Twenty Years Later, Local Sightings Is as Vital as Ever for Northwest Filmmakers

The Northwest Film Forum’s celebration of local indie film is pushing beyond the movie screen.

Since he was 16, Snohomish filmmaker Emmett Fifield has been working on a stop-motion sci-fi epic in his basement. With only a Super 8 camera and his cast of clay figurines, the young man has spent six years animating the galaxy-spanning adventure Constant Space, his feature-length film about a spaceship looking for natural resources, confounded by wormholes and mysterious devices. Now 22, Fifield is debuting his film at a festival he’s only two years older than: Local Sightings.

For 20 years, the Northwest Film Forum’s festival has served as the primary outlet for the region’s bounty of independent filmmakers. It’s one of the few festivals where scrappy folks like Fifield, with an almost Quixotic dedication to their craft, are prioritized—cuing in unsuspecting audiences to the cinematic worlds artists have quietly been concocting around them. Local Sightings has its punky charms like Fifield’s basement creation, but it’s also far from podunk. This year, the festival’s opening weekend will be filmed by the Criterion Channel and FilmStruck’s series Art-House America, honoring the culture that independent art-house theaters across the country help to preserve and foster.

This year, the festival features 75 films—27 of them world premieres and 40 percent of them made by women. Three women who have contributed immensely to the Northwest’s culture of film—directors Megan Griffiths (Lucky Them, The Night Stalker) and SJ Chiro (Lane 1974) and producer Jennifer Roth (The Wrestler, Black Swan)—will open the festivities with a special talk show, “Early Mistakes—Live!” In an effort to make the already welcoming festival even more so, the show will feature the trio, plus NWFF executive director Courtney Sheehan and filmmaker Carlos Lopez, recounting the numerous embarrassing but formative missteps they took early in their film careers. Maybe even the greats forget they left the lens cap on sometimes.

This year looks like it will have plenty of highlights. The documentary No Man’s Land takes an intimate look at last year’s armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy; filmmaker David Byars managed to get intimate access many journalists weren’t allowed. 6 Dynamic Laws for Success in Life, Love & Money, from Gregory Bayne, takes a stab at the rarefied field of neo-noir, regaling a black-and-white tale of a former used-car salesman who may have stumbled upon the hidden location of $2.4 million. Don’t miss the shorts showcases either, which offer more than a few promising entries. The “Wild Days and Squalid Nights” showcase, for instance, will feature films that include talking trees, a sexy ghost, and a “dirty history” of Seattle’s hated tunneling machine Bertha, entitled “Deep Bore.”

The past few years, Sheehan’s direction of the NWFF has helped expand the theater into something bigger—its calendar is as packed with discipline-spanning hybrid events as it is with straightforward film screenings, mixing in live performance, live music, and even game shows. Local Sightings is keeping up the multidisciplinary fun with a number of virtual-reality experiences, as well as an immersive event from local dance/visual arts company zoe | juniper that itself will also feature virtual reality—not to mention Sacred Harp singing, a style of choral music that originated in the American South. As Hollywood continues its Marvel movie glut and ’80s franchise rehashes, more and more it’s coming down to the indies to define contemporary cinema. At Local Sightings, NWFF is helping push cinema past the screen altogether. Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., $125–$200 full pass, individual screening tickets available. All ages. Fri., Sept. 22 – Sat., Sept. 30.