Story and Photo by Derek Langhorn
Michael Falter has a love for cinema that stems from his adolescence and has shaped his career as a film teacher at Whatcom Community College and the program director of the Pickford Film Center in downtown Bellingham.
When he was 16-years-old, Falter first saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” a 1986 mystery movie. It “radically changed how I viewed film,” Falter said. Watching this movie reinforced his love for motion pictures, invigorated his passion and showed him that “film could still be dangerous [and] influence culture,” he said.
“Educating people through film is the most potent way to promote dialogue and community,” Falter said. “Watching film consciously can have a profound impact on the rest of your own life.”
Although students see several films in his classes, Falter said they also consist of analyzing and finding deeper meanings in cinema, so students should not “take them if they think they will just watch movies all day.”
Falter said that while teaching at a film school in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2002, a colleague approached him and told him about an opening to program and manage the Pickford film Center. Because Falter went to school in Bellingham and knew the city well, it was a perfect fit for him, he said.
“I wanted to see how I could switch from class-based teaching to community outreach,” Falter said.
The Pickford was founded in 1998, and since then has provided an outlet for independent cinema in Whatcom County. It shows independent, foreign and documentary films year-round.
The Pickford is nonprofit and supported by members in the community who pay dues to help fund it. It is run by four full-time and six part-time staff members, as well as volunteers, and serves nearly 50,000 customers annually.
As the center’s Programming Director, Falter picks many of the movies that are shown and attends festivals to find new movies that may be well received in Bellingham, he said.
Falter recently attended the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, and found that classic movies are still very influential and meaningful even in our current culture, he said. “My students may say that I am very excitable. [After returning from the festival] I was as giddy as a school kid.”
“We have had so many important and moving films here,” Falter said. Through his efforts, and others’ involved at the Pickford, the films and atmosphere at the Pickford have supplied Bellingham citizens with “a high-class cultural experience that people from towns of this size usually don’t experience,” he said.
The Pickford offers movies that are often not shown in major theaters, Falter said. “We promote stories that may not be told in the mainstream.” He added that he hopes these films will “foster dialogue in the community.”
Falter said he first thought about returning to the classroom when, while working at the Pickford, a colleague told Falter that he should teach in Bellingham. Falter said when he went looking for a position an opening was available at Whatcom and teaching at the college has given him an opportunity to educate students while furthering his interest in film.
Through his position at Whatcom, Falter has been able to relate his work at the Pickford with class curriculum. For example, he schedules his documentary class so it coincides with “Doctober,” a month long documentary festival at the Pickford, so students can have the opportunity to attend the Pickford and meet filmmakers. Falter said that it is a “great way to connect school with community.”
“Everyone that takes my film classes gets a free pass to the Pickford,” Falter said.
Falter said that he believes Whatcom’s film classes and the Pickford “fullfill a need that every community has, but few get.” He said that even in places like Bellingham, film can change social consciousness and create a positive impact on the culture.
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