Two years ago this spring, the Seattle International Film Festival was its usual massive self: more than 400 films over 25 days, with thousands of ticket buyers and mountains of popcorn. In 2020, caught in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, SIFF was nothing at all: canceled, with no indication of what the future might hold.
Now the festival is back, running April 8-18 — and looking a bit different. SIFF 2021 is all-virtual: no standby lines, no aisle seats, and you’ll have to pop that popcorn yourself. But you’ll still see plenty of SIFF’s trademarks in the programming, which this year includes 93 feature-length films and 126 shorts.
“We wanted to still represent the best of international cinema, so we essentially shrunk all the programs down,” said SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett. This year’s festival will feature many of SIFF’s familiar programming divisions: African Pictures, Culinary Cinema, Face the Music, Northwest Connections, Films4Families, etc. — they’ll just be smaller. Programming committees were told “instead of choosing your 16 favorite films, you choose eight,” said Barrett. “It was an interesting challenge for all of us. I don’t know that any of us would love to do it again, but for this year, those were the logistics that we had to work with.”
Opening night will feature an Australian crime drama: “The Dry,” directed by Robert Connelly, starring Eric Bana, and based on the bestselling suspense novel by Jane Harper. A live program will screen before the film on April 8; a taped interview with Connelly and Bana will follow it.
SIFF will close on a cheery note: a live presentation of the Golden Space Needle Awards, and a screening of Spanish director Icíar Bollaín’s romantic comedy “Rosa’s Wedding.”
And another trademark endures: the tribute evening, which this year will honor longtime actor and Seattle resident Tom Skerritt, whose numerous credits include “Alien,” “The Turning Point,” “M.A.S.H.,” “Top Gun,” “A River Runs Through It,” TV’s “Picket Fences,” and many more. He stars in “East of the Mountains,” a drama from Northwest director SJ Chiro, based on the novel by local writer David Guterson; filmed in Eastern Washington, it will have its virtual world premiere at SIFF. On April 15, Skerritt will participate in a live interview, moderated by film critic Thelma Adams.
“We couldn’t be more proud,” said Barrett, of the chance to recognize Skerritt for his work. She noted that “East of the Mountains,” in which the actor plays a retired heart surgeon facing cancer, is a rarity in Skerritt’s career: a starring role. “He’s on-screen for 90% of this film,” she said. “He imbues this film so beautifully.”
The logistics for watching SIFF films this year have changed drastically; this time, there’s no need to arrange your schedule around screening times. With four exceptions — opening night, closing night, and two films-in-progress — any film in the festival can be watched at any time from April 8 to 18. You can stream the festival from the SIFF website, or from your TV (via the SIFF Channel on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV or Apple TV).
While no guests will be coming to Seattle for the festival this year, you’ll still see plenty of new faces: The festival is planning live filmmaker interviews — “at least one or two a day,” said Barrett — and roundtable discussions, the latter of which will be free and open to the public as Zoom webinars. As for those trademark SIFF parties: Well, there’s a virtual SIFF lounge for hanging out, but you’ll need to bring your own drink.
The festival comes at a time of upheaval for SIFF. Its theaters — the Uptown, Egyptian and SIFF Film Center, totaling five screens in all — have been shuttered since March, and most of its employees were laid off last spring. (Barrett said the festival is being put on by a very small crew of about 25; she hopes to slowly begin to bring back more year-round employees after the festival.) It’s not clear when the organization’s cinemas might reopen: maybe summer, maybe fall.
“Fifty percent capacity is really hard, with a nonprofit organization,” said Barrett, of the current guidelines for movie theaters. “Until everybody is vaccinated, people are just not going to feel comfortable getting back into the cinemas in the numbers that independent and arthouse cinemas will need to pay our rent. … We want to be sure that reopening is really reopening, and not reopening to have to close again.” The organization is focusing right now, she said, on the virtual festival, and will look more closely at questions of reopening after the festival is done.
But Barrett is hopeful about the future: “Our members and donors have stepped up in such an incredible way — we’re OK right now.” The festival is helping things financially, with “a great uptick” in people buying passes and six-packs. And the virtual model has brought one welcome change: a growth in accessibility. People “who pay attention to our programming but may not be able to be physically in Seattle” can now attend SIFF, or stream a film any time, Barrett said. SIFF’s virtual Cinema Italian Style series, in December, brought people from 17 different states.
“Dropping the Seattle-only barrier has been fascinating in the short term, and in the long term, interesting things are going to happen. How are we going to continue to have this kind of accessibility, not just within the downtown core of Seattle?” Barrett said, musing that there might be a way to create a hybrid model for screenings, seminars and classes — some in person, some online. “The experience is different, but the content is equal. Is there a way to show a film at the Film Center, and then run it [online] for a couple of weeks? Is there a way to keep getting these amazing international films in front of the audience that want to see them? That’s our 2022 conundrum.”