The Pickford handles the truth

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

We were warned.

I very clearly remember the staff meeting I attended as a projectionist for the Pickford Film Center (then the Pickford Cinema) at which we were told that we’d be showing a movie about a soft-spoken artist who makes sculptures by stacking stones and driftwood. It was a documentary, and supposedly Bellingham audiences were going to show up in droves to see it.

I didn’t get it. It sounded like the most boring movie on Earth. Show up in droves? For a documentary?

I was so very wrong. Not the wrongest I have ever been, but close.

The artist was Andy Goldsworthy, the movie was Rivers and Tides, and by the time it had finished up its long, record-breaking run at the Pickford, like everyone else, I had been thoroughly won over by watching Goldsworthy put nature on breathtaking display with his intricate-yet-temporary works of art. And, like all of you, I saw the documentary more than once and still think if it every time I’m in one of Bellingham’s natural places and see that someone has taken rocks and stacked them into a mini sculpture.

I don’t know if it was that movie in particular that first planted the seed of the idea that Bellingham could and would support a documentary film festival in the fertile mind of Pickford Program Director Michael Falter, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Fast-forward 15 or so years from the era of Rivers and Tides and into the era of Doctober, the annual month-long celebration of all things documentary at the Pickford Film Center and Limelight Cinema that Bellingham has been attending with great enthusiasm for nearly a decade. In fact, the Doctober fervor runs so high around these parts that the festival has grown to be the largest of its kind on the west coast. This year’s iteration will see 50-plus documentaries shown on the three screens that comprise the Pickford Film Center before it sunsets for another year.

As it has grown in size, Doctober has also started to experience some serious calendar creep. With encore showings, it has been customary in recent years for the festival to extend well into November, and this year, it’s not even waiting for October to arrive before it kicks off.

Which brings us back to Andy Goldsworthy.

Given the importance of Rivers and Tides to the Pickford’s torrid affair with documentaries, it seems only appropriate that the 2017 version of Doctober begin with the follow up to that film, Leaning Into the Wind. The documentary catches us up with Goldsworthy while giving us a glimpse of what he’s working on now—and his ideas, along with his works of art, have only gotten bigger over time. Leaning Into the Wind will have one showing only—at 6:30pm Fri., Sept 29 at the Pickford Film Center—and then, like Goldsworthy’s art, disappears forever (or at least until its official theatrical run).

From there begins the weird and wonderful odyssey that is the roster of Doctober films. Want to learn about the Dalai Lama and whether he’ll have a successor? Then The Last Dalai Lama? is for you. Interested in finding out why, in this digital age, anyone would steadfastly stick to using a typewriter? Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, John Mayer, and more will explain the mystique in California Typewriter. Want some insight into how John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman come up with those iconic movie scores? Buy a ticket to see Score: A Film Music Documentary. Feel like learning the ins and outs of the Pulitzer Prize, one of publishing’s oldest and most prestigious awards? Ante up for The Pulitzer at 100. All of these movies and more will show for a full week at the Limelight Cinema.

The remainder of the films have extremely limited runs—as in, just a couple of showings—so plan your lives wisely (the month-at-a-glance calendar inside the Pickford’s Doctober brochure is a big help for that sort of thing). I don’t have space to detail them all, but I can divulge what I’ll be seeing—when I’m not busy popping popcorn, selling movie tickets, pouring beer (including the special Doktoberfest beer that was brewed for the Pickford by Boundary Bay and is available at the brewpub as well as the theater) and showing movies, that is.

Probably the number-one must-see film on my personal Doctober wish list is LA92, the story of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, directed by erstwhile Bellinghamster and bona fide Oscar winner (for 2012’s Undefeated) T.J. Martin, who will Skype in for the show. Also high on my list is The Farthest, which takes us into deep space with NASA’s Voyager program. I’m pretty interested in Brimstone & Glory, about Mexico’s National Pyrotechnics Festival, as well as Rat Film, which promises a fascinating rat’s-eye view of Baltimore. Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation examines the long history—and dominance—of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, and Tribal Justice introduces us to two judges taking an innovative approach to maintaining law and order while preserving culture on Native American lands. Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two about the intersection of one of my favorite bands with baseball, one of my favorite sports (featuring plenty of live concert footage, natch).

Believe it or not, the documentaries themselves are only part of the draw of Doctober. Nearly every film comes with some element that combines entertainment with education, with filmmaker interviews (both in-person and via Skype), presenting sponsors, lobby presentations and more happening almost every day. As well, the Pickford’s Doc-ED program—which invites every single middle school class in Whatcom County to come see a documentary, and covers all costs (and offers free popcorn) related to getting them their morning at the movies—has become a cornerstone of the month.

The seeds of Doctober may have been planted all those years ago with Rivers and Tides, but they have taken firm root and grown into something larger than any of us at the Pickford could’ve predicted. I can’t say we weren’t warned.

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