The Filmmaker Bringing Seattle Realness to YouTube
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These cinematic mini-documentaries tell stories of a Seattle that might soon disappear.
Seattle hip-hop MC Khingz looks into the camera as he tells his story. So you can see the moment things switch from fond childhood nostalgia to something more foreboding. I won’t say how it ends; what I will say is the story long outlasts the eight minutes Khingz takes to tell it. Call that the trademark of The Charcoal Sky, in which an array of characters of Seattle’s south side share their true-life tales, via a series of beautifully shot short films on YouTube. They can be hilarious — like the teenager who thinks he’s done a good turn until he sees what’s inside a mysteriously heavy suitcase — or frightening, in the case of a life-threatening KKK encounter. One thing these shorts have in common: They’re all memorable.
“I wanted to capture Seattle differently, the way it’s lived.”
They’re also all stories told to, and that made an impact on, Iranian-American filmmaker Zia Mohajerjasbi when he was coming of age at Seattle’s southern tip, the most diverse part of a city that is 64 percent white. (The Charcoal Sky is named for his emotional connection to the Northwestern ambiance: “Growing up underneath the charcoal sky had a big impact on me,” he says.) It’s currently seven chapters — each a monologue filmed like a scene plucked from a movie, rather than a documentary — and Mohajerjasbi says he’ll keep adding episodes, creating “a cinematic journal” of human experience. Fed up with the rain, grunge and coffee clichés that have clung to Seattle since the 1990s, he says, “I wanted to capture Seattle differently, the way it’s lived.”
Perhaps there couldn’t be a better time for it. The first short film Mohajerjasbi made, 2015’s Hagereseb, was about kids growing up in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace housing project. (It won awards at film festivals everywhere from San Francisco to Athens). Yesler Terrace has since been demolished, making way for a new, mixed income development. Until this year, census data had shown incremental upticks in the white population of Seattle since 2010 — most pointed the finger at gentrification. If Hagereseb stands as a monument to a Yesler Terrace that no longer exists, maybe The Charcoal Sky, too, will preserve a Seattle that has been disappearing.
Though under the radar, Mohajerjasbi — 31 and an unassuming kind of handsome — has critics gushing like schoolgirls. When he was just 24, Seattle newspaper The Stranger gave him a Film Genius award for music videos he’d shot with local rappers like Macklemore; respected journo Charles Mudede wrote: “He is already redefining not only filmmaking in Seattle, but the image of Seattle itself.”
Today, Mohajerjasbi tells me this was intentional: He felt that TV and movies shot here “showed the same tired locations” (Space Needle, Pike Place Market) and could ultimately have been set anywhere. “It always seemed arbitrary, like, ‘Oh, let’s set it in Seattle,’ rather than being born from the community,” he says. What more does the city provide Sleepless in Seattle besides alliteration?
But his early break in hip-hop was luck. Mohajerjasbi’s older brother, Saba, is better known as DJ Sabzi, one half of Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars. It wasn’t luck, though, that made those videos so memorable: visual odes to neighborhoods that don’t make it onto postcards. “He achieved this cinematic look that’s ubiquitous in rap videos now,” Saba tells me, “but back then, that was a genre innovation.” One video, for the Blue Scholars track “Joe Metro,” takes the bus route from south-side Beacon Hill to the central Financial District. It’s an affecting journey from the city’s fringes to its mainstream — and all the more impressive for having been made on $900.
Artistic influences also came early. Mohajerjasbi recalls the impact of seeing Iranian movie The White Balloon at Seattle’s Seven Gables art-house theater with his dad as a kid. The story of a little girl in Tehran who drops money entrusted to her down a grate was “so relatable. … Narratively, it’s so, so small, but it was like, ‘I understand that, I feel for you.’ ” His work is rooted in that eureka moment: “Personal narrative, I think, is an incredible space within which we can build connection — listen to one another, look at one another, see one another,” he says. “Life is richer that way. I’m far less ignorant that way.”
Short film may now be in a unique position to make those connections. Andrew Allen founded website Short of the Week with partner Jason Sondhi believing the future of storytelling is online (the pair met at Seattle’s University of Washington). Their big idea: The web is more democratic than Hollywood, freer from formula and open to new points of view. Plus, the internet prefers short-form content.
Still, Allen admits the fact 25 billion videos are viewed online every day presents a new problem: discovery. “How you break through the noise of the overwhelming mound of great content at everyone’s fingertips is the biggest challenge facing filmmakers today,” he says. Also: How many of those 25 billion clips are thoughtful short films, and how many are cat videos?
Mohajerjasbi, though, thinks there is value in simply taking the time to tell these stories. He wants to widen what he calls “the normative lens” to “see the greater narrative.” In today’s America, that seems a touch idealistic. “But if we’re not always striving for ideals,” he counters, “we’ll never move the needle on anything.”