As an immigrant, I was always puzzled by the fact that there is so little interest in America in foreign languages, and by extension in foreign movies, which leads to an absence of interest in other cultures in general. So when I married my American husband—a meat-and-potatoes guy, who never traveled outside the United States before he met me and to this day has trouble remembering any word that is not English—I was determined to bring the world culture to him, or at the very least foreign cinema.
On my quest to educate my husband, I discovered the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), which became the saving grace for my agenda. This year's festival begins May 18 and runs through June 11. As part of the festival in 2014, my husband and I went to see Jeffrey D. Brown's independent movie called Sold, about a Nepali girl who was sold into sexual slavery by her own family, which shocked us. It's hard to comprehend such a level of injustice, but "this was not a unique case," the producers told us after the movie ended. "This is the modern-day slavery spread around the world."
This story struck a chord in me. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, good-looking, desperate Eastern European ladies were a hot commodity who often fell victim to human traffickers in our region. Therefore, I was touched that the movie triggered a conversation about human trafficking between the producers and the American audience that otherwise may never have come up.
One day, I asked my husband if he had ever heard about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that happened in 1986 in the former Soviet Union. To my surprise, he said he had but could not remember much about it. To jog his memory, I took him to the next SIFF to see The Russian Woodpecker, a documentary by Chad Gracia about these events. It blew my husband's mind. For me, it was even more bizarre to watch it, because I lived just 370 miles away from the place where the radioactive clouds were covering the fields.
I had heard stories of people dying from radiation poisoning while our government was covering this up, but no Soviet newspaper dared to write about it until the Soviet Union collapsed. "This is what the absence of freedom of speech looks like," I told my husband that day, seeing this tragedy for the first time through American eyes. In a sense, watching that film was not only good for my husband, but also for me, as it brought to light details that were hidden from me while I was living behind the Iron Curtain.
It is not always gloom and doom at the film festival. We literally laughed ourselves to tears while watching the Spanish wedding drama turned comedy Family United by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, where absolutely everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and then some. In 2016, we saw the Italian drama The Complexity of Happiness by Gianni Zanasi, an uplifting story about love and betrayal, trust and distrust, all wrapped up in the sexiness of the Italian language.
SIFF has primarily been a fascinating, lovely, nonpolitical festival to me, but then Donald Trump became the president and life took a sharp turn. Now SIFF is also mon amie in my resistance to Trump's Muslim travel ban, which closed our borders to many prominent filmmakers from the Middle East. The Middle Eastern movies, to which I paid little attention before, will be on the top of my agenda at the festival this year.
Because SIFF offers year-around cinema and not just the festival, I got a jump start earlier this spring with a trip to SIFF Cinema Uptown to see the Iranian movie The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi, which won an Oscar this year for best foreign language film. A human drama about a husband dealing with the aftermath of his wife's rape in one of the most conservative countries on earth, it deepened my belief that we are not different: We love the same, we grieve the same, we forgive the same.
We, as Americans, must seek out stories from Iran and Iraq and Syria. It is good for us, and good for the country, because movies provoke awareness and compassion and can help us heal. Through SIFF, we can see beyond the hateful sentiments that Trump has unearthed recently in our society. I thank the organizers of this festival for what they do, inspiring understanding of our shared humanity in an era of chaos and fear. Vive la SIFF!