Pickford Film Center and their Limelight Cinema are currently holding their 13th annual documentary film festival, Doctober.
The largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, the festival’s showings began September 26 and will be running until November 1.
Established in 1998, the non-profit organization is known for its devotion to art and cinema, and commitment to supporting local and independent creatives. Doctober’s mission is described on their website as “to provide a forum and resource for independent cinema, strengthening community through education, dialogue and the celebration of film.”
365 days a year, they offer “independent, foreign and documentary film, world-class performing arts, and related special events.” In addition, they “host special events for schools, universities and community organizations.”
Their journey started at The Limelight, established on Cornwall Avenue, where films were shown in a one-screen 70-seat theater. Over the past 21 years, they have grown significantly, becoming the region’s leading independent film center.
Marketing manager Lindsey Gerhard puts it simply: “We’ve grown in time, we’ve grown in numbers, grown in audience … there’s been a lot of natural growth from that original idea.”
As a result, in 2012 the Pickford Film Center came to be. Located on Bay Street, it operates as their main hub, equipping them with two additional single-screen theaters.
Education outreach coordinator and projectionist, Mikayla Nicholson, describes the Limelight as “sort of a funky venue … it has a lot of character.” During Doctober, the original location serves as a place where the films will be played after they premiere at the Pickford, which can hold those larger audiences.
As a nonprofit, they rely largely on volunteers. They currently have around 150 volunteers, said Nicholson.
Doctober was started in 2008, in response to a community wide interest in documentary films. Michael Falter, Pickford’s program director, has played an instrumental role in the creation and evolution of the film festival.
While living and teaching in Santa Fe, he was inspired by a local single-screen cinema that played foreign and documentary films for students and the community.
“It changed my mind about what you can do with the movie theater,” Falter said.
In 2002, he moved to Bellingham to take a position at the Pickford and teach film here at Whatcom Community College, bringing that vision with him. He taught at Whatcom for many years and was the first to teach the documentary film course that is still offered today.
“I was able to change the course description to make it more relevant to contemporary documentary, and it was a lot of fun. It was one of my favorite classes for sure,” said Falter.
He wanted students to develop a foundational understanding of how documentaries developed from the very beginning.
“Often, I would try to have a director there at the screenings with students so they could actually talk to the director, and it was pretty cool. It was one of the reasons I really loved teaching there, was to have that symbiotic relationship with the Pickford,” said Falter.
“I absolutely love teaching at Whatcom. It’s such a great school and I love the students. It was awesome. I miss it.”
In those five years between 2002 and 2007, much experimentation and exploration took place before the festival was formally established. It was after a successful event showing of the documentary “Rivers and Tides,” Falter said, that the idea first came to him.
“I was first thinking, okay, Bellingham could be one of those documentary strongholds where we really focus on that genre. And this is before documentaries really took off, so we’ve been developing the documentary audience for 15 years at least. So, I guess it’s not a huge surprise that Doctober is so popular and that we’ve had such big documentary hits the last few years because I think we’ve laid the groundwork for a long time and been priming that audience.”
In 2006, they hosted True/False West in Bellingham, a three-day regional satellite festival of True/False Film Fest, one of the leading documentary festivals in the U.S.
Bellingham loved the documentaries, said Falter, but the community was outspoken about wanting a longer festival so they could have more time to see the films.
Still operating out of the Limelight, they canceled all other programming to exclusively show documentaries on their single screen, Falter said. They showed around 20 films the first year. Over 10 years later, the festival has more than tripled in size.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things and we sort of keep proving ourselves either wrong or right over and over again that it really is a local-centric festival,” said Gerhard. “It’s made for Bellingham. It’s curated for Bellingham. It’s wanted by Bellingham. So, fostering that in our neighborhood is what keeps talking louder than anything else that we do. So just doing more of what works is to me what explains the natural growth of the festival.”
Every spring, Falter and colleague Jane Julian travel throughout North America hitting top film festivals like Hot Docs, viewing 250 documentaries in the process.
The 60 films chosen to be screened at the festival only make the cut after they are carefully sorted through among the best of their kind.
“It’s definitely a year-round process, but amps up a lot in the summer and the spring,” said Gerhard.
“I don’t ever really go into a new season of film knowing what I want to show, but I feel like after seeing that many films, what is revealed is sort of the mass, like what is on the minds of filmmakers worldwide? So, I think the themes really come from the filmmakers, not from us. It’s just really interesting to see how there’s like this collective consciousness or something like that, that ends up inspiring filmmakers to approach different topics,” Falter said.
There are seven prominent themes this year, that intersect in many cases: animals, biographies, changing lands, classic docs, health, the migrant experience, and music. Both film buffs and newcomers have a wide selection of content to choose from.
Many of the showings are also accompanied by Q&As with the filmmakers, interactive exhibits, or collaborations. They have around 35 partners for this year’s festival, said Gerhard.
“We just try to get creative and think of ways that can make it a little bit more fun, ways that you can tie what’s going on on-screen to what’s happening in the community.” They do this at the film center year-round, but broaden it during Doctober, said Gerhard.
One event coming up on Oct. 20, is in combination with The Pollinators, a much-anticipated documentary about honeybees and beekeepers. The film is being presented at the festival by the Community Food Co-op and shown in partnership with the Western Washington University Outback, BeeWorks Farm, and Southern Exposure Family Farm.
The filmmaker is flying in for the screening, and there will be a reception with honey-sweetened treats. Several local organizations will be speaking about different aspects of beekeeping, said Gerhard.
Another way they connect with the community during Doctober is through Doc-ED, their documentary film education program available to middle schools in Whatcom County throughout October and November.
“We offer to every single middle school in Whatcom County the opportunity to come to the Pickford for free. We reimburse schools for the buses, the tickets, for the popcorn,” said Nicholson. Nicholson and executive director, Susie Purves, watch and pick the documentaries that will be shown to students.
“This year, we have a really interesting slate of documentaries for kids. We have Apollo 11, Maiden, Kifaru, and The Serengeti Rules – so they cover a wide range of topics. I also think they’re just really good documentaries. It’s really exciting when they are documentaries that I feel like I would watch again and again, so I feel good about showing them to 5,000 students across the county,” said Nicholson. “Sometimes I get to go and talk to the kids after the movie and it’s really cool hearing them ask questions and what they thought about the film. It’s just cool to see kids excited about film, and documentary film especially.”
Those planning on seeing multiple films at the festival, should pick up a punch card at either location to participate in the Doctober Challenge. Ask the box office for one, and you’ll receive one punch per viewing. Eight films will earn two free movie passes, as well the choice of a single piece of merchandise or entry into a raffle for one year of free movies for the winner and a guest.
Doctober Film Festival was named by Alexis Cardinal, who died shortly after the festival was established.
“She was a great high school friend, and ultimately we both ended up in Bellingham. Her husband, Brandon, is still a dear friend of mine. We actually had a slide on-screen thanking her for naming Doctober. It was a really wonderful way for us to honor her and thank her,” Falter said.
As of Oct. 17, there’s still time to catch over half of the more than 60 films to be featured. The current schedule and showtimes, with accompanying trailers are available by visiting www.pickfordfilmcenter.org/doctober or by calling 360-738-0735.
Tickets sell at $11.25 for general admission, or $8.50 with a valid student ID card. Advance tickets are available online or at the box office. There is street and garage parking available nearby, which is free all day on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays.
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