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The Seventh Art Stand Fights Islamophobia

Searching Skies will have its world premiere at the Seventh Art Stand.

“Sometimes conversation really does lead to action,” laughs Courtney Sheehan, executive director of the Northwest Film Forum. She’s referring to the origins of the Seventh Art Stand, a series of film screenings and community discussions around the country, intended as “an act of cinematic solidarity” against a rising tide of Islamophobia. 

The series was born when Sheehan bumped into film marketer/distributor Richard Abramowitz at the Sundance Film Festival on the eve of the presidential inauguration. “We were talking about what everyone was talking about: about how anti-Islamic sentiments were impacting the creative community and the world at large,” Sheehan says. Abramowitz brought up the possibility of indie theaters screening films by and about Muslims, with a strong focus on the American Muslim population.

Then the Trump administration put out its travel ban. “After the announcement, I felt the sort of seething rage that I had no idea I was even capable of feeling,” Sheehan says. “And I thought, let’s show films from the countries affected by the travel ban.”

During the planning of the Seventh Art Stand, Sheehan was introduced to filmmaker, artist and former editor of Redefine magazine Vivian Hua, who wound up becoming the third key organizer of the series. “I came more from the angle of community organizing, whereas [Courtney and Richard] focused more on the film aspect,” Hua says. “My role has been to try and rope in different organizations, and to get more of a Muslim voice incorporated, by nudging and prodding local theaters to make sure they were working with their local communities.” Hua’s own narrative short film, Searching Skies, in which a Syrian refugee family joins a Christian household for Christmas dinner, will have its world premiere during the NWFF’s Shorts Program on May 10.  

All told, 54 different venues in 26 states—churches, libraries, art galleries and private residences as well as arthouses—are participating in the Seventh Art Stand throughout the month of May. They're collectively screening 70+ films from 15+ countries. NWFF and SIFF Film Center host local screenings from May 7–25, with some screenings offered at low or no cost. “I tried to make as low a threshold for entry for as many people as possible,” Sheehan says. 

Other highlights from the local screenings include Starless Dreams, a documentary from highly regarded Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei about the young female inmates of an Iranian detention center; a free program of short films for young audiences; and Musa Syeed’s feature A Stray, an affecting indie drama about a Somali immigrant in Minneapolis who becomes the reluctant guardian of a stray dog (also screening for free). 

Programming like the Seventh Art Stand signals the shift by indie theaters away from a curation-based model to a more community-based model. The Seventh Art Stand could become a recurring annual event. “What we’re doing is creating coalitions,” Sheehan says. “Coalitions are how things will get done. And if we want to effect positive change, we don’t have the luxury to choose otherwise.”

To purchase tickets or RSVP for complimentary programs, visit nwfilmforum.org.

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