You can handle the truth

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

During my time as a part-time projectionist at the Pickford Film Center, I have learned many things about the likes, dislikes and habits of its engaged and enthusiastic patrons. For instance, although the unfailing generosity and support of the PFC’s membership base helped finance its beautiful, state-of-the-art home on Bay Street, if the powers that be ever do away with the free popcorn (with real butter!) for members on Mondays, there will be swift and certain hell to pay. Patrons are only too happy to engage in lively discussions about the films they’ve seen, whether those discussions take place at the PFC or Limelight immediately following a showing, or while I’m waiting in line at a coffeehouse, or when I run into a Pickford regular while I’m going for a stroll around my neighborhood.

But if there’s a singular truth that has been reinforced time and again about the Pickford’s patronage, it would have to be that they have a torrid and ongoing love affair with documentaries.

This love affair was something that was noticed early on in the tenure of the PFC’s longtime program director, Michael Falter. Nine years ago, Falter spearheaded the creation of a documentary film festival at the nonprofit movie theater, an experiment that has grown into a Doctober, an annual month-long celebration of all manner of truth-telling movies, their subjects and the people who bring these stories to the big screen.

This year’s iteration of Doctober is the biggest one yet, with more than 60 films being shown on the three screens and two locales that comprise the Pickford’s cinematic empire. This makes the Bellingham-born-and-bred festival the largest of its kind on the west coast—and quite possibly beyond. Clearly, Bellingham and its surrounding environs can handle the truth—and want as much of it as they can get.

As with most of the PFC’s programming, the goal of Doctober is not only to entertain, but also to educate. And this educational outreach extends beyond just programming; via the nonprofit’s Doc-ED program, every single student in Bellingham’s four public middle schools—all 2,400 of them—will be able to attend specially selected documentary film screenings during Doctober.

Per usual, the films culled for this year’s festival vary wildly, ranging from weird and wonderful to necessary and profound—and everything in between. While I’m not able to describe all 60-plus films here (see the Pickford calendar inserted into last week’s issue of Cascadia Weekly for a complete rundown), what follows are some of the highlights.

An integral part of Doctober comes in the form of special guests and events that expand on what happens on the big screen(s), and such is the case for the festival’s opening-night doc, Landfill Harmonic, with showings starting Thurs., Oct. 1. The film features the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, which is comprised of a group of kids who live near one of South America’s largest landfills from which they glean the materials to make all of their instruments. As part of the Doctober kickoff event, Whatcom Symphony Orchestra Maestro Yaniv Attar will introduce the movie, a panel discussion will follow the showing and a make-your-own-instrument workshop will happen as well.

Documentaries with local ties have also become part and parcel of the festival, and close-to-home programming owns a chunk of this year’s schedule. Teague: Design and Beauty, which tells the story of the most recognizable and influential industrial designer you’ve never heard of, gets an encore showing, complete with an appearance by director Jason Morris. DJ Marco Collins—longtime voice of Seattle’s 107.7 The End and the de facto voice of the grunge era—is the subject of The Glamour and the Squalor, and the famed DJ will be on hand (along with director Marq Evans) to answer all your questions about “discovering” such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and more. It makes for a great companion piece to Montage of Heck showings, an intimate, atmospheric look at the life of Kurt Cobain.

Acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor gets the documentary treatment in Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, and audiences will be treated to an in-theater dance performance and a chance to query one of Taylor’s former students. Local filmmaker Brian Gilmore hopes to replicate the sold-out success of the last screening of his doc about skiing’s hotdog era, Dog Days of Winter—and the director has a lot of friends and fans, so you may want to buy tickets early for this one. Children of the Civil Rights is another film that might require some preplanning if you aim to get a seat—Julia Clifford’s story of a remarkable group of kids who, over the course of six years, desegregated every single restaurant in Oklahoma City, save for one. And if it’s the Great Bear Stakeout—complete with an appearance by conservation ecologist Chris Morgan (aka Bellingham’s own “famous bear dude,” as I am wont to describe him)—you want to see, well, Morgan’s a powerful draw around these parts, so plan accordingly. With the end of this year’s edition of Doctober comes a sneak preview screening of Milk Men, which details the daily life—and the challenges therein—of dairy farmers, including some from this area.

But features with local ties comprise just a tiny fraction of this giant festival. Some of the other intriguing subjects include the birth of Greenpeace (How to Change the World), the significance of the Black Panther Party (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), transportation alternatives (Bikes vs. Cars), the court battle over ownership of an amputee’s mummified leg (Finders Keepers), an examination of high-stakes diplomacy as seen through the eyes of long-serving U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (The Diplomat), a love story that spans more than half a century (Alfred and Jakobine), and the grueling 2,000-year-old tradition of making sake (The Birth of Sake).

But that’s not even the half of it.

You can also learn about what happened when a notorious white supremacist tried to take over a small town in North Dakota (Welcome to Leith), ultra-running legend Micah True’s crusade to create the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon (Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco), a Walla Walla high school’s efforts to educate and protect traumatized youth (Paper Tigers), the not-always hilarious history of National Lampoon (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead), the brutal war and future of the Sudan (We Come as Friends), the plight of the songbird and what it means for us (The Messenger), the remaking of the Western Bulletproof by actors with and without disabilities (Becoming Bulletproof), and the fascinating life of Hollywood star Tab Hunter (Tab Hunter Confidential).

That might be the half of it. Maybe.

As with so many things in life, one’s journey through the month-long odyssey that is Doctober is a highly personal thing. The stories and subjects that capture one person’s fancy might leave another person feeling slightly more ambivalent. But with so much Doctober to go around, truth is yours to handle as you please.

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