Interview: Beth Barrett on showcasing China stars, Chinese films at Seattle International Film Festival 2017
By Wen Liu June 27, 2017
The curtain of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival may have come down, the excitement lingers on. A big draw this year was the China Stars Showcase, with ten Chinese feature films as well as five short films from Beijing Film Academy, along with China Stars Awards, with Qin Yi, the 95-year-old actress, winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. There were Chinese directors and producers at the screenings, and Chinese and American corporate sponsors/collaborators throughout the festival. How did the China showcase program begin? What was the significance of China stars awards? How were the Chinese films picked and why? For these and other questions, we have Beth Barrett, Interim Artistic Director of SIFF, and 13 years as Director of Programming before that, who just took a short and well-deserved break after working 25 days straight at the Festival.
WCWD: I understand that SIFF screened movies from China every year in the past, even during its beginning years in the 1970s. Why this particular China Stars Showcase program, and how did it begin?
Beth Barrett: The China Stars Showcase began two years ago, as we started to see extraordinary and independent films being made in China, films that deserved an international Festival platform. We have contacts in the Chinese film industry, and were able to take a trip to Beijing in December to meet with those industry members and filmmakers. They sent us links for consideration, and were able to provide us with a number of different films to consider for SIFF 2017. For example, we met with Yuancheng Zhu (THE SONG OF COTTON) while in Berlin, and the distributor Movie View International was able to send me a link to consider the film. As a young filmmaker, he took on a beloved subject, and his work is a great example of an independent film coming out of China now.
WCWD: With this China Stars Showcase debuted last year, how did the idea then come about that SIFF should also set up an award program for China’s stars?
Beth Barrett: The China Stars Awards are a partnership of SIFF and WASA North America Group, and are designed to recognize not only new and upcoming talent, but legends in acting, directing, and production, young artists as well as artists with a long career that the American audience may not be as familiar with. With the launch of our China Stars Awards, we presented three awards this year.
WCWD: As the Interim Artistic Director, did you pick all the movies for the Festival? Could you tell us how you picked the ten Chinese feature films this year, including The Beautiful Kokonor Lake, starring the 95-year-old Qin Yi?
Beth Barrett: I am the head of a very talented team of programmers who choose the films for the Festival. I did select most of the Chinese films this year, including THE BEAUTIFUL KOKONOR LAKE. We were able to present the North American premiere of that film with the help of Qin Yi, who is a family friend of a long-time SIFF supporter, and they introduced us. Qin Yi is a treasured actress and screenwriter, and to still be so active in her 90s in the film world is very inspiring, and really interesting to have a number of different points of view in the independent film scene in China.
The criterion for selecting the films was story - they all have a unique story, and tell it in different ways. We were trying to spotlight a number of different genres in Chinese film this year, from the epic GOD OF WAR, the unique animation of HAVE A NICE DAY, and the classic storytelling of THE BEAUTIFUL KOKONOR LAKE and THE SONG OF COTTON.
WCWD: A big, and new, corporate collaborator SIFF had this year seemed to be the WASA North America Group. Could you tell us what you know about WASA and how SIFF got together with WASA?
Beth Barrett: WASA North America is a part of WASA Global - a group of enterprises specializing in cultural exchange in the arts (film, music, and fine art), film production, and commercial real estate development. WASA established an office in Bellevue, WA in and in 2015 began a collaboration to screen Chinese films at the Seattle International Film Festival. Our first China Stars program debuted in 2016. We screened five feature films from mainland China. With curatorial assistance from WASA, we were able to expand in our second year to include ten feature films and a selection of five short films from students at the Beijing Film Academy.
WCWD: Of all the Chinese movies this year at SIFF, which was your favorite and why? And/or, of all the Chinese movies screened over the years you were at SIFF, which was your favorite and why?
Beth Barrett: I really enjoyed the film FREE AND EASY, as it perfectly combines both a maverick artistic sensibility with very a Chinese lens - a true independent film, and I hope the mark of more films from China in the future. Over the years, I have enjoyed Zhang Yang’s FULL CIRCLE, Jia Zhangke’s MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART, and Chen Kaige’s FOREVER ENTHRALLED. They all tell a compelling story, one that provides an insight to China today, and in the past, and allows me to gain insight to the Chinese spirit and history.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)