Traveling film fest in NW to spark conversation on global issues

A still from The Light in Her Eyes, a film about women practicing conservative Islam, which screens in Tacoma next week. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Film Forward, a touring program that will show movies from around the world at various venues in Seattle and Tacoma next week, aims to start conversations about complex global topics.

The first thing you need to know about Film Forward is that it is not a film festival.

“At a film festival you’re really just focusing on film,” says Program Director Meredith Lavitt who describes it as a “film touring program” focused on sparking conversations.

“With this we’re focusing on cultural dialogue … it’s a very different agenda.”

That agenda is on its way to Seattle and Tacoma.

Film Forward has rotated through a handful of locations, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, California and Maine. The event features film screenings, discussions and activities planned for much of next week in Tacoma and Seattle.

A primary goal of the program, funded by a collection of public and private organizations, including the Sundance Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is reaching new audiences.

For a region that boasts multiple film festivals, including the mammoth Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), it might come as a surprise that Film Forward has chosen our neck of the woods. But Lavitt says Film Forward is specifically designed to serve a different crowd.

“What we’re trying to do is not screen in a specific art-house climate — we don’t want to preach to choir,” she said.

And that means taking the films to where people are — from an outdoor screening in a California skatepark to an Elk’s Lodge where Lavitt says there were “so many cowboy hats nobody could see.”

Puget Sound venues will include public libraries, middle schools and museums in Seattle and Tacoma.

Still from "Town of Runners," a film about the intense culture of running in a rural town in Ethiopia, which will screen next week in Tacoma. (Courtesy The Sundance Institute)
Still from “Town of Runners,” a film about the intense culture of running in a rural town in Ethiopia, which will screen next week in Tacoma. (Courtesy The Sundance Institute)

Film Forward films — documentaries and narratives — are chosen for their power to “enhance greater cultural understanding, collaboration and dialogue.” Five of the eight films have international themes.

“Chasing Ice” explores climate change in the Arctic; “La Misma Luna” the experience of an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the United States; “Town of Runners,” the culture of distance running in Ethiopia; and “Valley of Saints,” violence in Kashmir.

“The Light in Her Eyes,” a documentary that follows a woman who runs a religious school for girls in Syria, is a great example of a film chosen with sparking conversation in mind.

The setting alone, a prewar Damascus watched over by ubiquitous images of President Bashar Assad and rife with tension between secular Syrians and religious communities, would make it feel politically significant and emotionally intense.

But the film is even more challenging for its characters — women, young and old, seeking a more conservative Islam not through pressure or force, but by choice. What’s more, the school they attend, run by a female Muslim preacher, encourages the memorization of the Koran — a rigorous religious practice traditionally pursued by men.

“People say [it] makes them feel very contradictory things …” says Director Julia Meltzer, who will be in Seattle and Tacoma for screenings of her film next week, “Their understanding of why women choose to practice Islam is much broader and complicated after watching the film.”

Complex global topics are particularly relevant to Tacoma, says Amy McBride, arts administrator for the city and a local organizer of Film Forward, citing the city’s international port, immigrant and refugee populations and proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“These films ignite the realization that the world is so much bigger than my own square footage,” says McBride “[That] there are so many people out there.”

To turn that realization into a community experience, every screening next week will include a discussion featuring local people who have direct experience with issues raised by the films. “The Light in Her Eyes” will be followed by discussions with local scholars of Middle Eastern studies and religion.

A screening of “Town of Runners” will be joined by the Tacoma Running Club who will, of course, be running to the screening.

When was the last time you saw something like that at the movies?

Film Forward runs next Wednesday through Sept. 7 at locations in Tacoma and Seattle. All screenings are free and most are open to the public. See the full schedule at:

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at