Elizabeth Shepherd has ushered a set of twins into college and a generation of kids through the turnstile at Children’s Film Festival Seattle.
As the 15th edition of the festival approaches next week, it’s safe to say its director has learned a little something about raising smart, curious kids over the years.
“I don’t want to tell them what to think,” Shepherd said. “I just want to show them as much as I can. That’s my philosophy, and that’s the philosophy of this festival. Just look here: Here’s the world. Here’s 47 countries you could visit in 10 days if you want to. If you have the stamina, you can do it.”
The festival offers more than 175 feature, short and documentary films — aimed at children ages 3-14 — from Feb. 27 through March 7 at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill and March 8 at the Rainier Arts Center in Columbia City.
It’s an event that’s heavy on participation with audience prizes, children’s juries and workshops aimed at educating the next generation of filmmakers. This year, for instance, participants will have the chance to learn how to film skateboarding scenes.
It’s been so successful Shepherd and her cohorts at Northwest Film Forum program a handful of festivals and special events around the country, host a seemingly endless stream of children on field trips for more than a month after the festival closes and attract directors, producers and creators from around the world.
The goal is to foster understanding, empathy and a nuanced worldview. It seems to be going pretty well so far.
“Some of our original jury members are off to college studying film, studying theater, immersed in the arts,” Shepherd said. “Others are studying other things, but they’ve been so well-informed by all these international films they’ve seen over the years at the Children’s Film Festival, so it’s been a great education and it’s fun to see what they’re doing now.”
One of those former jury members is Viv Daniels, a 20-year-old Bowdoin College student. After her tenure as a jury member ended, she stuck around as a teen mentor as she finished high school, meaning she put a decade of her life into the festival.
“My experience was mostly just about the great community that was there,” Daniels said. “I ended up becoming really close friends with a lot of people on the jury and I wanted to come back every year. I think it’s a really cool experience for kids and it certainly was for me because there’s not a whole lot of opportunities as a 9-, 10-, 11-year-old to watch a movie from Mongolia about people the same age as you. I really loved the way it kind of gave me a perspective on both the world and different kinds of art that were happening in the world because they’re not always the same.”
Her educational interests surely spring from her time at the festival. She’s a double major in government and Asian studies with a minor in French. And while she’s not a film major, she has spent time in film classes: one that compared American and Asian films and another that examined French films — in French.
“It was one of my first experiences with having that kind of responsibility,” Daniels said. “And it was kind of funny because I would sort of imagine myself like as a member of the Academy or something. At the end, there’s always this award ceremony [for] those directors who can be there for the festival. And we hand out the awards to the directors who we chose and it’s always a pretty touching moment for me, as a little kid to watch these like full grown adults be so grateful for something I had done. I think that helps the jury take the work really seriously. Because sometimes I know from experience that it can be difficult to get kids that age to focus and take something super seriously. But knowing that they have that responsibility, I think usually did the trick.”
Shepherd’s excited about a number of entries in this year’s festival. Echoing a trend among children over the past year, there will be a series of films that tackle environmental issues, including “Microplastic Madness.” The film takes a look at the effort by children in New York to get plastic out of their school district and helps teach constructive activism. And she’s pretty sure “Kings of Mulberry Street,” a South African film about children obsessed with Bollywood, will be a hit.
The festival will open on a lighthearted note with a program called The Cat’s Meow, featuring all films about cats. And closing day is centered around the documentary “Moving Stories,” about six dancers who travel the world working with children who’ve experienced war, poverty and sexual exploitation.
“They get to see stories about kids and what a difference art can make in their lives,” Shepherd said. “And that’s the bigger message of the whole festival: that it really matters. You know what I mean? It really is a life for so many kids. And so that’s a great message to share as our last film.”
Children’s Film Festival Seattle, Feb. 27-March 7 at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; and March 8 at the Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S. Alaska St., Seattle; 800-838-3006, childrensfilmfestivalseattle.org