Documentary films have entered the mainstream. With the drying up of traditional news sources, they have become a primary conveyance of topical information.
Although some of the films about food and money enjoy lengthy commercial runs in the major cities, most of the theatrically distributed documentaries receive one-week engagements at best. The majority goes straight to public television and DVD.
Here, in Seattle, we are fortunate to have two groups who specialize not only in screening such films but providing public forums for their discussion.
“When you see a film with 100 other people that you know you will be having a conversation with, it’s is certainly more powerful than watching something by yourself on television or in a theater, where everyone just gets up and leaves at the end,” Rick Turner said. He and his wife, Diane, are members of Friday Night at the Meaningful Movies, a weekly series of social justice films offered for free at Wallingford’s Keystone Congregational United Church of Christ.
The series, which began nine years ago as a project by the now-defunct Wallingford Neighbors for Peace and Justice, is not affiliated with the church, nor has it any specific political ties.
The members of the group have wide interests, and each person looks for and selects films based on their own predilections. Other suggestions come from people attending the series, as well as submissions from filmmakers.
“The most important part of the evening is not the film, but the discussion that follows,” Turner said. “We have a speaker and sometimes a panel to facilitate discussion, which we try to keep as open as we can. We depend on the universal intelligence of the audience, which runs from 60 to 180 people. Our main intent is the building of a resilient community. There are so few places anymore where people can meet and talk about things.”
“Before we started doing this series, I didn’t really know about any of these issues. “I thought I was an aware person, but I wasn’t,” Diane added. “Then, watching a film dealing with agricultural issues, I saw not only how it affected me personally but learned some things about the U. S. economic policies relating to the subsidization of the agriculture industry. That piqued my interest in seeing another film on a related subject, and eventually, I began to connect the dots. What had appeared to be films on different subjects each Friday eventually becomes part of a larger, more interconnected picture.”
“I am optimistic about the future of the documentary film, especially at the grassroots level,” Rick said. “People are starving to death for community. Once the conversation starts, it is rare for anyone to leave in the middle of it.”
Since the movies are free and open to the public, the Turners have had their facilitation abilities tested at times. “At first, our discussions were more of a free-for-all,” Diane said, “but Rick and I began to see some problems with that, so we took a facilitation class to learn techniques of control. Sometimes, you really need to have some ground rules. Some on the committee were against this, but eventually, they realized that to protect the many, you need some guidelines.”
“These ground rules are open-ended,” Rick added. “We are not trying to control the discussion — just helping the group find the best way to communicate with each other.”
Although sometimes — such as the scenes in “If A Tree Falls,” about the Environmental Liberation Front, in which police pepper-sprayed the crowds — viewers are moved to angry expression, it is more common for them to get depressed when confronted with subjects such as nuclear abolition that make them feel helpless.
So the group came up with the idea of showing something more positive once a month. It partnered with Transition Seattle and Sustainable Wallingford to offer, on the second Friday of each month, a film on a global issue that people could get involved with on a local level. This month, that film will be “I Am,” which features discussions with intellectual and spiritual leaders about what is wrong with our world and how we can improve it.
On the second Saturday afternoon of each month, Community Cinema comes to the Frye Art Museum on First Hill. The films are selected from the 30 or so documentaries shown annually on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”
These films — which are chosen by a committee headed by Lois Dossen, executive producer of “Independent Lens” — do not vary from city to city, giving the series a national rather than a local flavor.
Although Patrick Boroch, the Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator, has no input into what films are shown, he does have the choice of guests and speakers, as well as the making of decisions regarding whom to partner with for each presentation.
This is Community Cinema’s second season at the Frye.
“I had always wanted to work with them,” Boroch said, “but felt we needed a mature and robust program to go into such a high-quality facility. Two years ago, I pitched them with the idea that because all of our movies are free and the museum is free, I thought it would be a great fit to have free film at a free museum.”
Like the Turners, Boroch is enthusiastic about the experience of seeing a documentary with an audience and being able to discuss it afterwards.
“You have a theater filled with a hundred people all seeing the same movie, possibly getting angered or upset by it or just feeling there is something they could do about the issue,” he said, adding that it is part of his job to motivate the audience to action, and part of that is accomplished through conversation.
Its first offering of the new year, on Jan. 14 at 2 p. m., will be “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock,” the story of a largely forgotten heroine of the civil-rights movement who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in 1957.
According to Boroch, the film shows “there are people you haven’t heard about who have done amazing things. It also fits into this year’s focus on fostering mentorship and leadership between women and young girls.”
Boroch is also developing several activities at the event other than the panel-discussion model. His extensive outreach to underserved communities has helped build an audience that is diverse in both age and race, which leads to an effective sharing of different ideas in the post-film discussions.
One of his favorite memories of the last year was hearing the Native people in the audience discuss how issues in the film “Reel Injun” related to them and their portrayal in the media.
BILL WHITE was a regular contributor to the arts section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise in 2009. He most recently was the film critic for Seattle PostGlobe. E-mail him at email@example.com.