Northwest Film Forum: A Hyperlocal 2021 Sundance Festival Venue

by Beverly Aarons

A 1960s beat poet, a 12-year-old auntie, and an army of activists walk into a room. That’s not the start of a riddle set in 2020 but a sneak peek of films and panels hosted by the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF), a satellite venue for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 28–Feb. 3). NWFF is one of 30 venues hosting hyperlocal film screenings and panels as part of this year’s Sundance Festival. 

This isn’t NWFF’s first partnership with Sundance, they’ve participated in a workshop series and the Sundance touring program. Vivian Hua, NWFF executive director, believes this new model of allowing local organizations to serve as Sundance Festival satellite venues offers a “modular model” that could be used as a template for building future systems. 

“I think [it’s] an important sign of ways to sort of decentralize power and also have people have the ability to curate their own hyperlocal stuff for community under their banner,” Hua said during our telephone interview. 

The festival panel curation was intentional and mainly focused on unheard voices in film. As NWFF enters its first year as a grantmaking organization, Hua said the Grantmakers in Film panel was designed to give filmmakers the tools needed to reshape the funding system into a more equitable one. The Future-Minded panel centers a student-activist-led conversation about the failings of the Oakland public school system and its parallels to Seattle, and the Family Archives panelists explore how archival footage shaped their personal documentaries. 

NWFF has also partnered with Full Spectrum Features (Chicago), The Luminal Theater (NYC), and Circle Collective (NYC) to present the Our Right To Gaze panel (Feb. 2) and a post-Sundance film screening of short films by Black filmmakers (Feb. 14). The partnership is designed to give Black filmmakers access to distribution, mentorship, and opportunities to get paid for their short films. I spoke with one of the filmmakers featured in the Our Right To Gaze film screenings, Zora Bikangaga (Auntie Zariyah) as well as Therese Heliczer (Invisible Father), a Family Archives panelist. 

“‘This girl is amazing. She’s smart. She’s brilliant. … You should do a project with her,’” Bikangaga said, explaining a fellow filmmaker’s description of Zariyah Quiroz, who would go on to star in his film Auntie Zariyah set entirely in Seattle. “But then I saw video on her, and I was just taken by how incredibly eloquent and deep and mature she was, but also kind of a spirited kid.” That’s when the film was born. For Bikangaga, aunties are important, and in his eyes Quiroz, despite her age, embodied the spirit of what aunties have meant for Africans in Africa and the diaspora. 

“And so this project became sort of a project about my relationship with my aunties and how important they’ve been in my life,” Bikangaga said. 

Zora Bikangaga (Photo courtesy of Zora Bikangaga)

Family relationships also play a central role in Invisible Father, a documentary by Seattle-based filmmaker Therese Heliczer. Heliczer, the daughter of 1960s beat poet and experimental filmmaker Piero Heliczer, went on a personal filmmaking journey to learn about the life of her deceased father, mostly absent during her childhood.

Heliczer wanted to know her own father, to get an intimate view of his life and share that story with the world. “I was seeing my daughter grow up with a father, which I had not had,” she said. “And so I started to kind of see the impact that having a dad had in her life.” 

After an encouraging word from a friend, Heliczer began working on her documentary — a task she wasn’t completely ready for. She didn’t have many recordings of her father. The only footage she knew existed were two films shot by Andy Warhol: one a screen test, the other a film called Couch featuring her father in the opening scene. As Heliczer dug deeper, she discovered a Super 8 film of her parents, recorded when her mother was pregnant, as well as photographs and films shot by her father. 

Heliczer may have never produced Invisible Father, at least not with an abundance of photos, recordings, and intimate narratives, if she hadn’t traveled to New York for an exhibition of her father’s work. The show was curated by filmmaker Jonas Mekas, a close friend of Pierre Heliczer and an advocate of his art. It was everything Heliczer needed: artifacts of her father’s work, along with his friends and family, gathered in one place. She called it a “perfect opportunity” to make the connections she needed to produce the film she envisioned.

“It was such a treasure hunt,” Heliczer said. “I mean, it was amazing to find people and talk to people and hear their stories about my dad. But then, when they also had photographs or film footage that included my mom or included me, that was like pure gold.”

The Invisible Father production. (Photo: Kate Dandel)

Zora Bikangaga’s Auntie Zariyah is also the result of many personal and family journeys: his parents’ immigration from East Africa to northern California, Bikangaga’s migration from California to Seattle, his decision to break from a long family tradition of working in the medical professions. Bikangaga studied theatre at Seattle Pacific University. His father is a surgeon, so I was surprised that he supported such a bold and, what some would say, risky career choice. 

 “He never really forced me or expected me to become a surgeon,” Bikangaga said of his father. “You know, I think he kind of came from a background where those traditional professions were expected, and so he was like, ‘Okay, well, I raised my kids in America, and they have these different opportunities. And so if they don’t want to be doctors, they can go a different way.’ I think it kind of came with the territory of being in this country.”

For Therese Heliczer, it’s art that’s in the family tradition. Just like her father, Heliczer’s mother was a filmmaker — that’s how her parents met. When Heliczer was a baby, her parents took her with them to film festivals in New York and throughout Europe. 

“He [her father] would show their films and Andy Warhol films and Stan Brakhage films,” Heliczer said. “He would sort of have a collection of films that he would show at different film festivals that he would be invited to come to. Now, these are not like the film festivals that we have now. These are, like, … ‘Come on over to my house and let’s put up a sheet and let’s have some people come over’ …  It was very low tech. You know, not as hoity-toity like the way film festivals are now. But this is sort of the way these films were being shown in Europe and in New York and in other parts of the world. So my dad was literally carrying the reels … the heavy film reels in those steel canisters. I mean, he was taking them through customs, and it was quite a production. So they were basically on this journey. And this was kind of their bohemian life. And then I came along and they just kept doing it. My mom talks about putting me in the bassinet in the back of the car, and then they have the film reels and then they drive up from France to London, or, you know, wherever they are.”

The Invisible Father production. (Photo: Delphine Casper)

As Heliczer explores her dad’s personal history in Invisible Father, Bikangaga imagines the future of Auntie Zariyah.

“I would love for it to be a TV show, if Hollywood is listening,” Bikangaga said. “I think it would be a really beautiful, intergenerational television show where you’re just seeing Black characters, not living and telling their stories through trauma, but it’s all about us living our damn lives. But also about something that’s very important to our culture. And it’s about family and connecting the family.”

Due to the pandemic, all NWFF panels will be online via Zoom and will be subtitled. Tickets for panels are available at sliding scale, pay-what-you-can prices ($0–$25). 

NWFF — Sundance Festival Panels

Live on Feb. 2 at 5 p.m.

Our Right To Gaze: Models for BIPOC & LGBTQ+ Empowerment in Film

Available On Demand from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 

Family Archives: Archival Explorations in Personal Documentary Filmmaking

Available On Demand from Feb. 1  to Feb. 3 

Grantmakers in Film

Available On Demand from Jan. 31  to Feb. 3 Future-Minded: Youth Activist in Conversation with Peter Nicks of Homeroom

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

Featured image is from Auntie Zariyah (courtesy of Zora Bikangaga).

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