By Sara Michelle Fetters
With the 44th Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) scheduled to begin its annual 25-day run on May 17, now seemed like as good as time as any to sit down with Artistic Director Beth Barrett to chat about what’s going on in her life. “Oh, you know, not much,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Just some stuff.”
Named to her position in August of 2017, Barrett has actually been doing the job on an interim basis since before last year’s festival. Not that her mindset has changed now that the title is officially hers. “I think that working in the arts right now is really challenging,” she says matter-of-factly. “For this year’s festival, we’re trying to get everything all set. It’s rough. There are so many different balls in the air and so many things to think about.”
Starting at SIFF in 2003 as a volunteer copyeditor in the publications department, in three short years she’d managed to make enough of a mark she was quickly elevated to Programming Manager. By 2011, she was the Director of Programming, working closely with programmers to ensure they stayed on task as they worked together to assemble the lineup for each year’s festival. It’s been a long road, but one Barrett takes great pride in being given the opportunity to walk upon.
“I’m going into my sixteenth festival,” she says with a happy sigh, “Can you believe that? Amazing. I first started going to SIFF in 1994 as an audience member; it’s an addictive thing, as you know. Being able in 2003 to be a part of the team that produced the festival gave me a whole different view of how hard this all is. All the different things that go into making a film festival run, the additional challenge of making it as great as ours is, it was all really eye-opening.
“When I started there were five people on staff on a year-round basis. Now we have 30. It’s an entirely different organization. But what has stayed a constant is that the deep love for film and what film can do, that has remained the same. And I say this knowing full well that not all of our staff go to movies on a regular basis! In fact, there are many of our staff that are just like, ‘Yeah, I only see Avengers films and stuff like that.’ And that’s totally fine! Because what they still believe in is that film as an art has a power to change. It has the power to change people. It illuminates. It has the power to have an audience member saying after the curtain closes, ‘I’ve learned something. I’ve laughed at something. I’ve experienced somebody else’s life.’ That’s what cinema does, and we all believe that.
“For me, what’s changed over my many years is just the depth and complexity of the love I have for film. Ten years ago, maybe 15 years ago, I wouldn’t watch the kind of films that I watch now. I watched a lot more horror films,” she says with a chuckle. “Now I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to stick to just a few different genres. I don’t have to pigeonhole myself. I’ve got people that love those films that will watch those films, and finding those people to watch, people who will also bring their best to their job, that’s what’s so amazing about putting a programming team together. These people are just extraordinary at what they do. I value them and their abilities every single second of every single day.”
As for this year’s SIFF, Barrett is excited, even if the work of putting the schedule together and securing all the titles they hope to screen is still a work-in-progress. “All the different programmers have their favorite films and favorite directors, so they’re still making their last-second pitches to get some of their favorite titles included,” the festival director admits. “Also, our goal is to come as close to 50/50 representation between male and female directors this year, and we’re still working on that. At this point, it’s just trying to get all those films booked.”
Her remark reminds me of a conversation we’d had months earlier when we ran into one another at a SIFF-related event near the end of 2017 when she’d commented about her desire to reach equal representation between male and female directors at the festival. “We did chat about that, didn’t we?” remembers Barrett with a smile. “It’s just time, don’t you think? I think it’s important. We’ve worked especially hard over the last five years to really increase that male-female percentage. Honestly? In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I don’t even think it’s just important this year to try and get equal representation, I think it’s just plain important any year because the stories that get told, the people who are allowed to tell their stories, if we’re restricting those stories to just, for lack of a better assignment, white male stories, we are missing so much. We are missing well over half of the world!
“It’s important to recognize and support women and directors of color telling their stories because, if those stories are not supported, not brought into the public and not shown as part of our festival, especially now when there’s so much attention and so much interest, if we’re not supporting that then we’re not supporting those stories. And that’s crucial. As an arts organization we are paying attention to these stories. We need to be supporting the work of artists of all types, and getting those stories in front of audiences and using our platform to make sure that the 150,000 people who come through our doors recognize the importance of hearing them I think, especially right now, is incredibly important.”
Thanks to its massive 25-day length and the sheer number of features, documentaries and shorts that play during SIFF, that sense of mystery, that idea that new discoveries are just waiting to be unearthed every time the lights go down before every screening, this is just one of the many delights the festival has come to be known for over the course of its 44 year history. Trying to achieve equal representation between male and female filmmakers doesn’t change this. In fact, according to Barrett, it only makes this sense of discovery even stronger.
“Absolutely!” she loudly exclaims. “It’s always great to see films by Werner Herzog or any number of other cinematic masters. Their films might not always be great, sometimes they’re not great, but I’m not gonna take back that statement. Their films are always great to see.
“But, for me, it’s that discovery of that first-time filmmaker from Afghanistan that you have no idea even existed until you step into the SIFF Uptown who makes the most sublime drama and really reminds you that some stories are completely universal no matter who you are or where you live. You are reminded that other stories are so specific to their culture, to their time, to their age, that they feel like time capsules that need to be examined in minute detail.
“We’re seeing a lot of, especially with young filmmakers, the visual styles that they’re using to tell otherwise familiar stories are fresh out of social media or other mediums; they are fresh in ways that Millennials are using right now to communicate. This is so different from what filmmakers in earlier eras of filmmaking, the 1950s, the 1970s, were utilizing to tell their stories. I think this is very exciting, and it’s something I think that SIFF needs to keep embracing as we move forward as a festival.”
With so much on the line each year, being the SIFF artistic director isn’t for the faint of heart or for those who crumble in the face of adversity. It’s also not a job made to easily maintain a comfortable work-life balance, especially as one inches closer to that May festival start date. “Ha!” laughs Barrett. “That’s so true. If you ask my wife I think the answer to maintaining a work-life balance would be different than the one I’m going to give, but it is really challenging, I’m not gonna lie.”
“It’s a pretty immersive job,” she continues, “I don’t have a lot of time off between March, April, May and June. I don’t take a lot of time the rest of the year because I’m just so busy. But I love what I do, so that actually gives me a lot of energy. At that same time, I think it’s crucially important that all of us take care of ourselves, that we take time off and that we take those breaks. We need to take a weekend day here and there for ourselves.
“But the work-life balance is obviously more challenging now then it is at other times of the year. It’s pretty balanced and easy in the summertime after SIFF ends, which is great. But while other periods of the year can be difficult, and while travel is hard, this is also a really fun job. I mean, I saw 45 movies when I was in Berlin for Berlinale [a.k.a. the Berlin Film Festival], and some of those titles will be here for SIFF. That kind of stuff, doing what I do, it’s all very exciting. When you love what you do, your life doesn’t feel unbalanced.”
“I mean, my wife would like me home a little bit more,” Barrett adds with a wink, “but it all works out. We sit at home and watch Supergirl, take that time at night just to be together. We make sure and get that home interaction, that necessary downtime all humans need. Those are the moments I treasure. They’re also the ones that reenergize me to get back to work.”
As for this year’s 44th annual Seattle International Film Festival? “I’m really excited,” says Barrett with a secretive grin. “I can’t wait for audiences to get a look at the schedule. I think people bring exactly what they can to SIFF, and I always hope that people bring an adventurous spirit and a willingness to be present for the films that they’re about to experience. Because if you’re present you are able to be empathetic, you’re able to understand, you’re able to place yourself in the shoes of the protagonist, and I think it’s that openness and that willingness to just be there with the art, with the film, that is so crucial. Frankly, I think this is what is missing in a lot of Hollywood blockbuster big budget kind of things. Because while it’s super-fun and amazing to watch Thor battle baddies, and I really enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok, I cannot lie, I don’t really see myself as Thor.
“With many of the films we try and program for SIFF, they’ve got this amazing human side to them that allow the audience to connect in a way that I don’t necessarily think all the big budget Hollywood blockbusters are able to. Some do, Black Panther was amazing, but for a variety of reasons, most having to do with massive budgets and being designed for international mass appeal, most don’t get that chance. At the festival, it’s as we talked about earlier. I get excited about people making those new discoveries that they otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to experience. So, yeah, I can’t wait to share what we have for this year’s festival. It’s super exciting, I get giddy.”
Sarah Michelle Fetters is the Movie critic for the Seattle Gay News and the Editor-in-chief at MovieFreak.com.