In human history, there have been few things more powerful than film in capturing a sense of the moment, binding cultures together while perhaps presenting taboo topics and social ills, or simply instilling hope for the future and the human condition. Film’s effect thrives on the conversation it provokes, but to have a good conversation requires a diversity of voices. With Sundance starting in a few weeks and a whole calendar year of other festivals to come, it is worth looking ahead at what is in store for movie lovers in 2015, and to remember why festivals have become essential to the medium.
Film festivals are about exposure for audiences and filmmakers alike. For the latter who have aspirations to work with larger studios, it is a chance to build momentum for works that might get wider distribution, and festivals have become a sort of industry preview. Films require enormous effort, and are therefore extremely expensive to produce and distribute. There’s no getting around that, so whether that takes philanthropists supporting an artistic vision or producers expecting a return on investment, the filmmakers need material support and festivals remain an important point of access to it.
Quentin Tarantino, for example, got his major break at Sundance with Reservoir Dogs (1992), which was largely enabled when his initial budget of 30,000 dollars increased to 1.5 million, thanks to actor Harvey Keitel (who played Mr White) becoming a producer. Reservoir Dogs was an instant hit with judges and critics and it set up Tarantino to be financed for Pulp Fiction (1994), his first mainstream sensation.
It is not just future media darlings that benefit, but storytellers whose voices may not otherwise be heard at all. A profound example, Difret by Ethopian director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. It is about a teenage girl, Aberash, who is abducted by a man attempting to force her into marriage. She is beaten, raped and held against her will at the man’s home. When the opportunity presents itself, Aberash kills her abductor, escapes and is later charged with his death. It’s a complex, challenging film that opens the conversation to abuses of women, but also to the very drive to modernize in other parts of the world. The film is banned by the Ethiopian government. The audiences who perhaps most need to see it can’t, but films like it are universally vital and Sundance provided a rare and important platform for it.
In Seattle, we are fortunate to have the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), celebrating its 41st year in 2015. SIFF helps organize and provide support to filmmakers, and festival organizers such as the Polish Film Festival, The Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, The Italian Film Festival, The French Film Festival and The Asian American Film Festival. And is ultimately Seattle’s driving force behind non-Hollywood film screenings in Seattle. Without their influence, Seattle’s film scene would be.. well.. lame! SIFF helps casts an extremely wide net, one that feels overwhelming to many, but this diversity is a strength, and it is a rare feat to see so many independent groups collaborate under one banner. This in itself is another testament to the power of the medium.
Short-Run Festivals Ahead
The focus above has been on the industry aspects, which are important for audiences who want to put the festivals in context, but should not dominate the viewing experience. What is less publicized but perhaps gives audiences the most pure experience of cinema as a culture language is the presence of so many short-run film festivals in the city organized based on countries of origin. Rather than taking in one foreign film in a hit-and-run manner, audiences can see a range of visions from abroad, building cultural literacy and understanding. SIFF is the umbrella for them, but these festivals throughout the year could be considered the real heart of the film experience in Seattle.
One budding festival that has caught my special attention is the Turkish Film Festival, which in November had its second successful run. Turkey has a wonderful film history starting in the 1950s with films such as Dry Summer (1963) by director Metin Erksan, Yol (1982) by director Yilmaz Guney, and Ferzan Ozpetek’s Hamam (1997), which was translated as Steam: The Turkish Bath. Turkish films are unique in that they bring an East and West synthesis, especially regarding the history of Istanbul. They seem to bubble over with a wealth of confidence in their identity as a central part of world history. Turkey is a cultural and physical land bridge with Greece to the North and Iraq and Iran to the South. 99 percent of Turkish people are Muslim but have a long cultural and political practice of separation of church and state. Its ancient sites and stunning landscapes are fuel for the imagination there and abroad.
I had a chance to sit and talk with the organizers of The Seattle Turkish Film Festival, John Gokcen and Emek Erarslan, long time friends who have co-sponsored Turkish films in Seattle. John Gokcen, who served as Honorary Consul of Turkey in Seattle, sponsored Turkish films as a part of Turk Fest, an annual cultural festival held at the Seattle Center. In 2004, he sponsored Facing Windows by director Ferzan Ozpetek for SIFF, which ended up winning the Golden Space Needle Award that year, the festival’s top honor.
“Since then  we began to sponsor at lease two movies at SIFF each year,” Gokcen explains. “We were admiring the community of the French Film Festival, Italian Film Festival, the Polish Film Festival. That was our dream, to one day put something together like that.”
In 2012, Jon and Emek organized the very first Seattle Turkish Film Festival, with the opening film My Grandfather’s People (2011) by director Cagan Irmak, who was an honorary guest at the festival. Since the first year, excitement grown and the program for this year’s festival included a Short Film Contest which unexpectedly attracted over 150 submissions from Turkish filmmakers. And the momentum is not only happening in Seattle, Turkish filmmakers are starting to recognize Seattle in return, adding to our credibility for film culture on the international stage.
So the next time you feel frustrated by the common voice of a Hollywood director, lack of diversity, or your own failure to participate in the independent and international film communities, don’t get bogged down. Use that energy to let others know about the festivals to come in the New Year and make a point in 2015 to see a new film or research the work of others abroad. We have the resources right here, and it’s thanks to people working at all tiers, united by a love of film. In 2015, I am excited what Seattle’s film culture is bringing to the table.
February 12 – 15 at NWFF
Sunday, February 22: 10th Annual Academy Awards Party at Cinerama
Friday, March 27: Xanadu: 8th annual auction at MOHAI
April 23 – 26
May 14 – June 7
Look forward to the Italian, Polish, French and Turkish film festivals and series in October and November of this year.