The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF

Women filmmakers make big moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.

SEATTLE — A few years ago, the organizers at SIFF did something that had become fairly common at many arts and media organizations: They spotlighted the work of women. The vehicle was a mini-festival held in the fall called Women in Cinema and filled with films written or directed (or both) by women. Beth Barrett, SIFF’s director of programming at the time, told Washington Filmworks that one of the things SIFF wanted to get across through this showcase was that “‘woman’ is not a genre.” Yet, the relatively low number of films by women screened during the organization’s marquee event, the Seattle International Film Festival, didn’t appear to reflect that idea.

Then, says Barrett, the organizers’ started to shift their thinking.

“We realized that it was actually just more important to include films made by women in all the things that we do,” she says. “As opposed to saying, ‘Here are a bunch of films directed by women,’ it’s, ‘Here’s this film, it’s amazing, it’s a thriller … and it’s directed by this woman.’ It’s just part of the metadata of that film.”

The Women in Cinema mini-festival was soon history and in its place was a concerted effort to bring more women filmmakers into all aspects of SIFF—from the year-round cinema calendar to the namesake festival.

The results of this effort can be found in the programming for this year’s edition of the Seattle International Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday night with a screening of Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop at McCaw Hall. The 44th running of the Seattle institution boasts a remarkable stat: 43 percent of the films being shown were directed by women. It’s not quite parity, but it’s far closer than the representation of women directors in the Festival during the Women in Cinema era, when just 20 percent of the films at the big fest were directed by women. And it is a number that stands in stark contrast to the representation of women in Hollywood, where, especially in the past year, gender equity has become a rallying cry.

Both Barrett, who is now in her first year as artistic director, and executive director Sarah Wilke say that the shift isn’t a reaction to the #MeToo movement that has shaken the world of media and politics, or Time’s Up, which has been laser-focused on the film industry. Rather, they say, an amalgam of different factors led to the changes at SIFF. One undeniable element, though the duo is eager to downplay it, is the makeup of SIFF’s leadership. While a festival with women in both the head executive and programming roles is not unheard of, it is still a rarity. More significant, say Barrett and Wilke, is the talent pool that they are pulling their selections from.

“Part of [the change in representation] is about the selection team that is making those choices, but part of that is about the women who are making the films,” says Wilke, who took over as executive director in October 2016. “That’s really increasing, and that is where you are seeing it at all kinds of levels. I think everything begins, of course, with the artist.”

Wilke points out that the high capital costs of filmmaking, which in previous generations prevented some populations from entering the field, have dropped dramatically. As a result, more women, as well as people of color, are pursuing it as a career and more talented filmmakers with diverse perspectives are breaking through. SIFF is an ideal staging ground for this new reality. Given that this year’s edition of the Festival features a total of 433 films, the programmers require a lot of talent to fill Seattle’s theaters throughout its 25-day run.

“We’re not just going, ‘Oh, that’s directed by a woman, we’ll choose that one,’ ” Barrett says. “The field is changing … and women are being given more opportunities. They’re not being given the same opportunities. … We have a ways to go before gender is not a question in hiring, but when you’re looking at Ava DuVernay being given the $100 million blockbuster or Cathy Yan being the first Asian American woman to be directing a superhero film, there are some amazing possibilities that are now not being not given.”

Still, despite these major individual benchmarks, Hollywood as a whole has a long way to go before it reaches parity. According to an annual report called The Celluloid Ceiling, just 18 percent of all writers, directors, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the 250 top-grossing films of 2017 were women. That’s almost exactly the same percentage as in 1998. And The New York Times recently found that just seven of the top 100 movies of 2017 were directed by women. Eight were directed by guys named James or Michael.

This kind of imbalance is also found at film festivals, but it is something that organizers at many festivals are talking about changing. Having people in power with a variety of perspectives, they reason, should result in a festival lineup that features a variety of perspectives. SIFF now stands as a prime example of this thinking at work.

“The power of storytelling is about building community, ultimately,” Wilke says. “It’s about learning how to listen to another person’s story. It provides you with empathy and it provides you with the ability to start to learn your own story. It provides you with expanded horizons, all that kind of perspective. So, if I’m going to fundamentally believe that, which I do, that’s no good if all those stories aren’t represented on that screen and those stories aren’t any good if they aren’t told by people who have lived those experiences. So, if you follow that all down, I think it’s imperative that the people who are telling the stories and are making the films and the people who are selecting those films have lived those experiences and have a diversity of experiences that represent humanity today. I actually believe that.”

Seattle is an appropriate place for this belief to find purchase. While SIFF has only just started reaching parity, the role of women filmmakers in Seattle has been unquestionable for a number of years now with names like Lynn Shelton, Megan Griffiths, Lacey Leavitt, and Mel Eslyn dominating much of the conversation.

“The women’s names roll out a little faster than some of the other talented male directors in town,” Barrett says.”I don’t exactly know why, but I think that perhaps Seattle is maybe just not not giving the women the opportunity. It’s a place where it’s the story that gets the opportunity.”

Listen to the rest of the story on the first episode of the second season of Seattleland, which will be available on Friday. You will hear about Sarah Wilke’s childhood memories of SIFF and Beth Barrett’s superhero origin story. Seattleland is available at seattlelandpod.com and on all major podcasting platforms.

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This story was first published in Seattle Weekly.

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