While a junior at Ballard High School, Jesse Harris convinced his parents to let him use his college savings to make a feature film. He had been making little detective films with the neighborhood kids since he was 8 years old, and he said he could learn more about professional filmmaking through making a feature rather than attending film school.
He finished his film, “Living Life,” in his senior year, and found a distributor for it just before graduation.
“It was kind of a random release,” Harris admitted, “but what came out of it was that all these young filmmakers started contacting me, and I got the idea for a young people’s film festival.”
NFFTY (National Film Festival for Talented Youth) began with a one-night festival in 2007 that was put together by Harris, Jocelyn R. C. and Kyle Seago. In 2008, it expanded to a three-day festival, with 73 films and 1,800 attendees. By 2011, NFFTY featured 225 films shown over four-days, attracting 8,500 patrons.
This year’s festival, which runs from April 26 through 29, will screen 222 films, chosen from more than 700 submissions, at the Uptown Theatre, with an opening night gala at the Cinerama.
The selection process for the films began with on open call for filmmakers age 22 and younger to upload their films to a secure Internet site, where they were viewed by at least two of the 30 to 40 pre-screeners dispersed throughout the world.
Then Harris and one other person viewed all the entries and made the festival selections, dividing hem into thematic categories for each 90-minute program. Themes this year include “Sex, Lies and Angst,” “Modern Grit,” “Late-Night Adrenaline,” “NW Scene” and “Bring the Kids.”
Many of the films tell stories based around the expected coming-of-age issues, but there are also several personal and powerful documentaries. “Look Who’s Driving” details the processes and challenges of a young Afghan woman getting her driver’s license. ”Finding Benjamin” follows the travails of a man with neither memory nor identity, who was found beat up and bloodied behind a Burger King. Other outstanding films include “Da Capo” and Shuffleboard Kings.”
“This year boasts the best selection of films we’ve ever had,” Harris enthused. “The technology is so much more accessible now that it has become easier to make a film that looks technically good. Also, there is more access, through such things as DVD extras, to learning about the filmmaking process. Then, of course, festivals like NFFTY put filmmakers in touch with one another, so they can learn from each other.”
That is one of the reasons why 200 filmmakers from around the world are coming to Seattle this month for NFFTY. It is not just for the opportunity to show their films but to meet other young people who are engaged in the same kind of work.
“It is a global support system,” Harris said. “I sure didn’t have anything like this when I was starting out.”
For University of Washington graduate Champ Esminger, whose film “Tonal” was the 2011 Audience Winner for Best Experimental Film, the festival exceeded his expectations.
“The most exciting thing about it was the chance to was the chance to show my work to an audience in a screening situation, rather than anonymously over the Internet,” he said.
Harris attributes the rapid growth of festival to the fact that there was a need for it.
“There are a ton of filmmakers out there that have been ready and waiting for a festival like this to which they could submit their work,” he said. “Attendance has doubled for the same reason. People hear about it through word-of-mouth and are blown away by how good the films are.”
One of the most encouraging things about the attendance is that 65 percent of the audience is under age 25. “You don’t usually see people in this age group attending film festivals,” Harris said.
This year, NFFTY also includes a Future of Film Expo on Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at the Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall.
“We realized we have the attending filmmakers and the audience, so why not create a resource for them? So we came up with this two-day event in the middle of the festival,” Jesse explained of the expo. “It features technology companies with booths, and both a main stage and smaller lounge with programs on film happening all day long. It is free, open to the public, and both filmmakers and film enthusiasts will find plenty of interest there.”
NFFTY is also working on establishing a year-round presence, running general workshops, as well as offering intensive classes on specific things like cinematography and editing.
“We are targeting disadvantaged or low-income neighborhoods where there are talented people but a lack of equipment available at their schools,” Harris said.
Seattle’s festival has been instrumental in jump-starting the careers of many young filmmakers who might otherwise have languished. Several films that received their first screenings at NFFTY have gone on to receive other showings at SXSW and other festivals. A few of the filmmakers have even gone on to make features. Anthony O’ Brien, who won the Jury Award for his 2009 film, recently completed a multimillion dollar film shot in Romania called “Timber.”
So when you go to the festival this year, keep your ears pricked and your eyes wide open. You never know when the next Orson Welles might break through the despondency of the times to initiate a new golden age.
BILL WHITE was a regular contributor to the arts section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise in 2009. He most recently was the film critic for Seattle PostGlobe. E-mail him at email@example.com.