What it takes to be featured in the Seattle International Film Festival

SIFF Cinema Uptown prepares for the Seattle International Film Festival by advertising and selling tickets at the box office. (Photo by Aidan Walker)

The films shown at the Seattle International Film Festival didn’t make it to the big screen through the grace of simply being “good.” They journeyed and struggled to make the cut.

The programming team spent months sifting through more than 4,000 submissions and traveling the world in search of unique films to bring to Seattle’s annual film event.

Audiences can enjoy the results through June 11, as the Seattle International Film Festival showcases 400 films from 80 countries, in 16 different theaters.

SIFF’s 43rd festival presents films from countries all over the world showcasing a spectrum of subject matter, genres, styles and budgets.

The “The Big Sick,” has Hollywood names attached. The film is about how actor, podcast host and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) met his wife. It was directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow and picked up by Amazon Studios for $12 million for distribution rights.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s “Bad Black,” a Ugandan action movie about a crime boss who must take on an ”army of police.” The film was made in Wakaliga, a slum in Uganda. Director Isaac Nabwana’s films are generally made with less than a $200 budget.

How does SIFF manage to capture a mix of commercial films like “The Big Sick” and “Bad Black?” Months of review, travel and lobbying.

“All year I keep my eyes out for films,” said Maryna Ajaja, a senior programmer for SIFF.

The programming team also is intentionally inclusive. This year at SIFF, the New Directors Competition will feature ten films, with five directed by men and five directed by women. In mainstream Hollywood, women directed only about 7 percent of the top 250 films of 2015.

“We’re thinking of diversity, representation, LGBTQ people, women and African American representation,” Ajaja said.

Ajaja is responsible for finding films for the festival from Eastern, central Europe and central Asia — 28 countries in total. She travels to film festivals in Berlin, the Czech Republic and Poland.

“Last year I traveled a lot,” Ajaja said. “I was on a jury for the Riga Film Festival in Latvia.”

Once she identifies potential films to show at SIFF, Ajaja sends the films to a programming team and the films are stored in SIFF’s online database.

She works with a team of about 20 – an impressive exercise in collaboration when there can be so many different opinions and interests at the table.

“We lobby for our films that we love and care about. This means winning some battles and losing some,” Ajaja said.

“As a team you have to learn to fight good battles and give up the ones for a greater good, sometimes I have to give up on a film that I really like.”

Ajaja has listed 10 of her favorites in this year’s festival and lobbied particularly hard for “Zoology,” a Russian film about a woman who grows a tail. and who works as a secretary in the administration of a zoo.

When Ajaja is screening films she says that she can generally tell within the first five minutes if it will be good.

“I’m always looking for the first shot. Why should I see a person’s foot in the first shot if that foot isn’t going to be removed later?” said Ajaja, chuckling. “It’s like the first sentence of an essay.”

Looking back over the 20 years that she has worked at SIFF, Ajaja recounted a Georgian film called “The Color of Pomegranates” directed by Sergei Parajanov.

“There was a huge crowd for it and I was just overjoyed,” said Ajaja. “It is a fascinating story, the director was imprisoned for being gay around the ’50s. His films are phenomenal.”

Going to SIFF

The SIFF website has helpful resources about when and where the films are shown and a page to explore what films are available at the festival.

By the numbers

The United States has the most films at at SIFF. France has the number two spot with 25 feature films.



Countries from the Middle East together have ten films at SIFF, three of which are from Iran. Israel, Palestine and Turkey also are represented at SIFF.


Correction: An editing error resulted in an incomplete sentence. This has been corrected.