Monday, April 23, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m. This article has been corrected: The festival is screening 222 films, not 22 as originally reported.

See Hollywood's next discoveries today at NFFTY film festival

By Sandi Halimuddin
Seattle Times staff reporter

"These are the best young directors in the world; they are going to win Oscars," said Jesse Harris, describing participants in the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), a Seattle-based film festival he founded six years ago.

It's a bold statement. But then it's a bold endeavor — one of the largest youth film festivals in the world, boasting of 700 applicants aged 22 and younger, from more than 20 countries.

Harris, 26, was never one to think small. While still a 17-year-old Ballard High School student in Seattle, Harris' first feature film, "Living Life," was picked up by a distributor. After relocating to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, he was approached by many young directors seeking professional advice.

In response, Harris founded NFFTY, a space for youth to exhibit their work to a large audience. Other major film festivals, such as Sundance, do not have a category for young filmmakers, noted Harris.

From April 26-29 at various venues in Seattle, NFFTY will showcase 222 short films in genres such as animation, comedy and documentary, among others.

On opening night, six short films will screen at Cinerama, followed by an all-ages gala at the Seattle Aquarium. Throughout the weekend, films will be grouped into programs with titles such as "Action Sports" and "NW Scene," which features films from local filmmakers.

Harris' eyes lit up when he described NFFTY's selection of films, all of which he feels personally invested in. Two of his personal favorites will premiere on opening night: "Da Capo," a visually mesmerizing break-dance film from Germany, and "Shuffleboard Kings," a comedy about a widower who joins a local senior shuffleboard team in search of friendship.

The Centerpiece Gala on April 28 will highlight NFFTY's finest films of the year, such as "It Ain't Over," a narrative documentary that tells the story of a man living with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Although each movie is fresh and original, Harris remarked on several thematic similarities, such as love, discovery and coming of age.

"NFFTY filmmakers are the voice of this generation; these films are stories of young people today," said Harris.

New to the festival lineup this year is "The Future of Film Expo," a series of workshops, panels and networking opportunities with industry veterans. This access to industry experts is an invaluable opportunity for aspiring professionals.

The networking aspect of the festival allowed Anthony O'Brien, a 2009 NFFTY jury award recipient, a unique opportunity to develop close relationships with professionals in the field. For one and a half years, mentors provided feedback on O'Brien's scripts and ideas while also inviting him to social gatherings with other industry insiders.

"You're not going to get a million-dollar deal or an agent [at NFFTY], but you can enter a community that is OK with you not being an adult, and this is not always the case," said O'Brien, who spent three years developing his second feature film, "The Timber," before securing a multimillion-dollar deal this year. The film, a Western starring actors James Ransone and Josh Peck, is currently in postproduction in Hollywood. Brett Smith, whose short film "Jane in the Factory" won a 2010 NFFTY jury award, explained that winning at this film festival is not a golden ticket pass into Hollywood.

"In this industry, it doesn't matter how many things you win; it's important to keep creating," said Smith, who wrote and directed a micro budget feature set in Seattle following the film festival.

Instead, what separates amateurs from professionals is the understanding that "[filmmaking] has little to do with passion and more to do with money management, people management, politics and sales," said O'Brien.

O'Brien hopes to illuminate the realities of filmmaking this year at NFFTY, where he will speak as a panelist.

By encouraging NFFTY alumni engagement in the annual festivities, Harris hopes to keep building a strong filmmaking community, even for those beyond the age of 22. Many NFFTY alumni are friends, and some use a Facebook group to keep in touch about film-related activities.

"We're all youth and about to jump into a career, so everyone is in the same boat," said Smith of NFFTY's genuine and supportive environment.

It is the sense of close camaraderie and collaboration that sets NFFTY apart from other film festivals.

"I put NFFTY above every other experience because it was like a community instead of a competition," said Smith.

Sandi Halimuddin: 206-464-3765 or

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