There is sometimes a startling wisdom in what a young mind perceives, but such insights can often be ignored or squashed by assumptions that youth is synonymous with inexperience, naïveté and impulsiveness. As a relatively young city with a penchant for film and new ideas, Seattle seems the right sort of place for young filmmakers to share brilliant, inquisitive storytelling, and since 2008, the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, otherwise known as NFFTY has provided such a showcase. In this short period, it has become the world’s largest film festival for emerging directors, but remains little known to many Seattle audiences.
This might be because local audiences expect it to be a kids’ film festival just because “youth” is mentioned. In fact, the topics can be weighty and the genres are wide-ranging, from filmmakers up to the age of 24 and—this year—as young as 11. NFFTY’s mission is to provide a unique, encouraging educational forum and to reward good storytelling, regardless of age.
The seed for NFFTY was sown in 2007, when an 18-year old filmmaker, Jesse Harris, convinced his parents to allow him to use his college funds to make a film called Living Life. His film was successful, with distribution in the US and Europe. Other young people took notice and began reaching out to Harris for advice. He saw a need that was not being met in the film community at large and decided to team up with his friends Kyle Seago and Jocelyn R.C. to organize what is now NFFTY.
The festival experienced rapid growth, from 1,800 attendees and 176 short and feature length film entries in 2008 to 12,000 attendees and 800 short and feature-length film entries in 2014. The film entries come from around the world and most are short films in a wide range of genres, topics and styles. For NFFTY 2015, April 23 through 26, over 200 films have been chosen for screening from an enormous pool.
“It was a tough year to make decisions about what would be included and not included,” says Stefanie Malone, NFFTY’s executive director. “We go out of our way to curate the very best films from upcoming filmmakers around the world. And our filmmakers have a track record of later emerging as prominent professionals in their field.”
How To Be More Average by David Thring (2010) is a spoof 1950s educational mockumentary shot on a on Super 8 that went on from NFFTY to win Best Short Short at the Young Cuts Film Festival 2010 (Montreal). Yusuf, written and directed by Omar A. Rashed (Cairo, Egypt), won NFFTY’s Official Selection 2013 and went on to be recognized at SIFF 2013, CineYouth 2013 (Chicago Youth International Film Festival) and Tumbleweed Film Festival 2013.
Indeed, beyond the enjoyment of the films themselves, there is a special energy and excitement around the festival, as one could be among the next auteurs. You just never know, but in the mean time the films offer plenty of surprises of their own.
Malone adds, “It’s not just the largest youth film festival in the world. I would say that it’s also one of the best short film festivals in the world.”
What began with the intention to help other like-minded young artists became a fast-moving machine and more than a film festival. The quality of films produced by these young artists began to attract attention outside of the film industry. In 2013, NFFTY launched NFFTY Creative to provide young filmmakers with opportunities to work with corporate brands such as Vitamin Water, Volvo and Kind Healthy Snacks. NFFTY continues to grow and expand as a simple truth emerges—by encouraging rather than squashing ambition new opportunities unfold.
With close to 1,000 entries for NFFTY received for 2015, it is hard to narrow down which films with be screened. A volunteer selection committee—including NFFTY alumni and industry professionals—works hard to screen films for a first round selection. Then the films are screening heavily by NFFTY’s programmers Kyle Seago (co-founder and Lead Programmer), Todd Kaumans (Programmer) and Malone. The three work closely in the final stages of selection, with the strength of storytelling as the primary determining factor. Films that show brilliance are flagged but are still subject to heavy reviewing and debate. Ultimately, Kyle and Todd decide the final program to offer a wide variety of skills and voices.
With high numbers of entries, the rate of rejection is high as well. Despite this, Jesse Harris has pledged NFFTY to offer personalized feedback to every single filmmaker who asks for it. Such regard is unheard of in the film industry. Most filmmakers receive no response or a dry rejection letter politely stating, “sorry to inform you.” Yet, with NFFTY’s mission to encourage and create, dry rejection fails to offer opportunities for lessons and growth. The special care and intention on nurturing creativity and learning separates NFFTY from the other festivals. To push even further, NFFTY created the Works In Progress an event that gives filmmakers the opportunity to receive feedback in person by a panel of industry professionals.
But it doesn’t stop there! This year NFFTY 2015 wanted to address a special problem in film— the lack of the female directors. Malone broke down some sobering statistics about the demographics of the field: Among Hollywood films, less than 10 percent have a female director, roughly two percent have a female cinematographer, and only a quarter have a female producer.
Malone is herself an Emmy award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker, and saw the need firsthand for more encouragement. The other leaders at NFFTY agreed, and the festival campaigned to encourage young women to step up and let their voices be heard—and young women did just that! Half of the films in NFFTY’s 2015 program have a female filmmaker attached. To honor this potential sea change in the film community, NFFTY named closing night of the festival Femme Finale presented by Cornish College of the Arts. Films included in the closing night are: Provider by Leah Galant, a film about a traveling abortion doctor in Texas; Sad Lonely Girl, a comedy by Laura Holliday; and How Do You Like My Hair by Emilie Blichfeldt (Norway), which challenges the conventional norms on gender and body hair.
NFFTY offers a variety of support for young artists, and with this support the youth deliver. Audiences who want fresh perspectives, who want to support emerging artists, or who just love good short films—or all of the above—should not miss this year’s NFFTY. Inexperience and naïveté are not so much matters of youth as they are of a lack of curiosity, and those who write off this experience because of the age of its participants are certainly missing out on one of Seattle’s cinematic jewels. Besides, in a time when so many people seem to be convinced that the world is falling apart, it is especially important to know that younger generations are circumspect and smart and that we are all capable of telling a different story. In short, the kids are alright.
This year is includes lectures from Girl With The Dragon Tattoo screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg, who will be discussing the craft of storytelling, and James Foley, director for House of Cards, who will be discussing filmmaking and the role of Netflix.