by Mark Van Streefkerk
Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) Vivian Hua 華婷婷 (she/they interchangeably) is someone who doesn’t have the stereotypical background of an executive director, but during a year marked by disruptive change caused by a pandemic, that turned out to be a good thing. Throughout last year, the NWFF streamed 25 online film festivals and continued to increase access to resources for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ filmmakers. The creative solutions Hua and the NWFF brought to Seattle’s film communities garnered the 2021 Mayor’s Award for Achievement in Film earlier this month.
The award was presented by Mayor Jenny Durkan at the Seattle International Film Festival Virtual Opening Night Gala on April 8. Now in its 15th year, the award celebrates positive creative and economic contributions to the growth and advancement of film in Seattle.
“Before the pandemic, NWFF, under Vivian’s great leadership, has done incredible work focusing on a more inclusive film community in Seattle. We can’t think of a more deserving person and organization to receive this year’s award,” said Chris Swenson, film program manager at the City of Seattle.
Hua admitted they weren’t someone who grew up as a film buff or even envisioned themselves going down that path necessarily. “First and foremost I’m a writer more than anything,” she said. “I’m [also a] director, a community organizer, and executive director of the Film Forum. I am also the child of Taiwanese — by way of China — immigrants. I’m the first generation to be born in the U.S.”
Hua has a curiosity that is naturally expansive, where art, literature, music, and film are all equal tools to peel back the layers on deeper metaphysical explorations. They founded REDEFINE magazine in 2004 as a grassroots response to corporate, major-label domination of music at the time, and she publishes a newsletter, “Ramblin’ With Vee!,” where she shares observations, stories, and conversations with strangers. Hua is also the social media manager of the Emerald as well as a frequent contributor.
Hua attended the University of Washington in the early 2000s, then lived in Portland and Los Angeles, where they attended a certificate in directing class at UCLA before coming back to Seattle to work at NWFF, first as a graphic designer, then as executive director in 2018.
“I think in so many ways I felt ‘unqualified’ to do this job, because I have not had the stereotypical executive director experience. Who usually gets that experience?” Hua asked. “It’s not usually people like me.”
The fact that Hua wasn’t entrenched in institutional methods actually helped the NWFF during the pandemic. In March of last year when other film venues and arts organizations were closing, temporarily or for good, and furloughing their employees, NWFF was having different conversations. How could they keep everyone on payroll and stay true to their mission? The solution was everyone at the organization switching to part-time work until the PPP loan came through and moving film festivals and other resources online. Throughout the year, NWFF hosted 25 film festivals, including the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, Children’s Film Festival, and Turkish Film Festival, on their streaming platform.
Hua admitted there was a learning curve to pulling off a successful streaming festival. Some of the early ones were cobbled-together Vimeo playlists, with NWFF staff corresponding by individual emails with every person who wanted to attend. Once they made the switch to the platform Eventive, the process was a lot more streamlined.
Hua credits the do-it-yourself ethos that founded the organization (NWFF was started in 1995 as a filmmaker collective) as an important value that led to their success. It’s also closer to her experience as someone typically outside of institutions. “It feels like that DIY attitude very much resonates with us today,” they said. “That’s why I think we were able to pivot quickly because we’re not as tied to institutional ‘rules’ … We just do what feels right for the well-being of community and what we believe should be happening rather than worrying as much about ‘is this proper?’”
During last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, NWFF supported the movement by backing up protesters’ livestream videos online, to ensure they would still exist even if a streaming platform took them down. NWFF’s physical space on Capitol Hill was used as a mutual aid station, and they donated all of June’s profits to BLM-related organizations. “What I thought was most interesting was less the fact that we did it and more that just the act of doing it made other organizations do it,” Hua said. “The next thing we’re going to do is start donating 2% of our proceeds to the Duwamish, and I’m really interested in seeing if anyone will follow suit.”
Throughout the pandemic, Hua and NWFF have continued increasing access for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ filmmakers through the BIPOC Filmmaker Happy Hour series and by becoming a grantmaking organization. NWFF debuted two new grants: the Lynn Shelton of a Certain Age Grant and the Collective Power Fund through the Andy Warhol Foundation. The former is in honor of the filmmaker of the same name who was inspired by watching a film at NWFF when she was 39. After learning the director of the film was 40 when she directed her first feature film, Shelton was inspired to pursue directing. She went on to become a celebrated filmmaker until her sudden death last year. The grant awards $25,000 to a woman or nonbinary filmmaker over the age of 39 who has not yet made a narrative feature film. Last year’s grants through the Collective Power Fund gave out $70,000 of emergency relief funding to artists who were mostly BIPOC or LGBTQ+.
The NWFF also inherited a film production company from the now-defunct Reel Grrls in late 2019 called Remove the Gap Productions (RG Pro). With the goal of increasing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ presence on film sets, RG Pro trains people through a series of workshops that are offered on a sliding scale or pay-what-you-can basis.
In January, the NWFF also became one of Sundance Film Festival’s satellite partners — the only partner in the Pacific Northwest. NWFF streamed supplemental Sundance material like director conversations and a BIPOC and LGBTQ empowerment conversation, joined by about 100 participants from all over the U.S.
Aside from her work with NWFF, REDEFINE, the Emerald, and personal collaborations, Hua is also gearing up to film a pilot for a TV show titled Reckless Spirits. The show is about two Asian American best friends, a gender-fluid performance artist and a neurotic therapist. A series of coincidences leads them to new worlds of psychic and metaphysical realms and an evil cult leader who threatens to pull their friendship apart.
If it sounds like Hua has a lot on their plate, they do.
“I like to joke that I’ll sleep when I die,” she laughed. “When, I think, your passion for work and topics and issues that you’re passionate about align with your hobbies, it becomes kind of hard to separate them out. Work and play and life and philosophy are all the same thing for me. This is just the stuff I think about all the time.”
To learn more about Hua and their upcoming projects, visit her website vivianhua.com.
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