The Seattle International Film Festival is back in theaters this month for the first time since 2019 — but it looks rather different than it has in past years. The once-massive festival is down from its usual three-and-a-half weeks to 11 days, offering 262 feature-length and short films. (The 2019 festival, by comparison, had a roster of more than 400 titles.) This year, SIFF will offer both in-person and virtual presentations, and has switched from May-June to April 14-24. Artistic director Beth Barrett, a SIFF veteran since 2003, spoke about the changes and what SIFF-goers can expect this year.

What went into the decision to shrink SIFF down so significantly? 

Part of it was being pandemic-responsible, health- and safety-wise, and also fiscally. To take on a 25-day event was just more than we could really envision coming out of the pandemic … When we opened SIFF Cinema in 2007 and the Egyptian in 2014, one of the reasons we wanted to do that was because we wanted to have the feeling of having the festival all year round, and to bring into the cinemas the same kind of films we show at SIFF — to celebrate the international and the independent and the smaller films, the ones that don’t get the platforms in some of the larger multiplexes. And there’s Cinema Italian Style and Doc Fest and Noir City and other film events that we do year-round. (So it made sense) to be able to really transition some of our resources and some of our planning and staffing to a shorter, more urgent festival … We’re really looking at using the cinemas as sort of a “best of fest” all year round.

That said, SIFF 2022 is still pretty big!

Yes! At one point we had 186 features, but then we thought, that’s too many. (There’s now 151, not including two works in progress and two Secret Festival selections.) 

SIFF has taken place in May/June since its inception in the 1970s; why the switch to April?

May and June are really complicated months to try to get people to go into cinemas. When Darryl (Macdonald) and Dan (Ireland) started the festival 48 years ago, May and June were very unpleasant months: It was still raining, it was still cold. But thanks to global climate change, May and June are no longer the tail end of a long terrible spring, but they are the very beautiful beginning of summer. With anything film-related in the summer, it’s very hard to get audiences to pay attention. We’re also constantly fighting against great other events like Folklife … Since we really are so focused on the in-person, in-cinema experience, April is actually a really good time for that. It’s pleasant enough, but it might be kind of cool and raining. It’s a great time to watch movies.


Might that switch be a permanent change?

We’ll see. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from it. It also places us in this very interesting spot in the national landscape in that within about three-and-a-half weeks, there are great festivals before and after us. Cleveland (International Film Festival) is right before us, San Francisco (SFFILM Festival) will start while we’re still going on, and then Milwaukee (Film Festival) will start when San Francisco is still going on. There’s this really interesting potential for working together. In fact we’re working with Cleveland on two different guests this year, and working with San Francisco on three different guests — they come here, and then go to San Francisco, and in one case go on to Milwaukee.

How did you determine which films would screen virtually as well as in-person?

It was an individual negotiation for each film. All of our short film programs and 95 out of 151 general features will be available virtually — which is a really great number of films from all genres and across the world. A lot of the films that aren’t available virtually you’ll see later in the year in the cinemas.

Can you recommend three favorite SIFF 2022 films?

Sure! (Opening night film) “Navalny” — it’s stunning, it’s a documentary and it’s history, but it plays like a thriller. “Fire of Love,” an incredible film about two volcanologists in the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s, that were both in love with volcanoes and with each other. The whole film is told with footage that they shot, interviews with them. And “Daughter of a Lost Bird,” about Kendra Potter, who was adopted as a baby into a white family. She’s from the Lummi Nation and the film is about her search to find and reconnect with her birth mother. An extraordinary documentary. As you can tell, I really love documentaries.

What’s the current state of SIFF as an organization, in terms of employees?

The closure (SIFF’s cinemas were closed for 18 months during the pandemic) allowed us to look at the organization that we needed to fully support year-round cinema, education, and the festival. We got down to four people at one point, but now we’re back in the 65-70 range when you count all the cinema staff. We have a lot of new people, and a lot of people who returned and were able to do something similar, in most cases, to their previous jobs … In terms of year-round staff, we’re within about five people of where we were in 2019.


What do you think it’ll feel like, to be back in the theater with a SIFF audience again?

It’s an amazing feeling — this love of watching film after film and having your mind blown in many different ways, that swelling of empathy … Last year (for the all-virtual fest) we did a lot of prerecorded Zoom Q&As, and that was fun, it was great to get to know people. But it’s not the same as being there, feeling that energy and having that filmmaker be so excited that people are watching their film and reacting. I’m really looking forward to that part.

Seattle International Film Festival

Opens April 14 with gala opening-night screening of “Navalny” at the Paramount Theatre; continues through closing night April 24 with “Call Jane” at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Screenings take place at the Egyptian, SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Film Center, AMC Pacific Place, Majestic Bay Theatres, Ark Lodge Cinemas and Shoreline Community College. Individual tickets to most screenings are $15 ($14 students/seniors); full festival passes are $650 ($525 SIFF members); digital festival passes are $200 ($150 SIFF members). SIFF requires masks to be worn in all venues except when at your seat. 206-464-5830,