The Seattle International Film Festival is back in theaters this month for the first time since 2019 – but it looks rather different than in previous years. The once massive festival has grown from its usual three and a half weeks to 11 days, featuring 262 features and shorts. (The 2019 festival, by comparison, had a roster of over 400 titles.) This year, SIFF will offer both in-person and virtual presentations, and has moved from May-June to April 14-24. Artistic Director Beth Barrett, a SIFF veteran since 2003, spoke about the changes and what SIFF viewers can expect this year.
What drove the decision to reduce the SIFF so significantly?
Part of that was being responsible for the pandemic, from a health and safety perspective, as well as fiscally. Organizing a 25-day event was just more than we could really imagine coming out of the pandemic… When we opened the SIFF Cinema in 2007 and the Egyptian in 2014, one of the reasons we wanted to do this was because we wanted to have the feeling of having the festival all year round, and bringing to the cinemas the same kind of films that we show at SIFF – to celebrate international and independent films and small films, those that don’t get the platforms in some of the big multiplexes. And there’s Cinema Italian Style and Doc Fest and Noir City and other film events that we do all year round. (So it made sense) to be able to really shift some of our resources and some of our planning and staff to a shorter, more urgent festival… We’re really looking at using cinemas as a sort of “best of fest” all year round.
That said, the SIFF 2022 is still quite big!
Yes! At one point we had 186 features, but then we thought that was too much. (There are now 151, not including two works in progress and two Secret Festival selections.)
SIFF has been held in May/June since its inception in the 1970s; why the switch to April?
May and June are really complicated months to try to get people to come to the cinema. When Darryl (Macdonald) and Dan (Ireland) started the festival 48 years ago, May and June were very unpleasant months: it was still raining, it was still cold. But thanks to global climate change, May and June are no longer the end of a long terrible spring, but the very beautiful beginning of summer. With everything related to cinema in the summer, it is very difficult to attract the attention of the public. We’re also constantly battling other big events like Folklife… Since we’re really so focused on the in-person experience, in the movies, April is actually a really good time for that. It’s quite pleasant, but it can get a little chilly and rainy. It’s a good time to watch movies.
Could this change be a permanent change?
We’ll see. We have received very good feedback. It also puts us in this very interesting spot on the national landscape in that in about three and a half weeks there are big festivals before and after us. Cleveland (International Film Festival) is right in front of us, San Francisco (SFFILM Festival) will start as we go on, then Milwaukee (Film Festival) will start as San Francisco goes on. There’s this really interesting potential to work together. In fact, we’re working with Cleveland on two different guests this year, and with San Francisco on three different guests – they come here, then go to San Francisco, and in one case Milwaukee.
HHow did you determine which films would be screened virtually as well as in person?
It was an individual negotiation for each film. All of our short film programs and 95 of the 151 general feature films will be available virtually, which represents a very large number of films of all genres and around the world. Lots of movies that aren’t available virtually, you’ll see later in the year in theaters.
Can you recommend three favorite movies from SIFF 2022?
Sure! (Opening Night Film) ‘Navalny’ – it’s jaw-dropping, it’s documentary and it’s history, but it plays like a thriller. “Fire of Love”, an incredible film about two volcanologists of the 60s, 70s and 80s, in love with volcanoes and in love with each other. The whole film is told with images they shot, interviews with them. And “Daughter of a Lost Bird,” about Kendra Potter, who was adopted as a baby into a white family. She is from the Lummi Nation and the film is about her search to find and reconnect with her biological mother. An extraordinary documentary. As you can see, I really like documentaries.
What is the current state of SIFF as an organization, in terms of employees?
The closure (SIFF cinemas were closed for 18 months during the pandemic) allowed us to review the organization we needed to fully support cinema, education and the festival all year round. We went down to four people at one point, but now we’re back in the 65-70 range when you count all the theater staff. We have a lot of new people, and a lot of people who have come back and been able to do something similar, in most cases, to their previous jobs… In terms of year-round staff, we’re about five people away from where we were in 2019.
What do you think it will be like to be back in the theater with a SIFF audience?
It’s an incredible feeling – this love of watching film after film and having my mind blown in different ways, this swelling of empathy… Last year (for the all-virtual festival) we did a lot of questions -pre-recorded Zoom replies, and it was fun, it was great to get to know people. But that’s not the same as being there and feeling that energy and having this filmmaker so excited that people are watching his film and reacting. I’m really looking forward to this part.