Far from today’s metropolitan bastion of progressivism, the Capitol Hill of 1966 was a predominantly residential enclave populated by white catholic families who were squarely middle class and socially conservative. It was the world Seattle playwright and performer Matt Smith inhabited during his adolescent years and it’s the world he returns to in his new film My Last Year with the Nuns.
“Nobody has written about what it was like growing up on Capitol Hill. It’s a village and tradition that is vanishing,” Smith said.
The semi-autobiographical film shot last summer around the neighborhood is an adaptation of Smith’s 1999 namesake monologue, comprised of personal stories about coming of age with his fellow 8th graders at Capitol Hill’s St. Joseph catholic school. In the film, which premieres May 21st at the Seattle International Film Festival, a present-day Smith tells his stories from the Capitol Hill locations where they happened. Still vivid in Smith’s memory is the old newspaper shack near 19th and Mercer where white and black kids tensely met each morning before their paper routes, and the lot behind the old Red Mill Burgers (now Tully’s) at 19th and Aloha where they used to fight after school.
The film also explores the more provincial thoughts and attitudes that persisted in a region many still thought of as America’s hinterland. As a young teenager, Smith said he absorbed the racist and sexist attitudes of those around him in order to be funny and crude.
“One of the reasons Seattle is so progressive is because there are so few people who grew up here (who) live here,” Smith told CHS. “It’s full of people who came from other places. It’s a tolerant place, and we’re blessed for that.”
Smith, like his father, was born and raised on Capitol Hill. He grew up at 20th and Mercer and attended Seattle Prep and Seattle University. In his 20s Smith traveled extensively, but said he always considered Capitol Hill home and returned permanently to the neighborhood in the 1980s.
The movie was forged by a production team with strong Capitol Hill ties. Seattle director Bret Fetzer was the former artistic director at Annex Theater and former theater editor at The Stranger. The film was produced by Michael Seiwerath, executive director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation and former executive director of the Northwest Film Forum.
With some good old fashion storytelling, the movie promises to be a living document of a vanishing Capitol Hill and the neighborhood boys who once roamed its streets.
“That’s a piviotal time in your life. You try to figure out what you are and what you’re not,” Smith said. “You get it wrong, but you try.”
My Last Year with Nuns will premiere May 21st at 6:30 PM at the Egyptian Theatre and play again May 26th at 11 AM. Purchase tickets here.