Creating Spaces of Inclusion with Derek Edamura, Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum

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Derek Edamura is the Executive Director of the Northwest Film Forum based in Seattle, WA. He leads his team which maintains an active arts center, coordinates film screenings and festivals, and running education workshops and apprenticeships in order to empower storytelling

We sat down with Derek to discuss his journey to where he is today and how his upbringing informs the values he holds and the changes he would like to create in entertainment and media. 

Symbonic: Tell us about your background and how you ended up with the Northwest Film Forum and in film in general!

Derek Edamura: I'm born and raised in Seattle and went to school at the University of Washington. During that period of time, really was exploring both video and art, then coupling that with research around American ethnic studies in order to understand different community narratives. My practice as an artist evolved out of those ideas. Coming out of school and trying to figure out how to put those two things together became documentaries. A lot of my early career was about trying to establish myself as an editor. It wasn't until I stumbled into a friendship with somebody who would go on to become a mentor that I found my footing in the professional space. That really gave me the foundation to build a career over the next ten to fifteen years. My relationship with the forum came out of doing screenings for a couple of the documentaries I worked on. This space, for me, was an incubation space. 

Around the pandemic time as the world was shutting down, I was trying to figure out what I could do to continue to be engaged. I was finding that I liked education work. It started out as helping people write resumes and more career development sort of things. I found myself really enjoying that work and then wanting to pivot it more into a community that I was more connected to. There was an opportunity that came up here to be the education director back in 2021, so I threw my name in there. I ended up getting the job and just fell in love with the things that we were doing - the vibe that we have as an organization, in terms of centering diversity, both in the things that we play in the cinema, but also the way that we operate our educational programs. 

We have sliding scale registrations so that people don't have to pay if they can't. A number of our programs are focused specifically on BIPOC & LGBTQ individuals living with disabilities. We're really focused on bringing those communities in and empowering them to own their narratives, understand how to use a camera, and edit their own stories. Really just give them as many opportunities and platforms to share. I see my role as executive director facilitating this ecosystem so that people can see this space, as a place where they can come in, be inspired in the cinema, or be empowered through our programs. All of that can happen in this building.

S: The Northwest Film Forum is really special to you! It also sounds like you have a big interest in the community. 

DE: Yes. That's a huge motivating factor. My teens and 20s were about connecting with communities in as many ways as possible, whether that's through activist work or clubs and organizations. You know, being on set is so much about community. You're bringing people together to collectively work on a very specific project. 

S: What was your experience, moving through a lot of these different spaces, when, I imagine, a lot of people didn't necessarily look like you?

DE: It was definitely isolating in a lot of ways. Yes, there were no people that looked like me or had my experiences working, learning, or working in the spaces that I was in a large majority of the time. It wasn't until the last five to 10 years that I started to see and interact with more people in the industry that share similar experiences. I feel like a lot of the work we're doing here is about building up a foundation. 

As a young person, it was very hard to tell my parents that I'm going to take this large amount of money that you are helping facilitate and put it to put it towards a career in the arts. I think a lot of times those conversations don't go well. For me, I was fortunate to be supported. I think being able to see more people have long-term careers in this industry is really important. As young people are coming up, they know, and can advocate for themselves that this is possible, there are going to be jobs, or there's going to be a way for me to support myself.

S: How does it feel to evolve into that person that people can reference now?

DE: It's wild. In so many ways I don't know if I even see myself fully in that space. It boggles my mind whenever I'm talking to young people. I want to make sure that people always have the hope and the dream and the inspiration to pursue those sorts of things. I definitely try to be the person that my mentor was for me.

S: You mentioned that you had a positive experience with your parents when you told them you’re going into the arts…what was that experience like?

DE: I mean, more so indifferent. They were never you have to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer…I just feel incredibly grateful those pressures were never put on me. The only pressure was whatever avenue I ended up going down I just had to support myself, but we're not going to limit the potential.

S: Do you remember your first time recognizing representation matters?

DE: I first recognized the importance of representation probably in college. It was when I started to dig deeper into both like my own sort of like Japanese American history. What I found fascinating in college was that we all have a very specific historical narrative. What was interesting to me was that when you look at these narratives on a macro level, there are similar themes and trajectories to how we've either come to this country and experienced it.

To dive into my own Japanese American history was one thing, but then to look at migrations like the Black diaspora or Latin community and understand how their migration was similar - it is fascinating to hear those stories. A lot of what I love doing now is interacting with those communities, trying to figure out how we tell those stories in sort of a cinematic sort of way.

S: What other ways do you foresee the industry trending? In what ways can we innovate in order to make it more equitable for Asian Americans and other populations too?

DE: It's a two-fold thing. I think the first step is about training; training people to be highly, highly competent in whatever element of the industry they're trying to pursue. The second part of that is you must provide opportunities for those people to not only work entry-level positions but to demonstrate that they can lead departments and grow. A lot of our apprentice programs here at the Northwest Film Forum are built around the idea that we want you to lead a department one day. We will provide all the mentorship that is required. 

We are training all these people that have our values that have our ethos that come from communities that we want to uplift and hire them. Our goal is to put them in positions to thrive and succeed and through that, we can help move the industry and the community in the direction that we feel is the most equitable and sustainable.

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Edamura and the Northwest Film Forum team foster community and coordinate educational programs year-round. To join and support their mission, visit the website to learn more about how to help. 

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