The Seattle Black Film Festival, celebrating its 17th year, goes online this weekend — reaching, potentially, a much larger crowd than it would in its traditional in-person venues.  

Festival director Andrea Stuart-Lehalle said that the decision to hold the festival online was made in April (after SBFF had already been moved to July from its usual April dates), when the COVID-19 pandemic ensured that any sort of public gathering in midsummer wouldn’t be possible. But she and the staff focused on the positive aspect of the change. 

“By pivoting, we could offer our festival to more people,” she said. Their planning quickly switched from trying to figure out how many filmmakers they could afford to invite to welcoming all. “No more budget constraints — everyone can be there, and everyone can benefit from our festival.” 

Taking place July 10-12 at langstonseattle.org/sbff, with assistance from the Seattle-based livestream film and music events platform Couch-a-thon, the SBFF will feature more than 30 films from Black filmmakers across the diaspora, including Nigeria, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Five are from local filmmakers: “Black Champagne” by Jeremiah Williams, “RESPEK” by Kamari Bright, “Headless Into Night” by Nifemi Madarikan, “Retch” by Tifa Tomb and Nicole Pouchet, and “Our Troll” by D.J. Walker. 

London-based filmmaker Veronica McKenzie’s “Nine Nights,” winner of the best narrative feature award at the Pan African Film Festival, which will screen on the fest’s closing night. (Courtesy SBFF)
London-based filmmaker Veronica McKenzie’s “Nine Nights,” winner of the best narrative feature award at the Pan African Film Festival, which will screen on the fest’s closing night. (Courtesy SBFF)

This year, the festival primarily consists of short films, with just one feature-length offering: London-based filmmaker Veronica McKenzie’s “Nine Nights,” winner of the best narrative feature award at the Pan African Film Festival, which will screen on the fest’s closing night. They will be shown in several blocks throughout the weekend, each introduced by a moderator and by filmmakers. Events are streamed at scheduled times and are not available on demand; no tickets or fees are required to view, though the festival encourages donations to LANGSTON, the local nonprofit presenting SBFF. 

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As always, SBFF is a medley of different kinds of events, not just screenings. This year’s program includes a master class called “The Storyteller’s Toolkit”; a workshop on media literacy in the age of Black Lives Matter; a Director’s Lens Happy Hour on opening night; and a special collection of films made by local young people, ages 9-12, as part of the CRASH Youth Workshop done in collaboration with the Seattle International Film Festival.

“The students were given full liberty to choose their topics, and at the same time we wanted to keep it relevant to the community,” said Stuart-Lehalle of the CRASH participants, who each made a short documentary about a historic figure in Seattle’s Central District or about a social-justice issue in the community. “The youth decided to help us discover so many people. I’m really excited about how that came together. They show and tell some very great stories that remind us that you don’t need an expensive film degree or a whole lot of contacts to say something really important.”

The fest’s lineup celebrates a range of Black cinematic creativity, the organizers say, and has not been specifically affected by current events, including nationwide ongoing protests against racial injustice, the coronavirus pandemic and widespread unemployment. “I would say the global conversation hasn’t really had an impact on how we are doing our festival,” said Stuart-Lehalle, noting that the festival schedule was set back in February when they were still anticipating an in-person April event. “We’re still doing the same things we’ve been doing for 17 years. We’re grateful for more people being interested.”

At one point, though, festival organizers wondered whether filmmakers would still be able to participate in such a challenging economic landscape. Stuart-Lehalle said that the festival discussed possibly scaling back and refunding submission money. “But it became so clear so quickly that this is really what the filmmakers need more than anything right now — it was so necessary for them to continue to be heard,” she said. “It really reaffirmed for us that we really do need to keep this on track. Our filmmakers need this, they need us … The final confirmation of filmmakers being able to join us — it’s really overwhelming, how much energy there is around the festival.”