Michael Seiwerath, the final founding member of the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) still actively involved in the running of the organization, announced last week that he was stepping down as executive director.
The ambitious non-profit organization was initially founded by Jamie Hook, Deborah Girdwood, and Michael Seiwerath, a trio of hardy cinema-loving citizens with more ambition and determination than resources. The Northwest Film Forum was formed with two missions: simply put, to show films that aren’t otherwise getting screened in Seattle, and (through sister organization WigglyWorld) to help the local filmmaking community get films made and, hopefully, screened. They acquired the Grand Illusion in 1997 and opened the Little Theater in 1999 as both a sister cinema and a home for production facilities. When Hook and Girdwood left the organization to pursue new creative endeavors opportunities, Seiwerath became the organization’s godfather and continued its expansion by leading the drive to develop and open a fully integrated center for film exhibition, production, and education: two screening rooms, production facilities, editing suites, equipment storage, a dedicated film workshop and classroom, and office space for filmmakers in a center that carries the name Northwest Film Forum.
As Executive Director, Seiwerath has led the organization’s fundraising efforts for the last few years as well as overseeing the “Start to Finish” program, designed to support and assist local filmmakers produce features with local talent. Among the films produced with the NWFF’s help: “Police Beat.” After thirteen years of such nonprofit activity, writing grants and raising money, producing films on miniscule budgets, giving a home to world class cinema that isn’t otherwise financially self-supporting, Seiwerath has decided to hand the reigns over to the next generation.
The Seattle film community – filmmakers and filmgoers all – owes a debt of gratitude to Seiwerath’s efforts. Unlike Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, our neighbors to the north and south, Seattle – for all of its boutique film festivals and art-house theaters – had no full-time cinemateque. For ten years, the Northwest Film Forum was the sole entity dedicated to bringing the retrospectives and revivals that too often passed the city by as they moved across the country. It brought films considered too uncommercial for the city’s arthouses, spotlighted local cinema that would otherwise be unseen by local audiences, and developed its own series and small festivals. And it did so without the financial muscle of an art museum, a municipal or government sponsor, or a major arts organization.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. I am disappointed in the quality of the actual screening rooms, which are frankly put to shame by the new SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center, and I wrote about its then disorganized programming philosophy in a 2005 article for GreenCine (read the piece here). But whatever you think of the specific programming choices, everyone in Seattle who loves cinema and values the opportunity to see it on the screen with an audience owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Seiwerath. The NWFF was there long before SIFF finally got around to opening its long-promised year-round venue and it still provides a more adventurous and exciting calendar.
So I am dumbfounded by the snide and spiteful coverage of the announcement by Seattle Weekly writer and former film editor Brian Miller in the Weekly blog. What begins as a collegial, if somewhat contentious, recognition of Seiwerath’s efforts and the importance of the NWFF in Seattle quickly degenerates into a rant against the NWFF programming and its supposedly cozy relationship with the Weekly’s competitor, The Stranger. While there may have been a grain of truth to the accusation in the past (NWFF co-founder Jamie Hook spent a year as The Stranger’s film editor), Mr. Miller conveniently forgets that relations have been much more strained since The Stranger ran a catty “expose” on the internal workings of the non-profit.
Here is a particularly rancorous excerpt from Miller’s piece:
We say good luck to Mr. Seiwerath, with whom we’ve had cordial if chilly relations over the years. We respect what he and his staff have done at NWFF, even if too much of its programming has been lifted from the Film Forum in New York. We share the goal of fostering a local filmmaking community, even if the results haven’t always been great. But we do not love the NWFF’s rather relentless pursuit of the Cap Hill hiptard demo, which has too often substituted emo kitsch (some call it mumblecore) for sound programming choices. The tight plaid pants and retro T-shirts don’t fit so well in middle age.
And when it comes to Seiwerath’s past peevish complaints about NWFF’s coverage in these pages (too little! too negative! too corporate!), especially compared to his dispassionate journalistic buddies down the street, we reply that good reviews are earned, not simply a form of advertising in a paper you count as a sponsor.
But that speaks to the latent hypocrisy of all indie marketing: In order to sell alternative culture (beer, ciggies, music, movies, whatever), one must define by exclusion what one is an alternative to. So if I want your money, you’re invited to our fundraising party. (And, by the way, could you come dressed as Santa?) But otherwise, dude, if you fail to approve the genius of what we’re doing, you totally suck.
Who will replace Seiwerath? Perhaps one of NWFF’s many good friends at a nearby alt-weekly will consent to change hats, yet again, to continue that incestuous relationship. From critic to marketer, it’s a shorter walk for some than others.
Brian Miller’s run as the Seattle Weekly’s staff film critic all but ended with the cost-cutting campaign of its parent company. The Weekly now largely reprints reviews from The Village Voice, the LA Weekly, and other papers in the organization, losing its local voice except for a few original pieces on SIFF and other Seattle-specific events. But his past reviews were marked by a contrarian streak that read more cynical than rebellious. Maybe it’s that hip contrarian attitude that ignores the realities of arts programming and the cooperative efforts of non-profit film exhibitors to bring down the staging costs of ambitious programs and film series, especially those that arrive with the critical buzz of a successful New York launch. Or is it that he simply doesn’t think the NWFF should be screening retrospectives of Yasujiro Ozu, Shohei Imamura, Jacques Rivette, Bela Tarr, or Pedro Costa?
Maybe his tantrum of an attack is merely a defensive reflex to past complaints from Seiwerath that are too close to the mark (can you name another film critic who goes that far out of his way to dress down positive reviews with sarcastic and dismissive comments?). And maybe his programming complaints have more to do with what appears to be a genuine contempt for movies. At least that’s what I infer from his reviews and general film coverage.
Whatever the excuse, it’s uncalled for and it’s petty. The kind of programming that the NWFF offers has enough hurdles. It doesn’t need to be blindly bludgeoned by the so-called alternative press. This isn’t criticism, it’s a parting shot in a festering grudge.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Michael Seiwerath since the opening of the Grand Illusion and once upon a time wrote notes for some of the programs. I have also known Brian Miller for years and for a time even worked for him as a freelance critic when he was the film editor at the Seattle Weekly. Though I wouldn’t call either of them friends – I don’t socialize with them beyond chatting as screenings and other events – I am friendly with both of them. I hope I continue to be.
The press release announcing Michael Seiwerath’s departure is here.
Brian Miller’s article is on the Seattle Weekly blog here.
The Stranger’s Slog reports here.
And The Stranger proper looks to stir things up here.