For the past 47 years, Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has been part of the region’s  annual arts celebrations. The majority of SIFF films do not receive cinema distribution in the United States making the festival possibly the only place for local attendees to experience many stories told from around the world. 

To offer a well-curated festival offering breadth and diversity, SIFF has 27 programmers who track new projects from filmmakers across the globe as well as screen thousands of festival submissions. Among them are members from local Seattle communities who comprise the committees for the African Pictures, CINeDIGENOUS, and Asian Crossroads programs.

While SIFF had been consulting with community members for many years, it is in the last five years that it has established a more structured approach to integrating local voices into festival programming. “Our programming ethos is to discover voices that are from their communities, to elevate films and filmmakers that are working within their own communities,” said Beth Barrett, SIFF artistic director. 

“By working with members of the community, we are able to bring films to Seattle that speak to that community, that reflect the stories they know, or want to hear, without putting a traditional European lens on those stories. For example, with African Pictures program, it is important to us that we respect not just the stories of the African filmmakers, but also the local Diaspora here in Seattle,” she continued. 

I am one of those local programming voices. In 2015, I met with Barrett and then-managing director Mary Bacarella about ways SIFF could be more intentional about adding diverse representation to the international film festival. Two years later, when SIFF formally formed the Asian Crossroads committee, Barrett asked me to join. It also included Mayumi Tsutakawa and Rita Meher. Later, the team expanded to include Laila Kazmi. 

Each year, the team led by festival programming manager Stan Shields screens over a hundred features and documentaries from Asia to select a mere dozen or so. Submissions hail from countries with robust film industries such as China and India as well as smaller markets like Bangladesh and Laos. Committee meetings are opportunities to champion films we believe will speak to both diasporic and general audiences, and to decide on a slate that is diverse not just in storytelling and geographic perspectives but also in genre and tone. 

In anticipation for the 47th annual, and 100% virtual, Seattle International Film Festival, which begins on April 8, I asked my fellow committee members to share a bit about who they were, their involvement with SIFF, and what they are anticipating in the upcoming event.

What is your background? 

Meher: I founded and run a nonprofit South Asian film and art organization called Tasveer, 18 years in action, that hosts the largest South Asian Film Festival in the US. I don’t know if many know that Mumbai hosts the largest film industry of the world so South Asians are usually, by default, kind of film buffs. 

Kazmi: I am a Pakistani-American documentary filmmaker, television producer, and co-founder of Kazbar Media production company. I grew up in Karachi, Bahrain, and Chicago.

Tsutakawa: I’ve long been a student of Japanese film, historical and contemporary. [I have been] a student of Asian history and arts, lived in Japan, and an organizer and writer of Asian American arts. 

How and when did you first get involved with SIFF? 

Kazmi:  I have been attending [SIFF] films for more than 15 years. Over the years, I have watched numerous works by directors from around the globe, who are now among my favorites including Jaffar Panahi, Haifaa Al Mansour and Mehreen Jabbar. 

Tsutakawa: …a very long time SIFF attendee. It’s been a thrill to focus on great independent films in this special showcase. 

Meher: I started volunteering in 2018.

What community lenses do you use when screening films?

Tsutakawa: I have observed, for example with Japan’s entry films, a trend toward more women’s issues and roles, more family drama including child neglect and abuse; more outsider viewpoints such as those of prisoners and gay and lesbian experiences, and exposure of the far Western regions of Asia such as Mongolia, by Japanese filmmakers.

Meher: I bring the South Asian diasporic lens to the SIFF programming table. I watch and host tons of award-grade films every year and I felt by joining the committee I could bring my experience and perspective. Many of those films were regularly falling out of the radar of SIFF programmers. 

Kazmi: I look for films that boldly challenge common, often damaging, stereotypes about people from South Asia and the Middle East and also films that portray strong female characters. I think that stories that examine the nuances of characters’ situations, human struggles and triumphs can transcend geographical borders. 

What are you looking forward to in this year’s virtual festival?

Kazmi: I am thrilled and thankful that SIFF is able to return this year. From the Asian Crossroads selections, I am excited to see The Salt in Our Waters from Bangladesh, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from Kashmir, and Preman from Indonesia. I am also looking forward to checking out Haifaa Al Mansour’s new film, The Perfect Candidate.

Tsutakawa: This year I am excited to see the troubling Japanese film Under the Open Sky, beautifully led by the noted woman director Miwa Nishikawa. Celebrated actor Koji Yakusho plays a yakuza gang member, just released from prison and making his way back into an unwelcoming society. Another film that shows the changing socio-political times in Asia is the gay activism story from Taiwan, The Teacher (d.Cheng Ming-Lang) portraying a young teacher, very skillfully led by Oscar Chiu, who endangers his responsible role as a respected school teacher by demonstrating for marriage equality. 

Meher: I am really looking forward to two films The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Laila aur Satt Geet). I will be doing a Q&A with the director Pushpendra Singh. The other film I am really looking forward to is Writing with Fire, the only newspaper in India run by a Dalit woman.

Otherwise, I’m [looking forward to] watching as many panels and discussions as possible!

Barrett: We are excited to be coming to your homes in a way that we have never been able to, to share the truly international and independent voices and stories of the Festival. It is a true discovery Festival, with more than 60% of the films from first or second-time filmmakers, and representing 69 countries around the world.

Tsutakawa: Of course we wish to attend SIFF in person, and experience the confusion and scramble for seats in various venues. But viewing a wide range of SIFF content from the comfort of home will still be a welcome experience this spring. 

The 47th Annual Seattle International (Virtual) Film Festival runs from April 8-18, 2021. Passes are on sale at siff.net. The film line-up is available here. This year’s diverse slate of Asian Crossroads films include selections from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia (Germany-produced), South Korea, and Taiwan.  

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