Rock out with your doc out

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bellingham is a town with a passion for the silver screen. Not only does it support an astonishing number of movie screens—19 at last count—but shows routinely sell out, sometimes days in advance. As well, the Pickford Film Center is one of this town’s biggest arts organizations, and, along with such venerated local institutions as the Mount Baker Theatre and Whatcom Museum, helps to anchor the downtown Arts Districts—not bad for a nonprofit staffed mostly by volunteers.

As a Pickford projectionist for going on 15 years now, I have a firsthand knowledge of this town’s love of going to the movies, knowledge that is reinforced nearly every time I venture out of my house in the form of moviegoers stopping me to inquire about upcoming features, or to discuss something they’ve recently seen, or to suggest a film they’ve heard of and would like to see.

These interactions prove, time and again, that audiences in Bellingham and the surrounding areas are engaged, informed and, in my experience, interested in being not only entertained, but also challenged by what they see on the big screen.

Nothing quite exemplifies our particular brand of cinematic curiosity quite like our love of documentaries. During my time at the PFC, we’ve seen our share of hits, and while knowing a new Wes Anderson movie is going to go over big is a no-brainer, what might come as a slightly bigger surprise is that many of the theaters most popular film’s have been documentaries.

Realizing that our yen for hard truth runs deep, four years ago, PFC Programming Director Michael Falter founded Doctober, a month-long film festival that will see more than 40 documentaries grace the screens at the Pickford by the time the clock strikes midnight on Halloween. As has become the custom, this year’s Doctober lineup ranges in subject matter from the deadly serious to the absolutely absurd. As well, the month is rife with Doctober-related events such as director appearances, discussion panels, events with community partners and more. The full Doctober lineup and all its many related events can be found on the PFC’s website (many more than I can begin to list here), but what follows are the films on my Doctober wishlist.

It only makes sense that Doctober would begin with a documentary about the man who arguably loved going to the movies more than any other human on the planet. Although it had a regular run at the PFC, the theater is bringing back Life Itself, the entertaining, funny, touching story of film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert. Directed by Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams Ebert had championed) and produced by Martin Scorsese, this is a love letter to a fiercely inspiring man.

One of Doctober’s biggest events is the world premiere of Pelican Dreams, the latest effort by The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill director Judy Irving. Boasting the same incredible cinematography, Irving brings us into the peculiar world of these once nearly extinct “flying dinosaurs.” Irving will also be on hand to answer questions after the screening, so you’ll finally be able to have all your “How did you get that footage?” inquiries satisfied.

From there, it’s Return to the River, which delves into the demolition of Washington’s Elwha Dam, the largest dam removal project in history, which offers the ability to watch what was once thought to be a crazy idea put into action, an ecological history lesson, plus the opportunity to witness destruction on a massive scale that actually helps, not harms, the environment.

But that’s far from the only Doctober film that delves into environmental issues. Also on deck is A Will for the Woods in which a man facing death decides to use his green burial to help save a stand of North Carolina woods from the ravages of clear-cutting, a journey by a three-mast schooner to document melting massifs at the ends of the Earth in Expedition at the End of the World, a documentary that illustrates that food co-ops like our own can be agents for revolution in our foodshed (Food for Change), and others.

As always, music docs loom large on my personal playlist, and given that the PFC’s Falter is a devoted audiophile, there’s plenty of aural entertainment from which to choose. Of the bunch, the documentary I’m most eagerly anticipating is 20,000 Days On Earth, which follows a day in the life of musician Nick Cave, but since it’s about Cave, don’t expect a by-the-numbers chronological accounting of the hours, minutes and seconds. Also of interest are Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, which shines a light on producer Martin Bisi, who has spent the past 30 years working with the likes of Sonic Youth, Swans, and Brian Eno, and now faces concerns about gentrification of his formerly gritty Brooklyn neighborhood. The rich musical tradition of Memphis and its unifying role in a segregated city is in the spotlight in Take Me to the River, while Finding Fela touches on the same themes from a continent away via the life story of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer.

Documentaries have always lent themselves to issues of social justice, political strife and simply trying to navigate the world around us, and those films are also well represented by Doctober. Korengal, Sebastian Junger’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Restrepo, revisits the men from that deadly war zone in Afghanistan and offers gripping and sometimes heartbreaking insight into the effects of combat in one of the most lethal military sites of that war. Ai WeiWei: The Fake Case is an infuriating and downright frightening account of the 81 days in solitary confinement and subsequent house arrest of Chinese artist and dissident Ai WeiWei, who, despite all obstacles finds ways to keep his art alive and his voice from being silenced. Moving to the ever-fraught Middle East, The Green Prince is a harrowing psychological thriller that tells the true story of a Hamas spy and the Shin Bet agent that put his own life on the line to protect him. Also on my list is the E-Team, a documentary about the Emergencies Team, a human rights organization devoted to documenting and exposing human rights abuses as they happen, where they happen.

Along with traveling the world, Doctober also features offerings with a decidedly local bent. My Last Year with the Nuns is ostensibly a narrative about the freewheeling youth of actor Matt Smith, but it also acts as an entertaining and surprisingly socially incisive account of Seattle during the 1960s (and also includes animation by former Bellingham resident Clyde Peterson). If you’ve been a music fan in this area anytime during the past three decades, it’s likely you’ve heard of garage rock band Girl Trouble, a Tacoma mainstay with deep history and many stories to tell. They do so in Strictly Sacred: The Art of Girl Trouble. No Doctober offering, however, is more local than the showcase of films courtesy of Bellingham’s Documentary Center, which will take place Oct. 4 and feature short films by our very own burgeoning documentarians.

Lastly, some Doctober films don’t fit neatly into any category except that they serve to pique my interest. Chief among these is No No: A Dockumentary, the amazing real-life account of the 1970 no-hitter Dock Ellis pitched—while he was high on LSD. All This Mayhem tells the story of the now little-known skateboarding brother duo of Tas and Ben Pappas, who were poised to be bigger than Tony Hawk (for real), until their successes devolved into addiction, intense self-destruction and, finally, murder-suicide. Fashionable woman over the age of 60 are the subject of Advanced Style, a documentary with impeccable style, while Rich Hill illuminates daily existence in a hardscrabble town in the American Midwest. Another documentary that deals with a specific point of geography is The Overnighters, except the setting this time is the oilfields of North Dakota and those who journey to them to seek their fortune. Finally, Harmontown follows writer Dan Harmon after he was fired from the critically lauded sitcom Community, a series he created.

Of course, this is just a mere smattering of the diverse Doctober roster. But trust me when I say, this truly a festival with something for everyone—especially in a movie—going town like this one.

Doctober begins Oct. 1 and runs through the end of the month. All info and showtimes can be gleaned at

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