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Originally published Saturday, April 24, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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National Film Festival for Talented Youth draws creative moviemakers 22 and under to Seattle

An interview with young filmmaker Jesse Harris, whose Seattle-based National Film Festival for Talented Youth is in its fourth year — and growing. NFFTY begins April 29 and runs through May 2, 2010.

Seattle Times movie critic

Other nifty NFFTY events

In addition to nearly 200 film screenings and a gala opening, this year's edition of the National Film Festival for Talented Youth will include a series of panels, open to filmmakers and enthusiasts of all ages, on such topics as "Alternative Distribution: The New Model," "The Art of Movie Sound," "Directing the Actor" and "Green Screen on a Budget." Panelists include executives from HBO Films, Slamdance, NBC/Universal and other companies.

Other special events include a free "Best of NFFTY" screening at the Center House Friday night, including highlights from the festival's first three years, and an awards ceremony Sunday night, with both jury and audience awards.

NFFTY is trying something new for audience voting this year: At the end of each package of films, numerical codes will appear on screen so that the audience can text their votes — something which Harris thinks will be more efficient in terms of vote-counting, as well as appealing to the young audience.

Film festival preview

National Film Festival for Talented Youth

Thursday-May 2, Seattle Center (SIFF Cinema, Center House, Experience Music Project), individual tickets for screenings and panels $10 ($5 for 12 and under), VIP pass $75, single-day pass $20, three-day pass $50, opening-night gala $50; buy tickets at www.nffty.org or at theater box offices on day of show. For more information: www.nffty.org.

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A film festival long on exuberance — and short on graying hair — unspools in Seattle this week. The ever-growing National Film Festival for Talented Youth, now in its fourth annual edition, has expanded this year from three days to four, and from 113 films to 190. All are made by young filmmakers, ranging in age from 8 to 22 (the festival's upper limit).

"The quality of what we saw was so much higher than last year, across the board," said executive director Jesse Harris of the 2010 submissions. "We were really happy. There were 250 or so films we would have shown if we had room for them."

Harris, a 24-year-old Seattle native, runs NFFTY (pronounced "nifty") as the festival's only year-round employee, though he's assisted by a small staff as the event draws near. He founded the festival, with Jocelyn R.C. and Kyle Seago, as an outgrowth of his own filmmaking career. While still a student at Ballard High School, he made the feature film "Living Large," and after graduation moved to Los Angeles to find work in the film business. But something unexpected happened: He kept hearing from young filmmakers, who wondered how Harris could help them get their work made and shown. This led to a return to his hometown, and to a one-night festival (with 14 short films) in 2007. NFFTY has been on a steady upward trajectory ever since.

Harris credits the growth to a focused outreach program, which this year brought films from 16 countries and 33 states to the festival. "We really spent a lot of time doing outreach all over the place, to bring in the best," he said. "We went online and developed a massive database of every school we could find anywhere that had a film program, whether a high school or middle school or college, and we called them or mailed them information and posters. We'd never done anything quite like that before, and I think it really worked out in terms of the diversity of films we got."

Of the 190 films in the festival this year, all but two are short films, with an average length of perhaps 8 to 10 minutes. Though a handful are documentaries, Harris says, "This is definitely the year of the narrative short film." They will show in themed packages throughout the weekend, with titles like "The Science of Growing Up" (coming-of-age films), "Love & Coffee" (romance, complete with free coffee), "Action Sports" (a new category for the festival this year, sponsored by Nike), "Animation" and many others.

Red-carpet opening

Opening night will be a red-carpet gala at Cinerama, featuring seven short films that are among Harris' favorites. "Jane in the Factory," made by 21-year-old Brett Smith of Virginia, is an affecting drama that manages to pull in an audience in its first minute: the plight of Jane, a teenager who works in a factory, is immediately and economically made real.

"Warren Budd and His Propeller Plane," by 21-year-old Jackson Adams of Massachusetts, whimsically tells the story of a boy trying to fulfill his great-uncle's last wish. "The Umbrella," made by Ballard High School students Parker Davis, Kaelan Gilman and Henry Shenk, is a charming and slightly surreal brief portrait of a young man trying to hide himself — until a gust of wind blows his shelter away. (Davis, Gilman and Shenk's film is one of 30 from Washington state this year.)

Harris' goal for NFFTY is nothing less than changing the lives of young filmmakers, in ways both large and small. Ben Kadie, a 14-year-old ninth grader living in Bellevue, has participated in the festival every year, presenting his first film at the age of 11. "That was really exciting," he remembered. "People were actually clapping and stuff, that was great."

This year, he's back at the festival with his noir-themed short, "Sparks in the Night" (winner of The Seattle Times' Three Minute Masterpiece contest last year), and is also at work on a longer film. And he's noticed, with approval, the festival's growth.

"It's gotten a lot bigger, there's a lot more people and that's really great, just being able to talk to so many different filmmakers has gotten better and better each year," he said, noting that last year he met a composer who's going to create music for his new movie. NFFTY also co-sponsored a trip Ben took to Los Angeles last year, where he visited studio backlots and met industry professionals.

Eye on the future

That's all in line with what Harris hopes NFFTY can provide for its participants, even those who have outgrown the festival (that age limit of 22 is firm — so much so that even Harris himself can no longer enter a film in the festival). "We're still trying to figure out how to help these filmmakers after they're too old for the festival. They're still really passionate and they want to do more. We've helped get some filmmakers meetings in L.A. with agents and producers, through our connections with the festival. We're kind of an informal networking thing for our graduating filmmakers. I think there's a lot more potential out there."

NFFTY will host 120 visiting filmmakers this year. Though four years isn't long enough for the festival to have launched a Spielberg or a Campion, Harris thinks the future is bright for NFFTY alumni — many of whom, he says, are now working for production companies in Los Angeles or New York, and/or writing scripts.

"Even if these people don't end up being directors," he says, "we're letting them show something they created to an audience, they're getting recognition and they're getting confidence to do something, whether it's filmmaking or whatever. Obviously film festivals are great for audiences, but ours has the extra thing that it's really an important thing to be doing for the next generation of filmmakers."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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