A Year into a Pandemic, Seattle International Film Festival Looks a Little Different

Nanfu Wang directs "In the Same Breath," a tragic, revealing, and journalistically risky contextualization of the COVID-19 outbreak, premiering at SIFF. Courtesy of HBO Docs

Every year through May and June, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) runs for 25 days, showcasing hundreds of predominantly independent and foreign films. Last spring, the festival was canceled entirely, making 2020 the first year without SIFF since its foundation in 1976. This year, much to the joy of audiences and organizers alike, it’s back, baby! However, thanks to going all-virtual, SIFF may look a little different this year.

For SIFF’s artistic director, Beth Barrett, creating a film festival amid a pandemic is easier said than done. Barrett has been SIFF’s artistic director for five of the 18 years she’s worked with SIFF. In those 18 years, and even in the 45 years SIFF has been running, no one has ever had a pandemic to contend with, and that’s presented unique challenges. For starters, how do you even begin creating a virtual film festival that still feels like an in-person film festival? “That’s an amazing question, and one we’re still trying to figure out,” Barrett said.

It’s Barrett’s responsibility to curate film submissions from distributors, as well as films from filmmakers that the SIFF organizers know. She also oversees a team of about 17 programmers who all focus on films from various regions or genres. Usually, the festival runs for 25 days. This year, it’s only running for 11. To reflect the shortened days, the amount of films is also being halved.

SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett
SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett. COURTESY OF SIFF

“If you still have 400 films and only 10 days to watch them, that becomes more problematic,” Barrett said. “With shrinking the program from about 250 features to a little over 90, we had to shrink all of the program, but proportionally. We couldn’t, you know, drop out all films from South America, or all films from XYZ genre. We just contracted everything by half to two-thirds.” For Barrett, this has been an interesting challenge. “You really have to distill what really is the best film.”

Many of the changes SIFF has had to make this year have been positive. When the entire festival is virtual, nothing has to be scheduled, and there’s no complicated coordinating with movie theatres. “Doing that scheduling is really, really challenging, and not having to do it has been fantastic,” said Barrett. “Also, it increases the availability to choose what you want to see when you want to see it. Some of the discussions I’ve had with distributors have been very different. Now we’re discussing geo blocking or streaming views instead of seats.”

Without the limitations of being confined to a physical space, I was curious if the virtual platform increased audience turnout. “We’re hoping so,” Barrett said. “We’ve heard from people that have never been able to see the films that we curate for lots of reasons, some of them pure accessibility reasons, that are appreciating being able to participate in that programming on a virtual level.”

One of the biggest things Barrett and other SIFF organizers have been thinking about is how to keep the accessibility that comes with going virtual once SIFF is back in person. Barrett hopes to keep some of the virtual aspects once SIFF is able to return to how it used to be. “Not just for the accessibility issues around it, but also there are so many films that deserve an audience, and there’s a limited number of physical cinemas that people can go to.”

SIFF plans to reopen their physical theatres post-COVID, but also intends to keep aspects of their virtual platform, something Barrett hopes will increase audience turnout. “Say something can only play for a weekend in one of our cinemas. We can run it for another three weeks on a virtual platform and really increase the viewing opportunities, and also be able to introduce smaller films that might not have ever had a theatrical experience.”

SIFF audiences are looking for lighter films like this feel-good comedy, “Ladies of Steel” about three elderly sisters who embark on a soul-reclaiming road trip, directed by Pamela Tola. COURTESY OF HELSINKI FILMI OY

Aside from the challenges of coordinating a virtual film festival, cultivating and choosing the types of films that people would want to watch from home has been difficult. A year into a pandemic, there’s definitely a genre that people gravitate towards. “[We’re] trying to both capture the best films, but also capture, perhaps, some lighter films,” Barrett said. “More comedies, more intimate dramas rather than big special-effects-heavy films. One of the things we’ve always done really well is match our films to our audiences.”

Many of the films in this year’s festival are ones SIFF has had an eye on for years, while others were released during the pandemic. I was curious if there were any noticeable differences in these films. “There’s a whole group of very lucky people that had just finished shooting last March and were able to use the intervening year to edit, so there’s definitely some of those,” said Barrett.

For the films shot during the pandemic, many feel different to watch. The lack of crowd scenes, for one, stands out. Many films produced during COVID tend to be either intimate dramas, or very CGI-heavy. “A lot of the films that were made in the last year are a lot more intimate. They’re a lot more deliberate in the way that they tell the story. They have to plan exactly what’s going on, and plan everything so it’s exactly six feet apart. Films have to be deeply planned out very far in advance, so there’s not that kind of looseness that can kind of emerge when you’re shooting digital.”

Barrett maintains that SIFF’s goal is what it’s always been—to get those films out there, and that’s what they’re still doing, despite everything. “One of the things SIFF has always been is that kind of discovery festival for the films that you never knew you wanted to see, or might never see again. We’re nicely poised to continue to be that discovery; you’re just going to do the discovering from your couch instead of from the cinema.”

“But that’s the nature of art, isn’t it?” Barrett said, in response to my comment about the ingenuity of SIFF’s organizers and filmmakers alike. She leaves with parting words of wisdom. “Art and artists, that’s what they’re here on earth to do—to adapt, and to continue to create.”

The 46th annual Seattle International Film Festival runs from April 8–18, 2021. Festival passes and individual film tickets can be purchased here.

Valentine Wulf is a writer for TeenTix who is not good at writing biographies.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.