March 3, 2003

North by Northwest: Art, Attitude and Activism Thrive in Regional Doc Scene

Brian Quist (left) and T.J. Martin, Seattle-based makers of 'A Day in the Hype of America.' Photo: Courtesy of Global Griot Productions

May we direct your attention to the upper left-hand corner of your map?  At the northwest edge of the continental United States sit two thriving documentary and independent film communities separated by a total of only 180 miles, Seattle Washington and Portland, Oregon. (Vancouver, a mere 130 miles further north, is also an artistically vital part of the Northwest scene—but since the process of funding, creating and distributing films in Canada is so different from that in the US, it receives separate consideration in the sidebar below.).

While there's no single group or movement that links these close neighbors, there's certainly a shared regional pride, and a sense that the Pacific Northwest is experiencing growth and success as a center of documentary activity.

Seattle: Growing Audiences, Finding Geniuses

"We want to grow documentary film in this region," declares Lyall Bush, program director of the Washington Commission for the Humanities (www.humanities.org). "Our long-term project is to make sure that there is a pool of talent that either stays here or comes here, and feels welcomed and nurtured, and that their work doesn't end up on a shelf."

The inaugural Naked Eye Documentary Film Festival, a three-day event held last November at Seattle Art Museum, represented the first fruit of WCH's ambitious efforts—but according to Bush, it's just the beginning. Naked Eye is in early discussions with Northwest Film Forum and its filmmakers collective, Wiggly World Studios, to partner with NWFF's First Person Cinema series and create a larger program that would run on multiple screens in 2003. "Blow it up, as the kids say," remarks Bush dryly.

While the Humanities Media Center has been helping to support film, video and Internet production since 1995, it's definitely ramping up its commitment to documentaries. WCH has instituted a $10,000 Media Grant specifically for documentary film, and ultimately hopes to move beyond one-time sponsorship of individual projects and build a funding pool that would provide more filmmakers with more access to more money. Moreover, Bush insists, "We need more than just an annual showcase. We're hoping to move into once-a-month showings, with discussions and deeper probes into the films, more than just general Q&A. We want to grow the audience for documentaries."

And that audience is already large and receptive, claims Kathleen McInnis, programmer of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF; www.seattlefilm.com). "The impact and profile of documentary films has exploded," she points out. "More and more attention is being paid to them, especially here, where companies like Vulcan have done extraordinary things."

Indeed, Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions (www.clearblueskyfilms.com), already known for independent feature films like Far From Heaven, Safety of Objects and Men With Guns, will expand its national documentary profile in 2003 with The Blues, a seven-part series supervised by Martin Scorsese that explores the development of blues music through the visions of seven different directors. The company has spread some of its wealth locally as well, helping to sponsor the Naked Eye Festival. Allen's foundation has provided funds to several Northwest media groups and to the Seattle Film Festival.

SIFF, which bills itself as the largest and best-attended festival in the country, will acknowledge the blossoming of the documentary genre in 2003 by bringing back Fly Filmmaking, a program created and coordinated by McInnis that ran within the Festival from 1996 through 2001. In its original incarnation, three directors were chosen and given (along with a camera, crews and talent) six days to cast, shoot, edit, score and present their films to an audience and a panel of judges. This year the pace will be just as frenetic, but the scope will be more specific.

"We'll be inviting up to 12 local filmmakers to create a short documentary film on the theme of Seattle," explains McInnis. "We'll give them Seattle crews, they'll work with Seattle vendors, they'll put their films together during the week, and later in the Festival they'll be showcasing their work to an audience that really appreciates it. It's an outgrowth of our commitment to local filmmakers and to the documentary form."

McInnis, herself a documentary film producer, doesn't hesitate to recommend the area as a place to work. "Documentarians like a relatively healthy environment; they like places that are pleasant to live. That's not a reason for feature filmmakers to work here, but docs thrive." And in her role as programmer, she notes with pleasure, "We get [docs] every step of the way. Lyall Bush and WCH help documentaries get funded. Wiggly World/Northwest Film Forum provide the material and equipment to get them finished. And the community—and audiences at the festival—support and respect their creativity."

Still, this is the Northwest, where the economic forecast has been largely dismal for the last couple of years, and it shows no immediate promise of clearing. McInnis admits that the climate for private film funding has been "horrible" recently. "Sometimes hard times can generate anger, which can generate ideas—such as in Shaya Mercer's Trade Off  [documenting the World Trade Organization protests of 1999]. There's a great political background to the documentary scene here."

But Northwest Film Forum executive director Michael Seiwerath (www.nwfilmforum.org) sees a different trend rising out of the downturn. "There has been a real upsurge here recently in documentaries as an art form," he says. "Digital video has made it easier and cheaper. At the very least, one can just get a camera and turn it on oneself [as in the First Person Cinema model]. When it's done badly, it's absolutely terrible, but when it's done well, it can enable talented artists to get their stories told. People are putting a lot of energy towards narrative work."

While the first-person technique can walk a blurred line between the categories of "narrative" and "documentary," Seiwerath and some of his Seattle colleagues are philosophical about the distinction. As Bush puts it, "Now you can get a good camera for 4,000 bucks, and for another 5,000, a G4 Mac with enough memory to pull down half of Europe. For $10,000, you're a film company. The bad side of that is, you get a lot of amateurs; the good side is, you find geniuses."

Portland: Are You Ready To Experiment?                                              

Matt McCormick says it's all about the numbers. "In Portland, you can pay $300 a month in rent, take a job for $10 an hour, then go and make films. You can be broke and live here."

McCormick, who's lived in Portland for eight years, is a filmmaker whose 2001 documentary, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, played at film festivals nationally. He also created a distribution company, Peripheral Produce (www.rodeofilmco.com/peripheralproduce), which, in 2002, launched the first Portland Documentary and eXperimental (PDX) Film Festival, a four-day event featuring "artistic works of all shapes and sizes that challenge the cinematic status quo."

The PDX Festival suits Portland, according to its founder, because, "Portland's the cheapest city on the West Coast. There's a young, creative crowd that wants to do things, with a lot of ambition and not a lot of money. I read recently that there's only one Fortune 500 company in Portland, but that the city has the largest percentage of owner-operated businesses in the country. It's an audience that really appreciates homegrown, do-it-yourself productions."

In keeping with that laid-back ethos, McCormick expects the labor-intensive PDX Fest to take 2003 off and become a bi-annual event (although at this writing, there's still a possibility it will return this year).

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to keep filmmakers busy in the Rose City—and Thomas Phillipson, Regional Services Coordinator at Northwest Film Center (NWFC; www.nwfilm.org), says he's never been busier. Phillipson coordinates the Northwest Film and Video Festival, which for 29 years has showcased work by media artists working in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia. This year the juried survey had over 400 entries—"more than ever before," says Phillipson, who credits the increase to the digital video boom and aggressive outreach. "We keep track of the many festivals, websites, media centers like 911 Media in Seattle and arts organizations all over the region...there's a lot of communication."

From the 30-45 shorts, features and documentaries screened each year at the festival, 10-15 shorts are selected for the Best of the Northwest Tour, which takes the films to media arts centers, museums, arts councils and universities throughout the Northwest. The touring program was recently awarded a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

And while Phillipson concurs with his Seattle counterparts that corporate funding is growing more difficult to obtain, he shares McCormick's view of a supportive community that's finding ways to get films made. "We don't rely on sponsorship so much as in-kind donations—there are post-production houses in town that give independents a big break, provide design work, donate space and really contribute at the grass roots level." Thanks to these in-kind gifts, NWFC gave $18,000 worth of "Production Service Awards" at the last festival—certificates that could be redeemed for various kinds of production and post-production assistance from participating local vendors.

NWFC also runs the Portland International Film Festival and a number of other annual events including a Jewish Film Festival, a Young Filmmakers Festival and the Reel Music Festival (a month-long celebration of music and film). But for all this institutional activity, Phillipson still stresses that  informality sets the tone in Portland. "Portland has had a real boom in the kind of filmmaker who is doing it for the fun of it—to find a voice, not to go to Hollywood. There are viewings in coffee shops, parking lots, anywhere you can hang a screen. We're trying to support that—it's the kind of spirit that percolates up. People are supportive, and it doesn't have to be perfect. Really, it's a pretty small town."

Beth Harrington, a filmmaker who recently relocated to the Pacific Northwest from Boston, agrees...and sounds a note of caution. "The Boston film community is largely focused around documentaries; you've got WGBH, you've got a university on every corner. It's a very rich environment— and I wasn't prepared for how different it is here." Harrington, whose Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly played at numerous festivals as well as on PBS in 2002, is quick to praise the experimental work she sees in her adopted city. "There's some incredible stuff being done here, especially in animation." But, she adds, "It doesn't seem like there are as many networking opportunities [as on the East Coast]; people have to work at it a lot more. There's a lot of new work, but as far as an environment where a serious documentary filmmaker can come and make a living...it's very tricky."

For Harrington, that's where the proximity of other Northwest cities comes in. "I've started to make an effort to go to Seattle more often. I've met a lot of women making great films up in Seattle, and I've become friendly with some Vancouver filmmakers. Certainly in terms of resources, it feels like there's a bigger community."

NWFC's Phillipson seconds that expression of solidarity: "It all waters the same garden." And in spite of the potential competition for audiences and films in a corner of the continent which boasts multiple major festivals within 300 miles, he says calmly but firmly, "It's so clear to me that there are enough films—and filmmakers—to go around."

Seth Magalaner is a television producer living in Seattle.

Sidebar:

Vancouver: Collective Action in the Great White North

British Columbia is fertile territory for documentaries, home to a large community of filmmakers and an avid, involved audience. At the 2002 Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF; www.VIFF.org), Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine won the audience award as the most popular film out of 304 shown, and attendance at VIFF surpassed 150,000—a record high.

But the Canadian economy, too, is struggling, and that hits hard in a nation where filmmakers "have to stitch together funding from seven or eight different sources," according to Betsy Carson, a producer at Canada Wild Productions (known for such films as 1998's A Place Called Chiapas, produced by Nettie Wild, and the upcoming Fix: The Story of an Addicted City). Some monies may come from highly competitive federal grant programs, such as the Canadian Television Fund administered by Telefilm Canada; the rest, from a variety of granting agencies like BC Films, a private, nonprofit society that receives funding from the provincial government. But BC Films, says Canada Wild executive producer Gary Marcuse, has slashed its budget severely—"to the point where they no longer invest in production, only development"—and thus, for Canadian filmmakers, the tradition of activism is expressing itself in lobbying for resources and support.

Marcuse is a past president of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC; www.cifc.org), and seven years ago helped organize the Vancouver chapter, which he feels has become increasingly important as filmmakers try to negotiate the complicated and fragmented system of Canadian film funding. The group now numbers 150 members. In addition to periodic workshops, meetings and a regular newsletter, CIFC Vancouver now distributes as many as four emails daily informing members of screenings, job openings, grant deadlines and other news relevant to what Marcuse calls "an extremely supportive" independent film community.

-- Seth Magalaner

Documentary Groups and Resources in the Northwest

SEATTLE

Cinema Seattle (www.seattlefilm.com). Produces the Seattle International Film Festival ( May 22-June 15, 2003), as well as other programs year-round.

Northwest Film Forum/Wiggly World Studios (www.nwfilmforum.org). Nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational programs, financial support and production resources for independent filmmakers. The group also manages two cinemas, the Little Theater and the Grand Illusion, which screen experimental works by local artists, as well as new independent films and repertory revivals. NW Film Forum also has started a monthly email listserv, Doc Society, specifically for those interested in the documentary form.

911 Media Arts Center (www.911media.org). Nonprofit, member-supported arts center that sponsors workshops, offers low-cost production facilities, holds screenings and runs a number of other programs fostering "the expressive use of innovative media tools."

Washington Commission for the Humanities (www.humanities.org). The Humanities Media Center hosts oral history and video documentary workshops, a resource center that includes video cameras, an Avid video editing suite and an online magazine. The second annual Naked Eye Documentary Film Festival is scheduled for November 14-16, 2003.

PORTLAND

Northwest Film Center (www.nwfilm.org). Housed at the Portland Art Museum, NWFC presents the Portland International Film Festival (every February) as well as the Northwest Film and Video Festival and several other festivals throughout the year. The center also has a film school, runs a filmmakers-in-the-schools outreach program, awards a yearly production grant to an Oregon filmmaker and has production equipment and facilities available for rental.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (www.opb.org).  A nonprofit membership organization, public broadcaster of radio and television and a content producer and distributor for radio, television and the Web. OPB holds occasional meetings for the local independent media-making community.

Peripheral Produce (www.rodeofilmco.com/peripheralproduce). Distributes experimental independent films by a number of artists from Portland and elsewhere. Produced the PDX Film Festival in 2002 (future status TBD).

VANCOUVER

Vancouver International Film Festival (www.viff.org). Major international Festival held in late September/early October. In 2002, 304 films screened to an attendance of over 150,000.

Canadian Independent Film Caucus (www.CIFCvancouver.com). Local chapter of the national filmmakers collective is composed of more than 150 members. Hosts monthly workshops for members on all aspects of documentary production and publishes an e-mail newsletter, The Sprocket, that helps members keep informed and part of the community.

-- Seth Magalaner

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