The virtual truth

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

In a normal year, the Pickford Film Center staff would be putting the finishing touches on preparations for what is the nonprofit arthouse movie theater’s biggest annual undertaking: Doctober.

Those who manage the calendar would have long since made sure that each piece of the vast scheduling puzzle that is Doctober was in place and as it should be—while troubleshooting the various unforeseen issues that always arise. Those involved in film trafficking would be constantly updating spreadsheets and systems showing which of the movies booked for the month-plus celebration of all things documentary had arrived and which were still in transit or required downloading and file conversion. Those in charge of the many special events that go along with the documentary showings would be nailing down details of in-person filmmaker appearances, Skype interviews, panel discussions, champagne receptions, after-show talkbacks and, because it wouldn’t be Doctober without a touch of whimsy, the furry animals that have somehow made their way into each festival (Buster the goat remains my forever favorite).

Along with all of that comes procuring the community sponsorships that make Doctober possible, as well as the large—and largely unseen—amount of effort that goes into the Pickford’s Doc-Ed program that enables thousands of Whatcom County public and tribal schoolchildren to come see documentaries free of charge nearly every weekday before the theater opens its doors to the public for the duration of Doctober and beyond.

As for me, a member of the Pickford’s projectionist staff, right about now I’d be bracing for impact, half-excited to once again be part of pulling off feats of movie magic in service to one of the coolest community events I’ve ever seen, and half-nervous as Doctober can be an intense and wily beast to wrangle.

But 2020 is no normal year, and instead of bugging my bosses about Doctober punch cards, asking for yet another crash course in how to set up a Skype interview, getting to work with enough time to practice running the light board so I don’t pepper a guest with dancing stars instead of bathing them in a warm glow of a spotlight and generally preparing to handle anything, I’m sitting at home, in my pajamas, having not popped a batch of popcorn nor pressed play on a movie at the Pickford in more than six months.

However, the show, as it always does at the Pickford, goes on. Since we are not able to invite you to the theater itself for Doctober, we’re bringing Doctober to you, wherever you may be—and if you must watch the documentaries chosen for this year’s festival in your pajamas, we are not here to judge you. We will likely join you, if not together, than in pajama solidarity.

If you’ve ever watched a film via the Pickford’s virtual screening room, you’re already familiar with how Doctober will work. The lineup of documentaries is live on the Pickford’s website ( and is also inserted into this week’s print issue of the Cascadia Weekly. As in years past, there’s a gap between when the schedule is released and the showings begin—in this case, Doctober kicks off Fri., Oct. 9—which you can use to reorient your life around the docs you want to see. While watching at home can’t really ever match experiencing Doctober at the Pickford, as it was meant to be seen, it does allow for more flexibility in terms of calendar management. It doesn’t quite make up for the lack of big screen, surround sound and excellent Pickford popcorn, but we do what we can under circumstances such as these.

This year’s Doctober films are organizied into the categories of Social Justice Themes, Arts and Entertainment, Womxn Filmmakers, Family Friendly, BIPOC Filmmakers, Queer Filmmakers and Queer Content, Strong Youth Leads, and Local Showcase, with quite a bit of overlap between the groupings.

If you’re new to the sometimes-confusing (it’s not just you, I swear) realm of virtual cinema, are on a budget or would simply like to get a taste of what Doctober is all about, the Pickford has made three full-length docs and one short film available for viewing free of charge—and three of the four are both regional and highly topical.

Keepers of the Dream: Seattle Women Black Panthers is a series of five short films detailing the origins and work of the women who formed the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party and their lasting effect on the Black Power movement in the city, complete with a soundtrack by Seattle artist SassyBlack. Once you’ve got some history under your belt, join the state of racial protest in the present day through the eyes of activist filmmaker Tajuan LaBee, who takes viewers on an in-depth journey into the heart of the Capital Hill Occupied Protest in 24 Hours in the Chop. To get a glimpse of the protest movement in Portland, queue up the short film 100 Days of Protest in Portland. The final of the free offerings is Public Trust, which traces the shifting relationship the federal government has to Public Lands—our land—and how we can protect this vital American asset.

But that’s just the beginning of what Doctober has in store.

While I can’t give a rundown of the more than 25 films that are part of this year’s festival, I can point you toward a smattering of them to get you started. Take a highly personal look at Chinese artist and wickedly clever dissident and humanitarian Ai Weiwei in Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly. Do the same with legendary First Nations artist Robert Davidson in Haida Modern. Explore rural small-town life of a group of Florida schoolchildren in the observational Pahokee. Learn about Rock Against Racism, the 1970s-era effort in the United Kingdom to counteract a rising neo-Nazi movement using punk rock as a uniting force (featuring cool footage of the Clash, X-Ray Spex, and more) in White Riot. Ride along during the batshit (there’s no other word to describe it) R2AK, an adventure race that begins in Port Townsend and ends in Ketchikan, AK when the winner claims a $10,000 prize nailed to a tree in The Race to Alaska. Adding to the growing canon of excellent docs detailing the rise of women activists and politicians following the 2016 presidential election is Resisterhood—watch it while you vote. Speaking of politics, hearken back to a kinder, gentler era with an examination of the intersection between former President Jimmy Carter and, of all things, rock ’n’ roll via such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Roseanne Cash.

Those are just a few of the many films the Pickford has carefully chosen for your entertainment and edification during this most unorthodox Doctober. Whether at home or in the theater itself, those of us at the Pickford know one thing about this area’s movie-goers and their relationship with documentaries: You can handle the truth.

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