Jul 21, 2021
Today on the show Crystal is joined by Vivian Hua, Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum. They discuss Vivian’s path to leadership in the film forum, Vivian’s remarkable film Searching Skies which explores the Syrian refugee experience during a holiday dinner in America, supporting emerging artists through the pandemic, and the need to have long-term cultural spaces available to artists.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum Vivian Hua, on Instagram at @hellomynameisvee, and find the Northwest Film Forum on Twitter at @nwfilmforum. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Learn more about the Northwest Film Forum: https://nwfilmforum.org/
Watch Vivan’s film, Searching Skies: https://vimeo.com/208980578
Find the Office of Arts and Culture’s Cultural Space program: https://www.seattle.gov/arts/programs/cultural-space
See all of Vivian’s work: https://vivianhua.com/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I'm very excited to have Vivian Hua, the Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum, joining us. Thank you for being here.
[00:01:00] Vivian Hua: Hi, thanks for the invite.
[00:01:02] Crystal Fincher: Hey. Yeah, absolutely. So I'm a big fan - I've been a big fan for a long, long time. Everything you do is exciting and dynamic. So I just want to back up a little bit and some people may not be familiar with the Northwest Film Forum, so what is it? What do you do? And what's your purpose?
[00:01:21] Vivian Hua: Oh, deep question. What is our purpose? So Northwest Film Forum is a nonprofit cinema and community hub, we are coming up on 26 years. Last year it was our 25th anniversary. We're located in the heart of Capitol Hill. We were within the perimeters of CHOP - lucky us - and we do everything from education for youth and adults, to exhibition for independent filmmakers and also national and international art house cinema titles. We do fiscal sponsorship for filmmakers and art galleries and community groups so that people can help fundraise through our nonprofit arm. Yeah, we kind of do everything. Basically if you make an independent film in Seattle, you probably have some touchpoint with the Film Forum or it would be helpful for you.
[00:02:13] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. And I first met you on a panel, actually, shortly after you became the Executive Director, I think. And what was really exciting to me, it was that one, I had just watched one of your films and it was incredible and just excellent. So just like, wow and all of your talent personally. But also you had so many plans just to make sure that the Northwest Film Forum was accessible to everyone in the community, that you were really representing voices throughout the community. And that seemed like it was, if not a different direction, then certainly an expansion on that prior to your tenure. How did come about for you?
[00:03:00] Vivian Hua: Yeah. So it's definitely, I think, an expansion that has warped up in speed since I've come on. So the person before me, Courtney Sheehan, had already been shifting the organization into a direction that was more welcoming for more types of people. And I was working there as a graphic designer when she was the Executive Director. So it was really much carrying on what she had already started, and being the organization's first executive director of color, I think definitely helped change it a lot.
In addition to my leadership team, which also includes our Managing Director, Chris Day, and our artistic director, Rana San, who is also a woman of color. And so the combination of things really, I think, has allowed for the community to see that we are not just like saying the words, but that we are more living the actions that we want to see and also elevating people of color to positions where they can actually make decisions, which has really made, I would say all the difference, at least in the beginning. And then now I think the reputation of Film Forum has just changed pretty significantly in the perspective of the wider community. I hear a lot of people coming to me, especially people of color, being like we never effed with the Film Forum before, we never thought we were welcome in the Film Forum before, and now it seems different. So that's really exciting. And it's nice to see that people think that it's a space for them at this point.
[00:04:39] Crystal Fincher: It is very exciting. You are very exciting. How did you - what was your path to becoming the Executive Director? You said you were a graphic designer there before. How did you make that leap? How did you get in the place where you're just like, yeah, this should be me?
[00:04:59] Vivian Hua: I didn't really. What happened was there was a job opening when Courtney was leaving and I didn't think about applying at all, but I wrote a bunch of people I knew and was like, Hey, if anyone knows of any people of color or women who would be a cool boss for me, let me know. And multiple people wrote back and texted me and were like, dude, this sounds like you, why don't want you to apply? I was like, why don't I apply? And then there's a lot of dismantling of personal expectations of what I thought a) I was and b) who usually thinks of themselves as an Executive Director position and being like, well, regardless of historically who has attained that role, the skillsets listed here are totally in line with my life experience. So why not just try, and then I tried after the application process had already begun, and it just ended up happening.
[00:06:01] Crystal Fincher: Yes, and I love it and I've heard you tell that story before. And to me that is so representative of so many of our experiences - particularly as non-white men - an opportunity comes by and I have seen so many of my friends and I've done it before too, just be like, "Hey, do you know anyone who would be great for this?" And then we reply like - You. You are actually the person who would be great for it. And you do have to be like, wait, okay. Part of the issue is we haven't seen people like us in these leadership positions - running things. We're constantly highlighted in the support roles, but never in the role we're driving everything and the one ultimately in control. And so I was just - felt that story resonate with me just going through that whole emotional thing and having to break that down, talk to yourself and be like, no, I can and I should. And now here you are here. And an example of why we all need to deconstruct that because just look - and you're thriving. So I guess on the way to that, backing up even before that, what was your path just as a filmmaker, a writer, a community organizer - what brought you to the point where you were even at the Film Forum and making film?
[00:07:22] Vivian Hua: Very meandering. So I was working in the music industry for a really long time, running a publication called REDEFINE from 2005 to 2018. And it was kind of like my side hustle, so I would work a normal job like doing freelance graphic design and then side job - music journalism. And then in 2018, I was fed up with the music industry. And I also in 2012 had this "voice of God burning bush moment," really - it was a very clear spiritual mandate for me about pursuing filmmaking. So I just followed that and just didn't know what it meant at first, did a lot of random things like live projections for bands to try and figure out my path there. And a series of circumstances led me to LA, led me to school briefly, and then making that film you saw, which is Searching Skies. And Searching Skies resulted in me being introduced to the former Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum, who were starting a national campaign around anti-Islamophobia stuff, because it was around the time of the Muslim Ban. And it was just like a series of very fortunate circumstances where they were organizing this national screening campaign around - basically combining film screening with film discussion - to be able to talk about this very important issue at the time and I happened to be in-between jobs. So I started being an organizer, just on my own, as a filmmaker. And eventually got a job in Film Forum doing graphic design due to that project and just a cascading ball of events, really.
[00:09:08] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And just that film and that conversation that I was able to hear and just witness was incredible. And just things that some people are new to in terms of conversations, or were in some ways sometimes turning a corner, but other times very obviously not turning a corner in issues like representation and authenticity in film. In your film, you took representation very seriously. How did you go about that?
[00:09:41] Vivian Hua: Yeah, so my film was about a Syrian refugee family that goes to an American family's house for Christmas dinner and the conversations for and against their presence while they were there. It's partially based off an anecdote a friend told me about what happened during his family Christmas dinner. And then my cast was - I basically centered it from the perspective of a white male antihero in the film, because I felt like I couldn't fully represent it from the Syrian refugee side. But everyone knows more the experience of a white male because of the society that we're living in. But I did cast Syrian refugees - people who had been refugees from Syria and were native Arabic speakers - in those roles, and they helped me co-write some parts of the script or helped edit it. And they were basically like, oh, we don't even need to play a role. This is like actually us in our lived experience, which was fascinating. But I couldn't have done it without them, honestly, in the way that it came off as an authentic portrayal.
[00:10:47] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. I think that definitely had a lot to do with it, and your openness to working with others whose experiences you were trying to represent on the screen definitely came through. How does that inform your leadership at the Northwest Film Forum and the perspective that you have there?
[00:11:09] Vivian Hua: Yeah, it's interesting now because I actually don't think I would make that film now. I think the conversation around representation has evolved even since 2017 in a way that even though at the time, I feel like I very much did go through the steps that I felt like were important to have authentic representation, that probably right now the story I want to tell is more from my own experience and I think that's the trend that we see. And I think what's important now is not just the representation on-screen for different communities, but that those communities themselves are empowered to make those films, and have the resources and faith put in them, and the crew and this training to be able to make that. So that's like what I'm really more interested in at this point - like great, anyone can write a story and you see actually now a trend of non-BIPOC people writing stories with BIPOC because they know that now representation is important. But often you look at the voice of those characters and you're just like, oh no, it shouldn't - no, that doesn't seem right at all. So yeah - we've done that for a long time and I don't think that there wasn't a place for that at some point in time, but I think the conversation has evolved so far beyond that at this point, where now it's just like, okay, just let those communities tell their own stories because it's been so long since they've been able to do that.
[00:12:40] Crystal Fincher: So what I find interesting is how you try and help that process through the Film Forum. You talked about, Hey, a lot of independent filmmakers, especially in the region, are either aware of you now - you're certainly on their radar. You can be or have been helpful. What is it that you do?
[00:13:06] Vivian Hua: What is it that we do? Let's see. It's a lot of - there's so many facets to it, I think. So there's the training aspect - so we have, for instance, a mentorship program or where you have people - your clients pay for both a mentor on-set and a mentee who - to get paid - and so the mentees who don't have much experience are able to have paid gigs and get that experience. So I think training is one huge thing, especially because there's so many BIPOC people who have, up to a certain degree - a very self-taught, very amazing - like I, but maybe just haven't gotten to that next level because they haven't been given the opportunity. So I think that kind of connection and mentorship is super important and super needed right now.
And also just community building. We have this weekly BIPOC happy hour for a long time, but people just get together weekly to be in community with one another and to talk about some of their challenges, but also their joy is that being BIPOC filmmakers. And for a lot of people, even though I talk about this all day long - like equity and diversity - a lot of BIPOC people feel very isolated in that and feel like they don't have a place to go to be able to even see other people going through similar struggles. So that's another role. We've done that both locally and throughout the pandemic - worked with the national hub of partners that are similar and had national conversations. And it's interesting because after those convos, we always feel so empowered and supported by one another and want to go out and - I think a lot of the current trend is really empowering some of these organizations to do what they need to do and support that rather than trying to change an existing system. So I think there's a role for both of that, and I feel like we're exploring both of that with Film Forum and also personally.
[00:15:08] Crystal Fincher: And that's exciting, and has been exciting feedback that I've heard, and that I think is instructive for people - whether they're in the arts or not in the arts, whatever spaces people are in - it's that working with different communities who may not be part of the existing system - the answer is not necessarily to integrate them into the existing system and make them fit into this cookie cutter role and space where people have their own spaces that they are creating. And really figuring out how to help that space flourish, as opposed to saying, no, that's not the right kind of space. You're not doing it right here. Do it just like these other people are doing it over here. So I appreciate that. And I think that shows in the work that you do, the work that you showcase. So in terms of the work that you're showcasing, what have been some of the events or festivals that you've put on?
[00:16:14] Vivian Hua: Yeah, so we're going to return to our physical space in late September and we're kicking that off with our Local Sightings Film Festival, which is our annual Pacific Northwest Film and Media Maker Festival. And that's, I think, one of the things that has changed pretty significantly in the recent past. It's become a point where even in programming, we don't need to try to prioritize BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people only. We've basically been looking at the types of films that have come our way and chosen what we feel like are the most authentic or the most interesting storytelling often, or stories we're not hearing elsewhere. And it just naturally has become - I don't know if it's the changing demographic of people who are applying, or just these communities are making better work, or more visibly putting it out there in ways that they hadn't before. It might be all of those things. But that festival has now been just really strong Pacific Northwest regional programming that happens to be overwhelmingly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and women and et cetera. And that's really exciting for me.
And we also just also had a Collective Power Fund, which is our new grant. We now offer a grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the applicants for that have also been extremely diverse and it's been really rewarding to be able to put money in the pocket of artists in a pandemic time when so many people aren't working and to also create systems where we can offer them - we're offering artists support services in addition to just the money. So like a physical show in a gallery space and headshots and a video interview. Just things that emerging artists could really stand to have, but maybe don't have the resources to have themselves without support. So those are just a couple of the things I'm excited about.
[00:18:24] Crystal Fincher: I'm very very excited about it, and have been excited just even about the online program that you've had throughout the pandemic and keeping things rolling. Looking at - you talk about you're not just an Executive Director, you're not just a filmmaker - you have a history as a community organizer. How does that play into your leadership and how you live your mission and purpose both personally and then in your role at the Northwest Film Forum?
[00:19:02] Vivian Hua: I think for me, the separation between work and life has never been - it's just never that different. I feel like ethically, they just need to be aligned or I'm just not in a happy place. And I know that not everyone functions that way, but for me, it's a very obvious thing. So what we're doing at the Film Forum is very much an extension, I think always, of my personal values. And so, yeah - the two are indistinguishable. So I think the organizing principles and things that ground my thought in general, we try to incorporate into the Film Forum. Not just because it's me either, because honestly at this point, I would say most if not all of the staff - I think all of the staff is really aligned with that kind of value and that radical approach and community care centered approach to being an arts organization, and constantly trying to better ourselves, and figure out where we're falling short, and improving where we can is very much ingrained into the mentality of people who work on our team. Because we're not that big of a team too, so we talk about this stuff a lot. We talk about this stuff in meetings, every meeting almost - like how we can address equity and accessibility issues. So yeah - I don't know if I answered your question - maybe?
[00:20:27] Crystal Fincher: No, no you did. I think that's good. Through that and even - it just makes me think about how people talk about art as this entity that's separate from life a lot of times and it's just like, it's a luxury. It's something apart from the reality that we're dealing with every day. And how do you respond to - both in thought and through work - to people who are just, who think that art doesn't have anything to do with what we're living with day to day and that it's just this detached thing and doesn't influence or reflect or impact the many challenges that we see in our communities and society today.
[00:21:15] Vivian Hua: That's such a great question. And this is something I think about actually a lot. Everyone, not everyone, but most people listen to music or watch films and they're such a crucial component of their lives, yet somehow we don't prioritize artists. It just makes no sense. And it's such an extractive, problematic relationship that the public at large has with artists. It's like gentrification - you take the best of what is available from these creative, like communities with "culture", and then you just take advantage of it. And I don't think it's a surprise that - I think there is a connection there in terms of the way that capitalism plays out and certain groups are made to benefit at the expense of other groups, et cetera. But I think if we really thought about it, it's obviously very intertwined with our daily lives. And I think that does require a fundamental shift in just what society values. And if people just took more time to reflect on the benefits that they get from art of various kinds, I think it would be probably clearer to them.
[00:22:32] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, just that kind of disconnect. I remember near the beginning of the pandemic when various aid packages were being discovered and people - in one statement, would be talking about the movies they were about to binge and the music they were listening to and like getting new playlists set up and new movie queues, and then being like, why do we need to help out artists? What did they have to do with anything? Real people need real support with real problems. It's like what do you think you're using to get through this time, homey?
Just that kind of a disconnect that plays throughout, and that is concerning with many theaters having problems. I mean, many artists, as you talked about, have been struggling hard and were barely making it before the pandemic and then the opportunity to work dried up for so many people. What do you think is going to be helpful as things start to open up again in terms of venues, more opportunity - what is going to be helpful in terms of the community supporting and for artists themselves to get back to a place where more of the community is healthy and productive and supported?
[00:23:50] Vivian Hua: Yeah, I think on one level, following up on your previous question - I think really it would be helpful for people to understand where the artists that they love come from and the history of like - you look at the Fast and the Furious franchise, for instance - this is just an extreme example, but it's such a huge hit. But that guy didn't come out as a blockbuster filmmaker. That's not his roots. He started as an independent filmmaker. So there's all these filmmakers that if you trace back, they're just normal people living normal lives and they happen to make it. And I wish that relationship was more obvious.
And long-term, I just think about space a lot and space for artists to live, work, exhibit - all that is threatened right now. And in this time where space is actually quite available, but the arts communities does not have the money to purchase that space. And most likely it'll just end up - unless someone intervenes and gives people a lot of money to purchase space for art - it's probably just going to end up for corporate interests. And that, I find, is extremely frustrating, and I think artists are going to continue to be priced out and arts organizations - a lot of them closed during the pandemic. I think there is this huge need for there to be long-term cultural space creation and preservation if we care about our arts institutions. I talk about this a lot. I really think that space is really the answer in a city like Seattle.
[00:25:25] Crystal Fincher: So from a policy perspective, would you recommend the City purchase more space, or reserve more space specifically for art? What does that look like from a policy perspective?
[00:25:35] Vivian Hua: Absolutely. Yeah, and I mean, the Office of Arts and Culture started this thing called the Cultural Space Agency. So it's a PDA - it's a public development authority, which allows them to fundraise through government entities and also like a non-profit. And also - there are lots of fundraising in many different avenues and the whole point of that was so they can purchase cultural space and leverage City resources towards it. Unfortunately the pandemic set it back a little bit, but it did get launched. And now there's people on the advisory committee and it's sort of forming. But it does need capital behind it. And that's the part that got slashed a bit and needs to be funded moving forward. But the idea is that - with this agency, one nonprofit arts organization doesn't need to have the money right away if a property comes up. The agency can purchase it first, and then we can figure out from there how it goes. But more things like that I think are really important. I do know there's some money that has been recently allocated to artists as emergency funding, post pandemic, which is actually rare and exciting. I don't know details enough to speak about it, but I'm glad there's at least a little bit of movement and awareness policy-wise.
[00:26:52] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, so am I, and I would just urge people to continue to make sure that these elements of our community that are essential to us being a community and developing as whole healthy people and neighborhoods and communities within our cities - it requires the arts, it really is not an optional thing. And so we have to treat it as an essential necessity, like we do so many other things - from education and school, arts education should never be optional or viewed as an elective. It is essential to developing whole children, this is essential to developing whole communities. As we are wrapping up with just a few minutes left to go, looking forward - what do you see as far as where the Northwest Film Forum is going and where independent film, especially community-based, is heading?
[00:27:55] Vivian Hua: I think Film Forum is definitely continuing to go in the direction that we are and trying to also come from a place that prioritizes filmmakers in some way. So this year is our first year where we're paying participants in our film festivals, which actually - it sounds pretty basic, but it is not a thing that happens. For most film festivals, filmmakers dish out so much money to submit their films to festivals and then they get really - the idea is you only get the publicity or whatever. And we're not giving a ton of money, but we think structurally, it's just an important step forward to do that and to do more of that. So always figuring out if we're inviting someone to the table - how are we compensating them, and investing more resources in that.
And also other shortcomings that we feel like we have, which are around accessibility and being more mindful and also more public about that. And I think another initiative that Film Forum recently did, which I think also is speaking to where we think our role in the future is, is we committed to donating 2% of all of our proceeds to the Duwamish Tribe, on whose lands we are on, being a Seattle-based organization. And that's just something we felt with our Board and staff that was very important to do. And we want to see more of that. So in some ways we want to do some of the behaviors that we would like to see other people to do with us, and trying to be a leader in action really, rather than just saying words. Because a lot of people know how to say the words right now, but where can we do the things that we want to see?
[00:29:44] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely agree. And I think that's one of the most important aspects of leadership. I appreciate you taking that. I think that that's something that we all, in whatever spaces that we're in and whatever influence that we have, we have to look at how are we demonstrating through our actions, the values that we're saying we uphold. Because I mean, man, there's a lot of talk. There's a lot of talk everywhere, especially in "progressive Seattle", but being an ally is a verb. Being progressive, for as much as that word is used, it's a verb. It's about what you're doing, not a state of being. So more of us, I think, just continually need to examine what we are doing to embody the change and the condition that we say that we are striving to bring forth. So how, if people want to get involved with the Film Forum, how can they do that?
[00:30:45] Vivian Hua: Our website's at nwfilmforum.org. We have some job openings right now, we also always have internship or volunteer opportunities, especially as we're opening up. So if people want to work with us, keep your eyes peeled because there's a lot of jobs coming up.
[00:31:02] Crystal Fincher: Excellent. And then people can also become members too, correct?
[00:31:05] Vivian Hua: They can become members. Thank you for selling the membership for me.
[00:31:08] Crystal Fincher: I'm a member.
[00:31:11] Vivian Hua: Thank you. Yeah, membership gets you - once we're open - fat discounts on gear rental and also tickets and popcorn and all the things that people love and workshops. So it's definitely a nice community thing to be a member.
[00:31:27] Crystal Fincher: It is a nice community thing to be a member of - I appreciate it, I appreciate you. And thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
[00:31:34] Vivian Hua: Thank you. I appreciate you as well.
[00:31:38] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.