The first thing you should know about Michael Seiwerath is that his name is pronounced sigh-wrath. The second, third, and fourth things you should know about him are that he's tall and rather gangly, married and the father of two, and tends to speak... very... slowly.
Then there's the matter of his secret: "If there's a room full of movie nuts," he says, "I'm still the one in the corner who knows the least about movies." Coming from the head of an arts organization like the Northwest Film Forum, such a statement runs the risk of smacking of false humility. Seiwerath, however, is merely being honest. When pressed, the first film he remembers seeing is that oft-labeled cinema-as-art killer Star Wars; dig a little deeper, and you'll discover that it wasn't until the relatively tardy age of his mid-20s that the film medium first fully revealed itself to him as an art form. The film that sparked his evolution: The 400 Blows. "It just had this raw, ecstatic energy to it," he says of François Truffaut's film. "[Cinema] just opened itself wide for me."
While Seiwerath's specific film knowledge may still relegate him to the corner of the room, his passion for the art form—especially in regard to building a vital filmmaking community here in Seattle—is limitless. Now a decade old, the Northwest Film Forum, under Seiwerath's direction (he joined the organization in 1996, and was promoted to executive director in 2000), has blossomed into the leading film organization in the city, offering not just screenings of underappreciated and little-seen films, but also hands-on training, equipment rentals, and outright film production. The organization moved into a glorious new space a year ago; its membership has doubled in the last 12 months; and its most recent Start-to-Finish production, Police Beat, made a previously pipe-dreamy leap this past January to land a spot in the Sundance Film Festival.
That invite to Park City was, by all accounts, a big deal—a coming-out party of sorts for the organization. But Seiwerath remains suitably philosophical about the hullabaloo. "When you go with a film to Sundance," he says, "you realize you're on the lowest rung of a really big ladder." This levelheadedness is an important trait, one recognized and appreciated by those who know and work with Seiwerath. As Robinson Devor, director of Police Beat, puts it: "His personality is first and foremost his biggest asset. He's completely unflappable. He's a guy who can be extremely aggressive in a great way."
While part of Seiwerath's success as executive director certainly stems from that unflappableness, it's his encompassing vision for NWFF that may be the biggest reason the organization is thriving while others are floundering. "Michael directs one of the country's unique arts organizations and the city's only independent cinematheque like a collaborative work of art," says Peter Lucas, NWFF's special programs curator. "From a small film group, he has a created a place where filmmakers, performers, curators, and critics all mingle and merge." This idea is boiled down by Seiwerath himself, who says, "Film may be the medium, but for me it's all about the community of creative people."
Much of the admiration Seiwerath has earned within the Seattle arts community is due to the respect he offers the artists themselves. Says Devor: "I felt I wanted to do something unique and different [with Police Beat] and Michael was very supportive in a way that someone who was leading a project might not be. He's very artist friendly and let me feel like I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do creatively. He won't allow a filmmaker to be censored during the development process."
Jaime Keeling, program director for NWFF, continues the gushing: "Michael deserves this city's love and respect for his unwavering commitment to the integrity of the film arts, which, against the odds, gave the city its first proper cinematheque and a home for its filmmakers."
That last part—a home for its filmmakers—is why Seiwerath is worthy of acclaim, cash, and the title of Genius. Filmmakers, perhaps more than other artists, are reliant upon a strong foundation from which to build—a foundation that Seattle, despite its insatiable appetite for watching movies, has never really provided. "I'd love to see filmmaking here have a distinct Northwest voice," Seiwerath says. And to that end he, along with everyone else who works and volunteers for NWFF, is actively building the kind of foundation Seattle's filmmakers need. The most impressive thing is that everyone involved is doing it for, and with, very little money (and in the case of the volunteers, no money)—which only attests to Seiwerath's leadership. His ability to attract and inspire talented people is key to NWFF's survival and a major reason why the organization has been able to accomplish so much with so little these past 10 years. Continually running on the cheap, NWFF's work goes beyond its flashiest effort—the impressive Start-to-Finish program, the goal of which is to produce an original film every year—to lend help to artists during every facet of the filmmaking process, from scribblings on the page to final edits. The results are speaking for themselves: Of the NWFF's 850 members, 250 are currently working on various film projects, the combined efforts of which should produce, be they shorts or full-fledged features, about 80 films. For a city that offers shamefully little support to its filmmaking community, that number is nothing short of remarkable.
Seiwerath, however, isn't one to bask lazily in the rosy hue of success. The next decade of NWFF is already being charted, beginning with a bit of housekeeping. "We get paid a lot less than in other organizations around the city," Seiwerath admits. "Raising salaries is a big priority." Also on the agenda are continued screenings and retrospectives in the organization's two theaters, along with the next Start-to-Finish production, titled #2, written and directed by last year's Stranger Film Genius Award recipient David Russo. Then there are the long-term plans, the ones Seiwerath is hesitant to fully cop to in front of his interviewer—plans involving words like "network" and "distribution," "exhibition" and "venue standards."
Seiwerath even has plans for another beloved local organization: "I'd love for the Seattle International Film Festival to announce that in five years its opening night film will be a local film," he says. "I think that would be a huge thing for local filmmaking." He's right, of course—and with his continuing efforts, along with the energy and talent of the hundreds of volunteers and donors he's attracted to the cause, SIFF will hopefully be able to make that promise one day. Then maybe Seattle will be known not just as a city that watches movies, but one that makes them as well.