Interview with Festival Director Sam Berliner (Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival)
March 5, 2016 festreviews Festival Interview
Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival is not only a groundbreaking film festival that provides the Pacific Northwest with a venue for films by, for, and about transgender people and the issues facing the transgender community, but one of only a few transgender film festivals in the world. The goal of the event is to place emphasis on visibility and positive representations.
Interview with Festival Director, Sam Berliner:
Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?
Sam Berliner: Translations creates an opportunity for transgender and gender-non-conforming stories to be embraced and shared with the Seattle community. It is one of only a handful of transgender film festivals in the world and I am honored to have this platform to honor and celebrate our filmmakers and their work.
Matthew: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?
Sam: The 2016 edition of Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival is all about connecting audiences with stars and stories. This year we are excited to celebrate some of the champions who have led the way for transgender communities and highlight connections through an array of voices and perspectives. Here’s three early announcements:
BEING TRANSPARENT — Live event! Get the inside scoop with some of the remarkable talent from the hit series TRANSPARENT including pioneering star Alexandra Billings. Don’t miss this lively discussion on being transgender both in front of and behind the camera.
MAJOR! — Northwest Premiere! Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a 73-year-old Black transgender woman who has fought for the rights of transwomen of color since Stonewall. MAJOR! shows one woman’s journey, a community’s history, and how caring for each other can be a revolutionary act.
SUITED — Northwest Premiere! A hit at Sundance, SUITED tells the story of Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn tailoring company that makes custom suits for gender-nonconforming and transgender clients. An intimate documentary of living bravely in one’s own skin.
As always, there will be a number of free screenings, discussions, parties, community and fun!
Matthew: What are the qualifications for the selected films?
Sam: Translations is a film festival by, for and about the transgender communities and our allies so the films must have trans content or be created by a trans filmmaker. Beyond that, it really depends on the films! Of course with our festival only lasting four days (only two of which are full days) it means that we only have so much space and that makes it quite competitive, especially because we want to share the widest variety possible—narratives, documentaries, shorts, features, all genders, a wide range of ages, from as many countries and cultures as possible etc. Above all, we want to show films that will inspire, educate, and uplift our audiences.
Matthew: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?
Sam: As a filmmaker and festival programmer, I really understand how complicated film festival programming can be. There are only so many films that can be screened and the competition really depends on what else is coming out that year. (For example, if two films are similar in length and about the same subject it is likely that only one will be chosen and those are things that neither filmmakers nor festivals can really control.) Another issue is length. A short film is most programmable if it is 8-10 minutes or less. It can fit into a shorts program, it can screen before a feature, there are options. When shorts get long, into 20-30 minutes, is when they are much harder to program. So that is another aspect. As a filmmaker myself who has had plenty of festival rejections in addition to great festival success, I’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to do with the film itself and whether the screening committees like it or not. There are always many many factors in play.
Matthew: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?
Sam: There are only a handful of transgender film festivals in the entire world and Translations is one of the oldest! It is a very unique experience for transgender and gender-variant folks to be able to come together and celebrate our community through the power of cinema. Film is such a powerful medium. As gender-variant people, recognizing ourselves on-screen and being able to relate to the characters is unbelievably affirming. Translations offers a space to celebrate, honor, mourn, learn, grow, relate, cry, empathize, accept, laugh… It is a space that we can excitedly return to each year to keep tabs on this ever shifting and beautifully evolving community. It offers visibility, community building, and education, and it’s an opportunity to strengthen alliances among people of all genders. What’s more, it’s a very exciting time for transgender film as more and more films are being made, more stories are being told, and transgender stories are reaching even larger audiences.
Film is a powerful medium. Being immersed in trans stories strongly promotes empathy and film can act as a bridge of understanding between communities. When you strip it all down, we are all simply people who want to love and be loved. I really believe that film helps audiences remember that.
Matthew: How has the festival changed since its inception?
Sam: I have only been involved in Translations as Festival Director for the past three years. This year will be the 11th festival! The first two festivals were held as part of the Gender Odyssey Conference. Since the third year, Translations has been a stand-alone event run by Three Dollar Bill Cinema and it has continued to grow and evolve into the fabulous four day event it is today.
Matthew: Where do you see the festival by 2020?
Sam: Oh wow, what an exciting question! In four years (omigoodness, 2020 is only four years away?!?!?) I would love to see Translations expanded to a longer festival, perhaps 5-6 days, and at multiple venues. I would also love to have a Master Class offered during the festival each year where an established transgender filmmaker can come teach others how to use the tools of cinema to tell their stories and explore the world. There is so much fantastic transgender content being made in 2016 that I can’t even imagine how amazing things will be then! I would hope that films will be firmly established in the Trans New Wave, where the filmmakers can assume that the audience has a basic Trans 101 in their back pockets already so that characters are free to embody their sexual orientations and gender identities without calling attention to it— therefore giving the film the freedom to focus on the story. It is revolutionary! Now THAT’s the future!
Matthew: What film have you seen the most times in your life?
Sam: Hm, that’s a hard question! I love movies and am quite the creature of habit so I’ve seen MANY way more times than I could count… I’d have to say THE BIRDCAGE with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. It is one of my family’s favorites and I know every single word, tone and gesture by heart.
Matthew: In one sentence, what makes a great film?
Sam: A great film for me has a strong story that motivates a stylized aesthetic with relatable characters and humor.
Matthew: How is the film scene in your city?
Sam: I actually don’t live in Seattle! I work remotely from Berkeley, CA and come up to town three times a year. But I will say that Three Dollar Bill Cinema, that runs Translations, also runs Twist: Seattle Queer Film Festival in October which is a huge event! Three Dollar Bill also does Outdoor Cinema: a campy outdoor film series in the park proudly presenting fun and free movies under the stars, every summer. There are some really great theaters in Seattle including the Northwest Film Forum that does a lot of independent exhibition and support for filmmakers, plus it’s where we hold Translations! There’s also the Cinerama where you can get delicious chocolate popcorn and watch a 3D movie on their gigantic screen and the historic SIFF Cinema Egyptian that frequently has midnight screenings of cult classics.
Sam Berliner is a Bay Area-based filmmaker and animator best known for his engaging and accessible films about gender non-conformity. His award-winning short films, DATING SUCKS: A GENDERQUEER MISADVENTURE, GENDERBUSTERS, PERCEPTION and FLOAT have screened at over 200 film festivals around the world. When not actively making films, Sam is the festival director of Translations: the Seattle Transgender Film Festival, run by Three Dollar Bill Cinema. He also leads workshops and gives presentations about gender at various organizations and schools. Sam graduated in 2005 from Smith College with a BA in Film & Theatre and earned an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University in 2013.
Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.