More Than a Festival

in 41st Seattle International Film Festival

by André Roy

The Seattle International Film Festival has been around for forty one years. At the outset, like many film festivals in the United States, it aimed at offering owners of movie theaters an alternative to the distribution and screening of exclusive Hollywood movies. According to USA Today, SIFF is the most important cinematographic event in the United States. Indeed, what makes the festival so unique is that it shows nearly 450 films, 170 of which are features. It is reputed to be a festival for moviegoers, as well as for professionals. Starting in mid-May, it overlaps the Cannes festival, thus often preventing important international personalities from attending. But, since American independent cinema, and the lesser-known cinematography of the world, is the main priority, one has an opportunity to meet lesser-known filmmakers, film producers and distributors – the filmmakers of the future.

Ever since its inception in 1976, the festival meant to be a non-competitive one. But since 1985 moviegoers have been invited to select the best film, the best filmmaker, best actor, best actress and best short film. This year, the panel of judges from FIPRESCI was asked to honor a selection from the New American Cinema Competition, a choice made by the general assembly of the federation in order to draw attention to first- and second-feature independent films without distribution. However, the selection fell on the shoulders of one of the programmers of SIFF.

But the youth of today was not ignored. A panel of judges made up of high school students was tasked with awarding the FutureWave prize to short-form film directors under eighteen. That prize is part of a vast program of cinematographic education involving 13,000 students and teachers. One of the goals of the festival is to educate and reinforce the community of moviegoers and spotlight emerging film directors. To achieve that goal, the Catalyst Program was launched, an initiative of forums and workshops dedicated to those who aspire to become film directors. With its 150,000 spectators, one understands the willingness of the festival to become the top annual meeting point for fans of cinema. But there is more to it. The organizers take great care in invigorating both cinematography’s past and as well as its present.

Accordingly, part of SIFF’s commitments is devoted to screening recent films in two classical movie theaters. In 2014, the Egyptian Theater was revamped and reopened. Owned by Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, it was the very spot were SIFF was first created. The festival also utilized a cinema with a main hall that resembles a cozy salon, the Harvard Exit. Unfortunately, the Exit was closed close upon the heels of the festival’s end this year. In October 2011, the festival created the SIFF Center, both for its offices and for its continuing educational commitment. The organization exhibits films in a theater that can lodge 90 movie lovers, on celluloid and digitally with a Dolby sound system. The Center includes a multimedia and exhibition section, as well as an archive. It is based in the Seattle Center, an amusement park designed in 1962 for a universal exhibition, and now comprises multiple cultural and artistic institutions.

One more singularity of the festival stands out: in 2014, the Uptown Theater was bought at the same time the Egyptian Theater was rented. The Uptown shows films year-round from all over the world, fiction as well as documentary, in three separate sections that can sit 150 to 500 moviegoers. After the festival, fans will be able to watch The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Swedish filmmaker, Felix Herngren (a film that garnered great success at the 2014 edition of SIFF), Charlie’s Country by Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer, and Dope, an indie film by Rick Famuyiwa.

The Seattle International Film Festival is much more than just the annual 25-day cinematographic event. It is a wide-ranging educational center that informs the Seattle population and allows it to understand modern cinema in all its varied forms.

Edited by Pamela Cohn