've spent a third of my life, and a third of the publication's very existence, writing for it. You can say the same about working for SIFF.

BB: Almost half the life of the organization. This will be my 22nd festival.

I have a great job. I watch movies and talk about movies and think about movies and program movies for a living. It is an incredible honor to be able to do that and to be able to talk to people about what films they like and don't like, because I hear about both equally.

The great thing about something like SIFF is that there is something there for everyone, but not all of everything is there for everyone. It is able to be the festival that you want it to be that will reflect your particular interests, that will reflect things that you want to know or things that you want to learn about. It's a festival where you can be like, yep, I am going to go see that film, because that scares me. I want to get outside my comfort zone. But you can also be like, I do not want to know about that, so I'm skipping that film. Or, I really don't like that director, so let's see what else there is to see?

And all of that is fine, because there is an audience for every film. To be able to weave that tapestry together for 20-some years and to really bring it all to Seattle and make sure that people have access to the festival, that's amazing.

It's not hard to get a ticket. You can go online right now. It's just like going to the AMC. But with SIFF, you get to see these amazing films from around the world. Not just during the festival but all year round.

SMF: As part of that, if you were to give a person advice on how to begin their SIFFTY journey, what would that be?

BB: I would do it one of two ways. I would find a film that you think sounds interesting and go see that, but then I would also see the one before or after. Make it a double feature. Or, I would say, "I have two nights free and I live in Capitol Hill. I'm going to go see what's at the Egyptian." I'd make a full day or evening — or both! — out of it.

SMF: We love to celebrate the history. We love to be able to sit there and say that SIFF is 50 years old. But the reality is we want to see SIFF thrive for another 50 years. What's next? Where do we go in the next half-century?

BB: I love that question. I think that a lot of what is next has to do with the cinema and with how we continue to bring people back into arts and cultural events, to see movies, to be in community, to continue to be adventurous in what they come see and what they watch and talk to people about. I think we all have to relearn how to do that after COVID. But it's crucial that we do so, and we have to relearn it, because if we don't, I think the culture stands to suffer quite a bit.

We're just doing what we can to make sure that there is a safe landing place for people that need it. SIFF will be here.

SMF: And that's the stuff that keeps you excited and gets you coming back to work every morning?

BB: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. It's the only reason I come to work every morning. What can we do today? What can we do now? What can we do next? That's thrilling. Those are great reasons to come back to work every day.

The "50th annual" Seattle International Film Festival runs May 9 thru May 19, with screenings and events at venues throughout the city. A full calendar of events, plus ticket and full-series pass information can be found at https://www.siff.net