Seattle's Fifth Annual African American Film Festival opened last Saturday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in an atmosphere of great warmth — literally and figuratively. Even with a 7 p.m. start time, the near-80-degree weather outside made the cavernous, former synagogue that has housed the Center since 1969 a little sultry. While audience members fanned themselves with copies of the event's handsome program, organizers welcomed everyone with the same spirit of inclusiveness and expansiveness that defines this community-based celebration of movies by and/or about black Americans. Having grown from four nights in 2004, the festival's debut year, to nine nights in 2008, AAFF has been making the kind of steady development that characterizes long-running, ambitious film festivals. But despite measured success and the appearance of esteemed filmmaker Charles Burnett (accompanying his new feature, "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation") next Sunday, AAFF appears much less concerned with developing into a major player on the international festival circuit than in using films as a catalyst for dialogue right here in Seattle. That's a good thing. AAFF needn't contribute to the overall solipsism of the film festival circuit, where the objective typically stops at getting certain movies seen and publicized (albeit with occasional tributes to filmmakers, or program nods to film scholars, thrown in). AAFF expects a total of 1,000 locals to attend one or another of this year's programs. But organizers, for three years running, have been developing the neighborhood constituency they seek by running a grassroots film exhibition project called "The Underground Railroad Film Series." A monthly showcase for thoughtful documentaries and features, the series (metaphorically named for the chain of safe houses that helped black slaves escape to free states) is screened in a succession of intimate settings such as homes, libraries, small theaters, and churches in central and south Seattle. As AAFF's Web site puts it, "the route of the Underground Railroad is a progressive culture-sharing activity that leads to 'freedom' culminating at the Festival." Such low-key, community-based exhibition in the U.S. is rarely talked or written about, but it has worked well for targeted audiences. On a larger scale, producer-director Robert Greenwald has developed fervent viewerships for such progressive-liberal documentaries as "Unconstitutional: The War On Our Civil Liberties" and "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." Greenwald's impressive networking skills allow him to organize mass, simultaneous screenings in people's homes all over the country prior to a film's broader release. Buzz develops quickly. AAFF works much closer to home, but it is one way to develop an audience of Seattlites who might not otherwise know about or see provocative movies with an unique appeal to African American viewers. That helps explain why opening night at AAFF this year felt more like a homecoming or culmination of efforts than just the start of something big. Having said that, it might have been a good idea to expect a little more from the first night's crowd, which came to see John Sayles' highly entertaining "Honeydripper" and largely left before featured speaker Donnie L. Betts, a frequent collaborator of Sayles', had a chance to share some insights. (Curiously, refreshments were being served downstairs at the Center before Betts even had a chance to warm up the remaining handful of folks who stayed behind.) There's nothing wrong with signaling a festival audience that an evening's program formally includes post-screening dialogue with someone special. Betts is a friend of AAFF's, having appeared last year with his award-winning documentary "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr." Chances are good there will be more rigor during the remaining days of AAFF, which will have shown over 40 features and shorts before audience awards are dispensed on Sunday by none other than Burnett himself. Program highlights include the Seattle premiere, at 7 tonight, of NAACP Image Award nominee Leon Lozano's "Something Is Killing Tate," a drama about a child abuse victim whose deeds turn suicidal. A "Youth Film Showcase," tomorrow at 4:30 p.m., includes several shorts for or by young filmmakers, including "Adopted By Aliens," an animated piece by Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs. The sisters will host a Flash animation workshop for kids Saturday at noon. Also on Saturday is Howard University's Professor Alonzo Crawford, who will lead a "Pedagogy of Cinema" workshop at 2. Another promising work is Aanastacia Tolbert and Annie Walsh's "Got Breast?", a documentary about the way attitudes about breasts affect women's body image. The film screens with the short "Called to Shine," about a 140-year-old church in rural Mississippi, at 4:30 Friday. Burnett's three-hour "Namibia," co-starring Danny Glover and Carl Lumbly, screens Sunday at 4, followed by a discussion with Burnett. Rumors of an appearance by one of the film's stars are rife. AAFF's full schedule and ticket information are online at www.langstonblackfilmfest.org.