Soo Choi is a young woman with a remarkably full plate. Practically a Yakima native (born in New York but raised in Yakima), Soo is a shining example of a young professional bringing talent and passion to our community to make a difference. After graduating from New York University in 2011 with a degree in English Literature she returned to Yakima with a desire to find any job that would pay off her student loans. While her day job is in sales at Rainier Fruit, she has a passion project on the side: The Sagebrush Hills Film Festival. The third annual festival kicks off November 2 this year, with a red carpet event at the Yakima Valley Museum.
Are you surprised I asked to interview you for the Women in Business Magazine?
Imposter syndrome to the max. There are so many brilliant women out there; how do I fit into that category at all?
Do you think of yourself as a visionary?
(much hesitation) No, because I don’t think that anything I’m doing is new or innovative, I just like to connect with people and see them connect with each other. When I run into something that’s a frustrating situation because there’s a void, I scramble to try and find a way to fix that. I don’t consider that a visionary, I consider that a problem solver.
A visionary is somebody that is thinking of things that don’t exist. I’m not doing anything new; Sagebrush Hills is just a different way to approach creating more dialogue, a stronger sense of identity, and being proud to be a part of Yakima.
What four words best describe you?
Loud - Energetic - Passionate - Hungry
You self-describe as hungry. What do you mean by that?
Literally, I am constantly thinking about food. Making or wanting to enjoy food. But also, I’m just hungry to make sure that I experience my life in full. And that means I don’t sleep very much. That means I am constantly strung out and exhausted but I’m always hungry to fill every last minute of my days. There are definitely backlashes to that but I’m only 29 once and I want to experience every moment of that.
I always joke that if I was a better cook, it would be a restaurant — because food, like film, totally transcends history and culture and socio-economic backgrounds. It is possible for people to experience a movie and it completely makes sense to them, they connect with it, it moves some part of their life, and then they are changed from that. And since I can’t cook that well — it’s going to be film. The visual is such a straight shot so you don’t have to explain it. It’s two hours and it either moves you to talk about it or it doesn’t.
Our film festival is unique because we’re not actually promoting the film industry; we are using the film industry’s wonderful product to connect the community. We find the gems that might spark a conversation. We don’t choose frivolous films; we have a goal of making a positive influence on the community.
What is the most satisfying part of creating the film festival?
Making it come to life. Our opening night that first year was so satisfying when people walked down that red carpet. People showed up, they dressed up, and they didn’t even know what it was! On our opening night we showed a film that no one had seen before and it made people want to talk about the film and the topics in that film. That is immensely satisfying.
How has the film festival surprised you?
I am surprised at how easily it grew from the first year to second year. In the first year we had five films in one venue. By the second year we had 11 films in four venues. In the second year we also added two additional spin-off events.
The criteria for films in the first year were that they must be meaningful and promote dialogue. In the second year we again chose films that promoted dialogue but also films that were really interesting — either the topics or the way they were created. This helped us work on our secondary mission of promoting filmmaking. We created those spin-off events after the film festival in November.
X is a one-day spin-off event in March and the films are gritty, possibly violent. They’re dark and confusing and sometimes downright weird. Discover is also a one-day event in the spring that is completely centered around family-friendly films. Docs is a one-day event in early fall. We choose one documentary, and keep the criteria completely centered around people out in the world doing positive things. That’s the filter that we look through to pick the film for this event.
In the first year we had a family day on Sunday that was free and we showed the same film simultaneously in two rooms: one in English and the other in Spanish. What’s frustrating is how difficult it is to find dual-spoken films that are made for kids and families — movies that have the characters speaking in both English and Spanish, not films with subtitles, which defeats the purpose. I just think of how many immigrant families we have in Yakima where the parents weren’t formally educated and they can’t share this film with their kids because they can’t read Spanish (or English) fast enough. Or they can’t read it at all.
What would you change about the festival?
We are not promoters. It’s frustrating to know that we have a great product, and there is a market for it, but because of our own inability to showcase it to its fullest potential, we just aren’t reaching the audience we want to yet.
You don’t think you’re having the positive impact that you want to?
No, it’s not as big because we haven’t been able to promote it widely enough. That said, we are grateful because everyone who has come has left thinking “This is cool, I’m glad this is in Yakima.”
You talk a lot about your core mission, what is that?
To build a stronger community by breaking down the barriers by keeping us from understanding each other. In our first year we picked a film about a girl who was being sexually abused. As a human — when you watch this film you think about young women you know, how this would make you feel if this were your daughter, your own friends. You start connecting. When you are vulnerable like that it is much easier to share that experience with those around you. We are hoping to build a stronger community through all these shared experiences we see in film.
Who is your surprise audience?
The families. There is that hesitation when you put something out there called a “film festival” that it might alienate some people who may not think it’s “their scene.” On Sunday all these families turned out with kids of all ages to just soak it in; they were so into it. We had planned an educational activity after the film and it was so humbling when the day arrived and we had these families doing the activity. They listed their fears on little paper stars (related to the film) and stuck their stars on a big piece of butcher paper. It’s so basic. And yet we had grandmas and dads talking to their kids about what they’re afraid of. Dying. Losing my house. Losing my mom. These are from kids! Real fears! Parents were fully engaged and willing to write down their real fears, too. These families took time out of their Sunday because we told them it would be good and then they used the time to actually talk with their kids about important things. That’s why we immediately turned around and did the spin off event “Discover,” because we knew people wanted it.
How is this festival changing Yakima?
We are providing an easily accessible activity for all parts of the community. Everyone watches movies, which can sometimes be a mindless way of spending time. We are reframing that experience into one where the film you engage with, even though sometimes it covers difficult topics, engages you with the community, and those around you.
How is it changing you?
It is making me realize how many different nuances there are in our community because I’m trying to speak to so much of the community in this one weekend. This is so challenging. You can’t ask people to come together to share with each other if you throw things at them that aren’t relevant. We have to dial it in and let our community decide what we are going to show them.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.