In 2005 the Seattle film community was ready for a change. The Seattle International Film Festival had reached a cruel level of bloat, pretension and exceptionalism. Many local filmmakers felt angry that the festival of their own hometown spurned the talents of local independent cinema in favor of red carpet Hollywood dreck. The people at SIFF, they opined, were more interested in building an empire than they were in screening films. Seeing that the festival was even seeking to expand into yuppie Bellevue in hopes of lining their pockets even further, a group of young filmmakers decided that enough was enough. The Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) was born.
The timing was right. Jon Behrens had put his Seattle Underground Film Festival on hiatus and the Satellites Film Festival that had formerly offered a voice to the “undependent” filmmakers who could never find a place at the posh SIFF, had breathed its last. STIFF producers Clint Berquist and Brian Shelley and the versatile Jessica Foss and Kevin Gilbert sat down with their phones and address books and contacted all the other people they could find who shared their values if not their rage. In the process they assembled about sixty films for the first festival in a very short span of time. The festival was up and running.
In its ninth year now, it is still running. STIFF has had its ups and downs. The original founders are gone. Former festival director Mr. Berquist handed off the reins to successsor Timothy Vernon in 2010. Brian Shelley, STIFF’s program director, yielded his role to Will Chase. Others have gone their separate ways. Along with the change of leadership has been a subtle change of ethos. STIFF remains personal, informal, egalitarian and, above all, fun. But after a rocky year last year, the festival personnel have reassessed matters.
The alternative music shows and comedy performances are gone, and the emphasis this year is exclusively on cinema. The festival itself has also consolidated locations from its former scattershot geography into a much more compact area. This year almost all the events take place at either the Grand Illusion Cinema, Wing-It Productions or Lucid Lounge–all between 50th and 55th on University Way. The sometimes frustrating scheduling has resolved, and the STIFF website is now smooth and easy to use–greatly improved from years past. The entire operation seems tighter and more professional this year, yet still retaining the informality and casual ambience the festival has had since its beginning.
This year there are a number of interesting films on the schedule. Of the thirty feature films on the slate, the documentaries are, typically, quite strong and the narrative features are, also typically, eclectic. And of course there are lots of shorts, including the notorious Indepenetration series. Of particular interest is the first ever STIFF screening in Tacoma, featuring Mick Flaaen’s Funeral Dance.
And, perhaps as a tip of the hat to the SIFF Secret Festival, STIFF are also screening a Super Secret Feature Film allegedly about a 9/11 conspiracy. According to the festival notes, “The film is structured as an anthology, and incorporates five award-winning short films that range from fantasy to horror to science fiction to comedy.” The producers, writers, director and cast will be in attendance for a Q&A session after the screening, and most likely, spill a lot of secrets that they are not supposed to.
As STIFF nears the end of its first decade, the festival continues to go strongly into the future. While many more people will attend SIFF or at least say they did, the local color of STIFF is important for Seattle, its local filmmakers and its community of supporters. Slamdance has proven its staying power as an alternative to the increasingly commercial Sundance Film Festival. One can only hope that STIFF proves the same in relation to its more commercial sister festival.
May 3-11 // Various locations // Check www.trueindependent.org for schedule and tickets.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net