Preparing the next generation of filmmakers can be a daunting task, but Susie Purves tackles it head-on. With two new and effective programs designed to educate youth on film and production, Purves is imbuing the Bellingham film community with invaluable educational opportunities. First off, Doc-Ed is a program that brings every middle school student enrolled in Bellingham public schools to her Pickford Film Center to see a film as part of the organization’s Doctober. Second, her Media Literacy program is year round and involves teacher training programs and outreach.
Washington Filmworks sat down with Purves to discuss not only these programs, but the kind of work she usually does to influence the Bellingham film industry.
WF: You recently joined the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham as Executive Director – what is your film background and what drew you to the area?
Susie: Polymorphous is a good word to describe my background, which is in nonprofit arts management and spans visual art, contemporary performance, contemporary dance, community arts, and film. I spent six years as Managing Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle at an extraordinarily dynamic time. The organization was actually producing films through its Start to Finish program, two premiered at Sundance, one at Slamdance; The Film Company was in residence in our building and produced a slew of films including Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back and Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain. NWFF was also home to a wealth of programmers during that time with special areas of curatorial expertise that offered a truly expansive definition of film to Seattle. When the position of Executive Director opened up at Pickford Film Center (PFC), in Bellingham, I saw it as an opportunity after four years in exile, to enter back into the film world. I did my due diligence and I jumped! PFC is an extremely solid organization with community support that would be impossible in a bigger city. Bellingham was recently described in print as a “splendid island of cultural quirkiness.” I could not agree more. Bellingham does not disappoint.
WF: How would you characterize the film community in northwest Washington?
Susie: The indie film community in Whatcom County is very active despite Seattle’s gravitational pull and it seems to place a strong emphasis on both technical expertise and group support. There are some prodigious gear heads and specialized skills in this town as well as some amazing community efforts, like the annual Bleedingham competition. A number of people here have strong professional careers in film but work in Vancouver and there are others with Hollywood careers that come here to hide out. It makes for an interesting mix, but with a different flavor from Seattle. There is an incredible amount of accessibility.
WF: What have you been able to accomplish at Pickford Film Center that is specific to Bellingham?
Susie: First and foremost, PFC is a film exhibition organization. Through a herculean effort by staff and board with vast community support, they built a precious and beautiful two-screen cinema in historic downtown Bellingham that opened in late 2011.
I arrived in early 2014, PFC’s founding director had moved on and the leadership of the Pickford was seeking new ways to connect with the community. There was a donor with an interest in inspiring youth through documentary film and from that Doc-ED was created. Our Program Director, Michael Falter, curated a small group of new documentary titles that reveal inspirational people and stories and we invited whole classrooms of middle school students to come and see the films. The first year was first come first served. We had funds to host 1,100 kids but with 2,400 middle schoolers enrolled in Bellingham Public Schools and some schools needing expensive bus transportation to get here, there were equity issues at play and so, more work to do. Once the citizens of Bellingham found out about Doc-ED they responded with wide community support, in 2015 we are able to invite every middle school student in town and also pay for bus transportation for the schools beyond walking distance to our cinema. It is wonderful! We have three all new Doc-ED titles available, Landfill Harmonic, The Messenger, and Becoming Bulletproof. I hope next year we raise enough money to extend the program to kids in other school districts in Whatcom County.
I should mention that Doc-ED is a new part of a bigger program, Doctober, the largest documentary-only festival in the Pacific Northwest (right here in Bellingham at PFC). This year we will feature 60 titles over 36 days. We have filmmaker appearances, panels, parties, contests, and a special place in our heart for regional filmmakers. Titles by Washington filmmakers include Christiania, Milk Men, The Glamor and the Squalor, Teague, The Great Bear Stakeout, Raise the Roof, Children of the Revolution, and Maiden of Deception Pass. There are a bunch more regional films as well as films produced, directed, edited, or shot by Northwest filmmakers. More information is available here.
WF: What comes next?
Susie: More education! We have recently launched a Media Literacy workshop program and currently have funds to take it to eight classrooms. Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. Media literate youth and adults are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from film, television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, and all other forms of media. Media Literacy is so important to 21st Century culture, we would like to offer it to every student in this district and beyond as well as parent groups and in-service training for teachers. We are raising funds now. If every citizen has the skills to assess and dissect the media they interact with, everyone would benefit.
Our classroom Media Literacy Workshops have three parts. Step one: The PFC Media Literacy instructor, Lena Doubivko, will present one period of Media Literacy basics to students in the classroom, helping them to critically identify, evaluate, and participate with messages they receive on a daily basis in a variety of forms, building essential skills of inquiry. Their introduction to critical media analysis will include identifying the author, purpose, and point of view, examining construction techniques and genres, identifying patterns of media representation, and detecting propaganda, censorship and bias. Step two: The class will view a documentary film and will receive a worksheet following the film that asks questions relevant to what they learned in the Media Literacy workshop. Step 3: After the showing of the film, Ms. Doubivko will return to the classroom to lead a discussion about the documentary using the concepts learned in step one: Who made the film, what is their message, why did they make it, what do they want from the viewer, and how was it put together? This discussion will reinforce the concepts the students learned and show how to apply those concepts moving forward.
WF: Why are these programs important to the future generation of filmmakers and storytellers?
Susie: We all get our inspiration somewhere and students need to see themselves as the makers of their culture as well as the receivers of their culture. My preference is that future generations know the difference between Trailer Park Boys and Rich Hill in every respect. I am also concerned about transmitting to young people an appreciation of experiencing film as a special public activity in a cinema, with the lights off, with excellent exhibition standards, no distractions, and the electricity of breathing together (in Latin, the word is “conspire”).
Washington Filmworks thanks Susie Purves for her time and incredible insight! Check out more about Pickford Film Center on their website.
Susie Purves has for over two decades lead generative nonprofit art organizations vital to the growing Pacific Northwest art scene. These include Spectrum Dance Theater, Seattle (Executive Director), Northwest Film Forum, Seattle (Managing Director), Living Treasures Film Project of Northwest Designer Craftsmen (Executive Producer), and Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle (Executive Director). She recently, and with great enthusiasm, moved to Bellingham, Washington to take the position of Executive Director at Pickford Film Center where she works to create important and memorable cultural experiences that explore the many possibilities that film has to offer.