It is, after all, the Seattle International Film Festival. Focus on Seattle.
This is particularly the case for the six feature films and a program of short films that will be screened in the Northwest Connections section of the festival.
The images chosen for this section – “Know your place”, “I’ll show you mine”, “I AM DB COOPER”, “Buffalo Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts”, “Midday Black Midnight Blue” and “Sweetheart Deal” – are either the works of filmmakers with Northwestern roots or are set in the Seattle area.
“Know Your Place,” from director Zia Mohajerjasbi, certainly ticks both of those boxes. Born in Lake City, raised in Kenmore and a graduate of the University of Washington, the 36-year-old Iranian-American filmmaker shot most of “Know Your Place,” his feature debut, in 2018 at various Seattle locations: Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and near the two city stadiums.
However, “the beating heart of the film is the central district, mainly between Madison and Cherry [streets],” he said.
It’s the story of two teenagers crossing the city on a mission to bring a package to a friend. During their journey, the startling changes in the physical and psychosocial make-up of Seattle are brought to light.
The ringleaders are Joseph Smith, an Eritrean American, and Natnael Mebrahtu, an American-born youth who traces his ethnicity to the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Both were 15-year-old sophomores attending Garfield High School when the photo was caught. Like everyone else in the cast, they were non-professional actors.
Mohajerjasbi had worked with Smith and Mebrahtu several years earlier when he cast them in his 2015 short ‘Hagereseb’. This film, shot at Yesler Terrace, was the origin of ‘Know Your Place’ as it dealt with of the theme of a community confronted with displacement. He explores this in more detail in “Know Your Place,” which will screen April 17 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and April 19 at Ark Lodge Cinemas.
Mohajerjasbi caught the movie bug at the age of 7 when his Iranian-born father took him to the Seven Gables Theater to see ‘The White Balloon’, now considered a classic of Iranian cinema. It was the first time he had gone to the cinema where Farsi was spoken. It was also the language spoken in Mohajerjasbi’s house, and so the image literally spoke to him. It was “like opening a little portal in my mind,” he says, seeing the culture of his father’s country represented on screen. From that moment, he wanted to make films like that.
He started shooting music videos for Macklemore and Blue Scholars in the mid-2000s. It was around this time that he started hanging out at a restaurant and community center on 20th Avenue and Jackson Street called Hidmo. It was a gathering place for people of East African descent, among others.
Mohajerjasbi befriended members of the community. From them, he learned of the relocation of residents from Yesler Terrace as the neighborhood was demolished to make way for urban development. And based on their experiences, he felt compelled to make films about the plight of their community.
Since then, the pace of change and shifts in Seattle has only accelerated. He said as he walked through Yesler Terrace, “I don’t even recognize that space anymore.”
At the other end of the spectrum of professional cinematic experience represented in Northwest Connections is Megan Griffiths, director of “I’ll Show You Mine,” which is set to screen April 16 at SIFF Cinema Uptown and April 20 at Pacific Square. A resident of Burien, she has held various positions in the film industry since 2000, going from director of photography and assistant director to director of feature films for the big screen and episodes for television series.
She was a longtime friend and artistic collaborator of the late Lynn Shelton, who was a major figure in the history of the festival. Shelton, who died in 2020 aged 54, had two of her films chosen as the festival’s opening features, the first in 2012 and the last in 2019.
“We learned from each other,” Griffiths said. And the most important lesson Shelton taught her was how to create a setting that was “a safe space for the performance to happen.” A space where cast and crew were encouraged to “give their best and take safe risks”.
That lesson was crucial in making “I’ll Show You Mine,” Griffiths said. Set in the sunny living room of a middle-class home, two characters played by Poorna Jagannathan and Casey Thomas Brown spend a day discussing various topics ranging from child abuse to pornography to pansexuality.
The subjects are explosive but the tones of the characters are conversational. However, as the day progresses and the conversation becomes more pointed and in-depth, the seemingly sweet atmosphere becomes strained and tense.
Maintaining the delicate balance between subject and tone was a major challenge, Griffiths said, and she was careful to create an atmosphere of trust so the actors could feel comfortable in their roles.
“They could be vulnerable and take big risks,” she said.
“The atmosphere on set was incredibly intimate and beautiful.”
In addition to “Know Your Place” and “I’ll Show You Mine”, other features in the Northwest Connections section are:
● “I AM DB COOPER”, by filmmaker TJ Regan, the story of two bounty hunters who meet a man claiming to be the famous skyjacker DB Cooper; it screens April 16 at Shoreline Community College Theater and April 18 at Pacific Place.
● “Buffalo Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts”, by Dru Holley, a story of black army units that served in the West after the Civil War; April 16 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and April 17 at Ark Lodge Cinemas.
● “Midday Black Midnight Blue”, directed by Samantha Soule and Daniel Talbott, a drama about a man overwhelmed by grief; April 21 and 22 at Pacific Place.
● “Sweetheart Deal”, from directors Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller, a story set on Aurora Avenue of four female heroin addicts; April 18 at Pacific Place and April 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.