March 1, 1997

The Northwest Documentary Film Festival

Terry Zwigoff

There's a new festival in town! It all started in November 1995 when Lyall Bush, with the support of the Washington Commission for the Humanities, decided to take on the monumental task of creating the first film festival in the Northwest dedicated solely to the genre of documentary film. In a city where there are film festivals for al most every ethnic group and style of filmmaking, the concern was: would a new festival be just another face in the crowd?

January 1996 found Lyall and a small group of volunteers with a budget that would make any producer cringe. They began the task of looking for films, sponsors, speakers and, of course, a place to house the event. The Seattle-based Rocket Comics, Scarecrow Video, and Thomas Kemper Soda Co., along with the Port Townsend Film Society joined the two venue sponsors, the Seattle Art Museum and the Rose Theatre, to offer their support of this event. The speakers who turned out for the festival were well-known to IDA members: Frederick Marx, Hoop Dreams; Terry Zwigoff, Crumb; Ross McElwee, Time Indefinite; and Rick Goldsmith, Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press.

Slated to begin November 1-3, right in the middle of the presidential election, the festival began to take on a political slant with submissions of films: A Perfect Candidate (81 min., R.J. Cutler and David Yan Taylor), The War Room (93 min., D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus), Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press (100 min., Rick Goldsmith), and the all-time standard Primary (60 min., Robert Drew). Added to these feature length films were the shorts House of Un-American Activities, by Frederick Marx, and a mind jolter, Supplementary Justice: The Jimmy Smyth Story, by Patrick Ruane.

Rounding out the festival were films that left a definite impact on the audience. Tibor Jankay: The Art of Survival (40 min., Harlan Steinberger) is a portrait of a man who used his artistic skills to survive the Holocaust. Prisoner 88 (50 min., David Paperny) concerns a Christian who survived four-and-a-half years at Auschwitz and for 30 years donned his striped camp uni­form to speak about his burden of guilt and his search for redemption. Time Indefinite (117 min., Ross McElwee) is a follow-up to the hit Sherman's March. The very personal Before You Go: A Daughter's Diary (50 min., Nicole Betancourt) is about the filmmaker's attempt to bridge the gap with her father before he died of AIDS. Anatomy of Desire (55 min., Jean-François Monette and Peter T. Boullata) is a fast­ paced history of perspectives on homosexuality from the Victorian era to present times. Music documentaries included: The Golden Hugo Award winner Small Wonders (85 min., Allan Miller), a story of an East Harlem violin teacher, which made its Seattle Premiere at the festival; Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (85 min.), Steve M. Martin's award-winning documentary that chronicles the life and work of Professor Leon Theremin in the field of electronic music; and Terry Zwigoff first film, Louie Bluie (60 min.), a portrait of Howard Armstrong, player of the violin and mandolin from the 1920s and 1930s.

The best of the festival awards were determined by a three member jury: John DeGraaf, independent documentary film producer, whose latest effort Affluenza will air on PBS this year; Tom Dubois, Associate Professor of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, who has written on the interplay between com­munity identity and media; and Robert Horton, movie critic for the Everett Herald, who has written for Film Comment and reviews films for KUOW, a Seattle radio station. The films chosen included Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, a story of the gifted, tenacious reporter who devoted his career to the truth and inspired people such as I.F. Stone and Ralph Nader; even in his 98th year of life he remained the iconoclast—the interview with him and the readings of his works by Edward Asner were inspiring. Also, A Perfect Candidate, covering the Virginia Senate race between Senator Charles Robb and Oliver North, which made the events of Primary look like a walk in the park. The winner in the shotts program was Portland (12 min., Greta Snider), a road movie about three friends who decided it would be great fun for all to rendezvous in the Oregon city.

Opening night speaker was Frederick Marx, commenting on "Journalistic Integrity, Social Awareness, Humanity," followed by a discussion with All Black, Department of Sociology, University of Washington. On the following day, a panel discussion on "The Personal Documentary " included Terry Zwigoff, Frederick Marx and Ross McElwee, moderated by Tom Dubois. A member of the original panel was Steven Shaviro, author of Passion and Excess (1990), The Cinematic Body (1993) and Doom Patrols (1997), unable to attend due to illness. The combination of wit and humor by Zwigoff, Marx and McElwee kept moderator Dubois on his toes and the audience wanting more. (This reviewer suggests that they consider taking their show on the road.)

Seattle is not your typical urban locale. When it's not raining—which doesn't seem to be very often—the general populace gravitates to the great outdoors. The weekend of the festival was one of those rare non-rainy occasions causing the attendance to be less than anticipated. It has been suggested that for next festival in 1998, The Farmer's Almanac should be consulted before choosing the festival date. Those who missed this three-day event last November missed quite a treat of film, panels and access to the filmmakers.

Lyall Bush credits his conversations with IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane as invaluable aid to the Festival's planning. Another thing that he learned was that contacting filmmakers, looking for sponsors, and just plain all-around leg­ work takes a lot of time and energy. During the efforts for the 1998 festival, he will be enlisting the help of more volunteers. Those of us at the IDA who have worked long and hard on the IDA Awards know the importance of volunteers to help with this kind of organization. Funding and time constraints have pushed the date for the next festival to the Fall of 1998. If you are interested in submitting your film or volunteering to help with the next festival, please contact: Lyall Bush, Washington Commission for the Humanities, 615 Second Ave., Ste. 300, Seattle, WA 98104; phone: 206-682-1770 ; fax: 206-682-4158.


KATHRYN TURNAS, film and theatre producer/director, is an IDA member and resident of the Seattle area.