February 27-March 8, 2020
Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA
Children’s Film Festival Seattle (CFFS) celebrates the best and brightest in international films for children, including animation, feature length films, short films, and hands-on workshops. CFFS hopes to provide an upbeat and dynamic setting that cultivates intergenerational relationships and inspires younger generations to participate as agents of change in their local and global communities.
Festival Director Elizabeth Shepherd has been steering the festival and all its programming since the beginning. This year’s special anniversary edition will include 175 films from 44 countries, tailored for youth, families, and educators.
Picture this Post (PTP) sat down with Elizabeth Shepherd (ES) to talk about the unique joys and challenges of bringing the festival to life
PTP: The festival is celebrating 15 years. What changes have you seen in children's cinema over the years? What still excites you about children's films?
ES: I’m really happy to say that in recent years I've seen a lot of great changes in the content of international children's films. I am much less likely now to see films with offensive gender stereotypes, and I see a lot more films than I used to about strong girls, finding their way in the world. I also see films that express the experience of children of many different identities, including LGBTQ identity. This was extremely rare even five years ago, and I'm happy about the change.
On the more serious side, we now receive a lot of films about issues that our audiences will continue to grapple with as they grow up—the worldwide migration crisis and climate change, for instance.
What hasn't changed, though, is the joyful nature of many of the films in our festival, their great good humor and high quality, and their representation of inspiring stories about children from many different cultures and communities. Children can truly see themselves on the screen at Children's Film Festival Seattle and that is a really beautiful experience. It's what keeps us going.
What’s is distinctive about other cultures' children's programming, and how does it differ from standard fare in the US?
It’s really interesting to ponder that question, year after year. But every time I try to pigeonhole the type of films made in one country vs. another, I discover I'm wrong. There are so many filmmakers out there in the world, and the way they approach making films for kids is the same across many cultures. Where I do see more of a sameness is in films from the USA, perhaps due to the monoliths of Disney, Pixar, and the children's cartoon networks.
You have films from Syria, Australia, Palestine, Turkey, and so many other countries! How do you find them?
We go on a treasure hunt to find them! There is a fantastic network of international children's film festivals around the world, and we research those festivals to see which films have won prizes and are making the circuit and then invite those filmmakers to submit to our festival. Also, we get many films out of the blue through our submission process on FilmFreeway.com. Over the years, Children's Film Festival Seattle has become known as one of the best festivals of its kind in the United States, so filmmakers, distributors, and producers seek us out.
The festival caters to kids age 3-14. What kinds of films do you look for the youngest, and how do you decide what's a good fit for the older kids?
We love finding short, joyful, funny, colorful, and gentle short films for our youngest viewers—films about friendship and family, and making good choices. Many of these films are about animals, which is lovely because all small children have favorite animals. These films are a lot like picture books—short and sweet, lovely to look at, with stories that remain in your heart.
For our oldest festival-goers, we pick really challenging, issues-oriented films that will help middle-schoolers see the world and feed their minds. For the kids in the middle ages, our programming is a mix—we want kids to have a good time, but also see something they wouldn't see anyplace else. This might be a film with subtitles or a film that takes place in a country they never heard about before.
What connects all the programming is that we want all our films to have children and young people at the center of the plot—these are not films ABOUT children and kids, they are FOR children and kids. They were made for our festival audience
What are some highlights this year that festival newcomers can look forward to?
I’m so excited that we have absolutely gorgeous animation for all ages in our festival, just breathtaking stop-motion, painted and drawn animation. One of these programs—which we are showing on opening night—is called The Cat's Meow, and it is just a delightful, feline-centric program of films. Cat-lovers will love it, but so will everyone else!
Another great thing about our festival this year is that we have four separate shorts programs that are language-specific—a program of films in German, one in Spanish, one in Japanese, and one in French. These programs will be great for both native speakers and language learners.
For environmentally-conscious families, we have two shorts programs with beautiful films about the environment (For the Planet and Earthwise) as well as a feature documentary (Microplastic Madness) that shows how a brave and strong group of elementary-aged students in New York are fighting to raise awareness about the dangers of plastics in our ocean.
Another great, new thing we are doing this year is having our entire closing day take place at Rainier Arts Center, in the vibrant Columbia City neighborhood. The day will close with a beautiful documentary, Moving Stories, about a group of dancers who travel the world working with at-risk kids. We'll also have an interactive dance experience for the entire audience at that show. And one more thing: we’re going to fill our lobby with interactive fun activities, and offer some wonderful filmmaking workshops for kids who not only want to watch movies but also make them! And one MORE thing: we are just now finalizing arrangements with several international and US filmmakers to be present at the screenings of their films. It's always great to meet a filmmaker at a festival, and find out more about how the film was made!
How many films do you review to find these final selections?
We watched more than 500 films this year and wound up choosing 165 of them to show in the festival. Another 10 films came from a festival called Conscious Cartoons. We have a selection committee that includes a lot of young people, from high school age to college
a group that included our own Children's Jury graduates.
Do you see cultural differences in terms of what is seen as age-appropriate for children? young teens?
I do see differences in this regard. There is sometimes, remarkably, more light profanity that I hear in films from some European cultures more than others—though often the films are in another language and so "the word" only shows up in subtitles. I have checked with native speakers about some of these films and discovered that "the word" isn't as bad as the translation in the subtitles! (We always provide content advisories for any profanity.)
We typically don't show films with romantic content (there are rare exceptions) but some countries seem to send me more "love stories" than other countries. There are some cultures and countries, I have noticed, that have more films with sad endings, which we also work really hard to avoid at CFFS.
It's important to note again that we have really great content advisories in our programs, and we hope parents read them to understand if there is any content in the films that might be upsetting or unsettling to anyone in their families. They can always choose another program—there is truly something for everyone at CFFS!