On a recent bright fall afternoon, hints of September's Local Sightings Film Festival decorated the inside lobby of a darkened Northwest Film Forum. After nearly 18 months of closure, the beloved local cinema and nonprofit just reopened its doors to the public. And now, three of the organization's leaders—Vivian Hua, Christopher Day, and Rana San—gathered in the space with me to discuss the next big chapter in the Film Forum’s history.
In January 2022, Hua will step down as executive director of Northwest Film Forum after three years in the position. They guided the arts nonprofit through one of the most turbulent times in history, during which the Film Forum managed to quickly pivot to virtual screenings, support the local movement for Black Lives Matter, and put on 25 film festivals. Now headed into a new capital campaign phase, Hua said they feel like it’s a good moment to shift gears personally and professionally.
“I have always felt the pull between being both an artist and an arts administrator, and those decisions in my life are always dictated by intuition and the needs of one's deeper self,” Hua told me. "Now is a time where I feel strongly that I need to focus on my creative projects and shift my focus toward the environmental and sustainability space.”
Trained as a filmmaker with a background in arts journalism and internet governance, Hua started at the Film Forum as a graphic designer before becoming executive director in 2018. During their three years in the position, Hua received a Mayor's Film Award and became the Co-Chair of Seattle Arts Commission. While the "executive director" job title connotes a hierarchical leadership structure, Hua's tenure saw a shift back toward the Film Forum's roots as a film collective with an eye on uplifting the marginalized and rooting out structural oppression.
Along with managing director Christopher Day and artistic director Rana San, the trio formed a horizontal leadership structure that they said helped the Film Forum reach new heights. While a traditional model would see responsibilities placed on one person, their collaborative approach allowed staff to play to each other’s strengths. The move significantly increased the capacity and reach of the organization.
“There's a lot of crossover between the things that we do, which I think helps us to be able to ease the burden at times that otherwise might fall just on one person's shoulders,” said San. “So I keep thinking about this idea of D.I.Y., and I want to be so bold as to suggest D.I.T.—do it together.”
It's that D.I.T. ethos that served the Film Forum well in the first moments of the coronavirus pandemic. After Washington state shut down theaters as part of its COVID-19 response in March 2020, Hua said the first thing they discussed with Day was keeping as many people on staff as possible. The Film Forum eventually moved everyone down to part-time to make space on payroll and retained all of its workers for the first six months of the pandemic.
The Film Forum staff then faced the humongous task of shifting their in-person programming to the virtual world in a short amount of time. Within days, Hua, Day, San, and crew managed to do just that, moving the 2020 ByDesign Film Festival and Cadence Festival to an online-only format.
These changes set off a new era for the Film Forum as its programming seemingly exploded in a time when COVID marooned most people at home. Hua said their success with going virtual so early in the pandemic made them a natural conduit for smaller film festivals that didn't have the bandwidth to navigate pivoting into streaming themselves. Thus their virtual space mirrored their physical one—a gathering place for diverse communities to come together and watch film.
"We were just a resource for the community," said Hua. "That's kind of why we ended up doing so many [film festivals] because we were there."
The Film Forum's relentless advocacy for social justice causes has distinguished them from other local, independently-run cinemas during the pandemic. Hua’s tenure pushed the Film Forum into an increasingly political space that actively supported Black Lives Matter and Indigenous communities in the area.
Last summer, the Film Forum went into action during the protests in Seattle that condemned police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Rather than remove themselves from the national conversation surrounding Seattle's protests, and bolstered by the fact that the space is in Capitol Hill Organized Protest's (CHOP) borders, Hua said that everyone on staff believed the organization's support for the movement was "necessary."
In early June, Day spent a lot of his time backing up livestreams of the protest and has amassed, he said, a "very large archive" of the streams, which the org has held onto. The Film Forum also got in touch with streamers to coordinate giving them supplies like batteries and stabilization rigs to sustain them through the protests.
As CHOP formed, the Film Forum opened up its space to store mutual aid supplies and provided a place for filmmakers documenting the movement to have a home base to rest and charge up. Day said the Film Forum "tried our best to help those who were doing a tremendous amount of work on the ground documenting this incredibly important thing."
And this year, the Film Forum announced it will donate 2% of its proceeds to the Duwamish Tribe through Real Rent Duwamish. Hua told me the move was born out of their personal feelings around Seattleites' proclivity to recite land acknowledgments without any actionable follow-up to support Indigenous people.
The Film Forum's staff and board committed to Hua's idea to share proceeds with the Duwamish—a tribe that has still not received federal recognition—and implemented the practice in May 2021. As of September, it has given over $860 to Real Rent Duwamish. The nonprofit plans to continue this practice for the foreseeable future.
Notably, during Hua's time in the executive director's chair, the Film Forum has received greater national recognition. For two years running, Sundance Film Festival has partnered with the Film Forum as one of the only satellite venues for the festival in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts announced that the Film Forum would join its Regional Regranting Program to distribute $70,000 in COVID-19 artist relief funding. And following the death of the celebrated local filmmaker Lynn Shelton in 2020, the Film Forum partnered with Duplass Brothers Productions to create the Of a Certain Age Grant for women, non-binary, and trans first-time directors over the age of 39.
Under Hua, the Film Forum has also expanded to employ more staff and increased its annual operating budget, cementing its status in the city during a time of uncertainty. Looking back over their three years in the position, Hua said they feel most proud of the horizontal leadership structure as well as expanding the Film Forum's audience to serve a diverse range of communities that perhaps didn't feel the space reflected them.
"Hands down, the number of people who have come to me and been like, ‘I didn't feel like the Film Forum was a place for me before and now I feel welcome here.’ That no doubt is like my biggest accomplishment," said Hua. "And I think that it is a team accomplishment, but I think having a person of color like me in this position, like was a signal for a lot of people."
Day and San said that the Film Forum’s hunt for its next executive director will kick off soon, and they hope to have the next director in place by February 2022. Day said that their search will emphasize the horizontal leadership model furthered by Hua. "It is an executive director position, but it's not that kind of executive director position," he said.
Meanwhile, Hua is gearing up to direct Reckless Spirits in December, a short proof-of-concept film they co-wrote with Lisa Sanaye Dring that they hope to develop into a longer feature. Once their term is officially up at the Film Forum, Hua wants to hunker down and put more time into REDEFINE, a long-form arts magazine they started in 2004 to help bolster our city's waning music journalism scene. Hua also has plans to work in the environmental space in some capacity. "The world is burning!" they exclaimed.
Northwest Film Forum will host a goodbye party for Hua during their Longest Night celebration on December 21, which welcomes the Winter Solstice and happens to coincide with Hua's birthday. Though Hua is setting sail for different shores, they leave behind a more robust, more inclusive Film Forum.
"I knew from the very beginning, my goal [was] to make a Forum for all," said Hua. "It's still a work in progress—it's constantly working progress—but I think we've made really big strides in that direction.”