The past year has witnessed fundamental shifts for both women and film—and passing leadership in the industry from one woman to another continues to be rare. That’s why we here at The Fold were thrilled when Seattle institution, Northwest Film Forum (NWFF), named Vivian Hua as its new Executive Director this past fall. Growing up in different parts of the world, including New York, Taiwan and California, Vivian’s built a career in art and social justice, which has primed her for the challenge of driving audiences in the door while also committing to amplifying a catalog that includes films by women, people of color and the transgender community. As a co-founder of the initiative, The Seventh Art Stand —the first iteration of which was dedicated to combating Islamophobia through film screenings and discussions—Hua is dedicated to sparking dialogue and expanding community partnerships.
In a time when divisions feel more acute than ever, the exchange of stories continues to connect and change us as a society and the act of making and telling stories holds power—especially for voices that are often marginalized by the mainstream. We were excited to talk to Vivian about her own evolution into filmmaking and her insights on the ever-changing scene.
As told to Nia Martin through in-person and written interviews:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in film?
I would say that I really became myself when I went to college at University of Washington in late 2001. At the time I was focused on music and I ran a music and art publication called REDEFINE. When I started, it was still major labels only, technology hadn’t quite hit so I was doing freelance at the same time. During the recession, I moved to Portland for five years and then LA for three and a half and came back to Seattle last year. I wasn’t doing film until I moved to LA, but, when I was in Portland, I got a sense I needed to do film stuff and I had connections in the music industry, so I did a lot of live projections for bands, more video art. At that time, I turned 30 and I thought, “Well, I’ve spent my entire 20’s literally supporting other people’s artwork, I need to focus on my own.” I went to UCLA extension for film and somehow finagled it so I could shoot my thesis without finishing the program, which is frankly the best idea ever.
Your thesis film, Searching Skies, recently released online, tell us about the inspiration?
My film is about Syrian refugees and it’s a short narrative I wrote and directed (available to watch on Vimeo: Searching Skies). I wrote it before the current administration came into office, because it was seemingly obvious, at the time, that people were becoming more Islamophobic. A friend told me a story that’d happened over Christmas dinner with a refugee family sponsored by his sister’s church. The event stuck with me and I thought, “I should write this.” After going to numerous Muslim-majority countries and having Muslim-American friends who have never shown me anything but kindness, the work just seemed necessary— and I haven't seen that many people approach the topic of Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S. through this type of lens.
What was the process of screening your film that lead to The Seventh Art Stand?
When the film was completed, I'd hoped to curate a touring discussion series around it, so that it wouldn't just be played on-screen without context. I thought discourse around it was important to give it lasting impact, because there is so much misinformation out there about Muslims and refugees. That was around the time of the initial Muslim Ban—and it just so happened Courtney Sheehan, from Northwest Film Forum, and, New York City distributor, Abramorama, had a similar idea for a film screening series. The New York Times wrote it up, we had 50 venues across the US with film screenings, mixed with discussion components, and people would meet a Muslim person for the first time and were able to ask questions. Everyone says this all the time, but film is an empathy-building tool. In this day and age, facts are very easy to manipulate—so, first-hand storytelling and face-to-face discussions are crucial to combating the type of apathy or mean-spirited communication that fosters from online-only interactions.
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How did you come to work with NWFF and how has taking on a leadership role changed things for you?
Despite being gone from Seattle since 2008, I had always known that I would move back to the city. I'd just always felt a spiritual connection to the place—but the timing had never felt right. Months later, when Courtney told me Northwest Film Forum had a job opening for a Design Lead, I knew the time had come. I joined the Northwest Film Forum team, worked for a bit more than a year doing a combination of marketing, design, and event organizing, then stepped into my current role as Executive Director. One thing that was a huge learning experience for me was that I didn’t even think about applying for Executive Director. I sent out a message to a bunch of friends like “Hey there’s this opportunity coming up, I’d love it if was a person of color or a woman [who’d get the job], please send it out to anyone cool you know.” And I had a bunch of friends responding: “Why don’t you apply for it, this totally sounds like you.” It took a long time thinking about why I didn’t apply, before I realized, you know, sometimes we have these things that are so engrained by society that, in my mind, on some level, I was thinking, “It’s a white man that takes that role.” That was a majority of people who applied for that role. As we’re thinking about empowering women and people of color, we need to analyze ourselves, and the things we go for; actually call ourselves out. I’m just doing my life, but really it’s huge, because women don’t always get these roles.
How do you see Seattle’s relationship to art and film changing?
My favorite parts of Seattle were the scrappier parts of it, the DIY parts of it. I came up here as a huge raver. I spent many days on warehouse floors and at underground parties and later on at DIY house shows and parties. Those things are going away, and I see NWFF as one of those few remaining old-school places. There’s all this talk about housing arts organizations on the bottom floors of new constructions, which is great if it’s an alternative to them not having a home, but it also is not the vibe. Taking for instance Barboza, that feeling is a classic venue, black walls, dark, intimate. You can’t really replicate that in a new construction. I see those things changing in cities everywhere, and we have to figure out how to hold onto them. I think we need more support on a city level in terms of incentives to keep people wanting to make stuff here.
How can the industry here change in order to include more women?
What is cool about the Seattle film scene is that it’s female dominated and that’s rare. Over 50% of NWFF’s programming is made by women and, compared to the industry average, that’s huge. Doing events such as working with the state legislature to do screenings of a film called I Am Evidence—which is about rape kits and how they aren’t being adequately utilized—to help push reform. We also have a trans rights screening about the murder of a trans Filipino women. So doing more of those types of programs is one way. Also working with organizations like Reel Grrls to teach women and girls how to make films, because that’s a big part of the issue right? Not having the skill sets to make what you want.
What are some films on your radar that speak to current issues for women?
One of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in the recent past is called, The Work, and it’s about a male correctional facility and men doing group therapy together. I find that really interesting, because I think toxic masculinity is the root of all problems. It’s a great film about how guys can change once they deal with that. NWFF also has a lot of exciting movies coming up. We have one called On Her Shoulders and, what I think is interesting about that film, is the director, Alexandria Bombach, talking about what are the ethics of being a documentary filmmaker at this time where we’re all about consent. How do you exercise consent and get the story at the same time? Of course it’s a woman that brings up this question! I think I’m not a great documentarian, because I struggle with that!
Is there a story about women that you’d love to tell as a film?
There are so many points to cover here, but I just know that I have some stories I still want to tell, from an Asian-American perspective. Asian-American women have hardly been able to tell their stories at all, that’s why Crazy Rich Asians was such a big deal. But even that I find problematic. It’s a great victory, but that’s not the story I want to tell. I want to tell a Moonlight version of Asian-American culture.