The NW Film Center: A Coming-of-Age Drama

Now past 30, can Portland's bohemoth of film culture be trusted? A look back at the road its traveled

Just over thirty years since it first took shape, the Northwest Film Center today is to Portland's film culture what the Blazers are to basketball–by far the biggest game in town.

Every year, the NWFC brings us the Portland International Film Festival, the Northwest Film & Video Festival, the Reel Music series and dozens of other programs. Every year, 900 people take NWFC classes, from Underground DIY Cinema to Corporate Scriptwriting.

Eighty thousand tickets sell at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium, the nearby historic Guild Theatre and the scattered sites of the International Film Festival–which accounts for 30,000 tickets alone.

With its broad mission (which includes education, exhibition and "fostering a climate in which the moving image arts may flourish") and $1.7 million in annual revenues (including ticket sales, memberships and public and private grants), the NWFC claims a high level of public support and confidence. But, adopted at birth by the Portland Art Museum and directed by Bill Foster for the past 22 years, the NWFC has operated for the most part with little public scrutiny.

Is the NWFC playing in the pro leagues? How does it score–indeed, what are the rules of its game? As with many things, history holds some of the answers. Here, the Organ looks back at the road the NWFC has traveled–one strewn with the dashed hopes of socially conscious regional film advocates, the rolled  heads of two directors and probably a few secrets we will never uncover.

The 1960s

The Northwest Film Center was born in 1972, but its roots go back to the '60s when American filmmakers, energized by the French New Wave and stateside innovators like John Cassavetes and Stan Brakhage, experimented with every means imaginable to achieve new cinematic effects and genres. Narrative structure, editing, camera movements and film processing were all up for grabs. Decrying the shallowness and corruption of mainstream cinema, they formed independent distribution cooperatives such as the New American Cinema Group in New York and the Canyon Cinema Cooperative in California.

Here in Portland, Andres Deinum helped create the Center for the Moving Image (CMI) at Portland State University in 1969. Formerly a film instructor at the University of Southern California, Deinum had come to Portland in the late '50s after being blacklisted for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He then gained a loyal following for his public lectures on art and film, as well as his Film as Art class at PSU's night school.

"[Deinum] inspired scads of people with the idea that film should be about our lives," recalls D. Brooke Jacobson, who took classes at CMI and chaired the student film exhibition committee (today, she teaches communications at PSU). Designed to teach students from any discipline "to speak for themselves in moving images about matters they know and care about," CMI was Portland's first institutional advocate of local film.

1972-1973: A Center for Regional Film

In the early '70s, the National Endowment for the Arts began funding the development and support of regional media centers within established host institutions. Colleagues of Jacobson and another CMI protégé, Bob Summers, encouraged them to apply for funding to create an artist-run media center for the Northwest. Among their inspirations were Canyon Cinema and the National Film Board of Canada, which had funded and distributed films about Canadian life since 1939. Tom Taylor, then CMI's production instructor, recalls that there was an urgent need to give regional film more visibility. When he asked the coordinators of an arts festival in Salem whether they were going to show regional films, they responded, "Can you show Oregon films on a regular projector?"

In 1972, Jacobson and Summers won a grant from the NEA to establish the Northwest Film Study Center. Their plans were ambitious: a film magazine penned by local writers, an archive and depository for in-house study and for use in public schools, lectures and seminars, consultation to other groups on organizing film screenings, package programs for film courses and more. Taylor joined the board.

Other recipients of the NEA's media funding were housed either within universities, such as the Pacific Film Archives at Berkeley, or museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art's Film and Video Department. PSU wanted a big cut of the grant money, so Jacobson and Summers chose PAM as their host; it was a fateful decision.

Founded in 1892, the museum was just the sort of stale institution that cooperative organizations like Canyon Cinema had been created to circumvent. Yet the hosting arrangement gave the museum control over the center's leadership. Within a year, according to Taylor, the museum saw the center as an arm of its own operations, "and the job of the arm is to feed the face."

"We weren't getting enough audience to satisfy them, so they got really mad and fired Bob Summers without even consulting the center's board."

1973-1981: Growth and the Aftermath of the First Coup

In June 1973, the museum hired Robert Sitton–a highly credentialed curator and critic teaching at UC Berkeley's Center for Filmmaking Studies–as the center's new director. Sitton, whose intellectual enthusiasm for film is immediately apparent, now teaches film at Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego.

He recalls his excitement over the opportunity to run a center with such a broad mandate. "[It] was absolutely irresistible . . . I mean, I would have gone to the Mojave Desert." He set about curating a series of idea-driven film programs geared to the museum's mission of public education.

"I'd pick 12 fascinating and very different musicals, so you could see what Busby Berkeley did with it and what Stanley Donen did with it. If I were still programming, I'd show what Lars von Trier did with it in Dancer in the Dark." The approach gave audiences the chance to "understand what this art and all arts are about; they are dialogues among artists on the nature of the art itself."

Sitton struggled to build the Film Study Center, using exhibition proceeds for capital acquisitions, until, by 1980, "I felt it was built. I had an exhibition program going, a very viable film education program, a regional film festival, a children's film festival, an international film festival, a good publication program, a circulating film library." But his focus on exhibition rather than regional filmmaking put him at odds with the center's original constituency.

Though he didn't dismiss the documentary films that Deinum had advocated, Sitton admired other genres, as well: "If you limit yourself to films like that, you'll never look at Singing in the Rain, you'll never look at abstract film, you won't have a clue what L'Age d'Or is about. The art form is bigger than that." And while the Northwest Film & Video Festival continued and the center's quarterly publication, The Animator, covered the local scene, Sitton made it clear that he wasn't interested in running "a pure film co-op" with filmmakers producing and selecting the programming.

To Taylor, this lack of emphasis on local filmmakers "destroyed a dream of what the Film Study Center could have become."

Jacobson worked under Sitton for a year, coordinating traveling film programs and in-school education, until the clash of ideologies finally drove her out the door. In 1974, her departure sparked a group of Film Study Center exiles to found the Northwest Media Project, a nonprofit that would provide the regional support originally envisioned for the center. In the late '70s, the Northwest Media Project enjoyed a series of accomplishments: monthly screenings of independent work, a nationally attended seminar on fund-raising, workshops, a selective rental catalog of 72 Northwest films and the Oregon Guide to Media Services.

Martha Gies, director of the Media Project from 1977 to 1980, recalled that for filmmakers who felt sold out by the art museum "it was an angry deal, it really was . . . Things were really polarized." One source of animosity was the perception that the NEA gravy, still flowing to the Film Study Center, belonged to the community that had initially won the grant.

In 1980, Sitton took a yearlong sabbatical and worked part-time organizing the center's exhibition series. In his absence, the Portland Art Association–the umbrella organization for the museum, the Film Study Center and the Pacific Northwest College of Art–hired a new executive director. Sitton came home to face a hostile environment, and in April 1981 he sent the art association's board a letter of protest and resignation charging that the new director had systematically harassed him and usurped his authority without notifying the board. The day after his grievances were aired in The Oregonian, he was given until 5 p.m. to clear out his desk and office. Bill Foster, the center's associate director, became his successor.

Sitton asserts that he was pushed out by a business-minded regime that wanted to hire one of its own. According to Foster, "it's complicated, but when he came back there was a new structure . . . and they didn't really get along. I think it was more personal, and not a philosophic wrangling over the program of the Film Center." Sitton would not be the last to face disappointment–while the '70s had been rough on Deinum's legacy, the early '80s would practically finish it off.

1982-2003: A Community Model

In 1982, the Center for the Moving Image–which had continued to produce documentaries and serve as a professional production company for nonprofits–was nixed by budget cuts at Portland State. "But they kept golf," Taylor notes. Around the same time, the Media Project withered. "It was always a pretty dicey thing," says Melissa Marsland, who served as assistant director from 1978 through 1982. "There would be periods of no money . . . it took a really passionate visionary to keep it afloat."

In 1985, in the wake of a new strategic plan for the art association's holdings, the Northwest Film Study Center became the Northwest Film & Video Center. ("Video" was dropped later.) The name change was intended to make the center seem less academic, and reflects the predominant theme of the center's last two decades: involvement with the community-at-large.

According to Foster, "The idea has been to keep the Film Center responsive to what the community needs." He cites the Portland International Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, Reel Music, ethnically based programs and the Human Rights Watch series as exhibition programs that engage different communities. And he says he's committed to simply "showing great films that other people aren't going to show–not necessarily trying to make it part of some big series or some big idea, but just giving people the chance to see them."

As for local film, the NWFC has begun partnerships with DIY exhibitors like Peripheral Produce and the Cinema Project. Next April, the center will host Peripheral Produce's Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival. To Foster, this will fill a void in the center's programming while Peripheral Produce benefits from the NWFC's facilities and administrative expertise.

The center's education director, Ellen Thomas, estimates that 600 to 800 kids are served by in-school programs, community-based programs and classes held at the center. The center has recently embarked on longer-term, more intensive projects like the Oregon Latino Youth Video Project. Thomas notes that the center's classes and in-school programs also benefit the local filmmakers who are hired to run them. "The organizations that have survived and thrived," she says, "use the community model rather than the academic model."

How to Survive in Today's Funding Climate

Foster cites the balance between popularity and innovation in the center's programming as "a tension every arts organization faces: the ballet is going to dance The Nutcracker, the symphony is going to do Beethoven's Fifth and the art museum is going to show dead French painters. Those are not bad things, but they're practical–they're things you are impelled to do to keep your sponsorship and ticket sales going so you can subsidize those other things. We need endowment."

This expediency leaves many film buffs disheartened or irritated. Complaints about the NWFC from film enthusiasts with whom I spoke include, "They don't care about film." The programs are the same year after year. The booking caters to the conservative and nostalgic tastes of retirees in the Silver Screen club. The international festival is too big and cumbersome. The programming is, in a word, boring. The good films get lost in the mix of films that aren't carefully selected.

Ultimately, the NWFC's constituents are not filmmakers but the people who fund them. For exhibition support, constituents include ticket-buyers, Silver Screeners, private donors and institutions that put together affordable touring film packages. Government exhibition support is limited; the NEA chipped in $40,000 this year for the Northwest Film & Video Festival. For education and outreach, constituents include the Oregon Arts Commission, partner organizations like Saturday Academy and private foundations that see arts education as a public good. According to Foster, the NWFC has grown to do everything everybody always wanted it to–with the exception of actively producing and distributing films. He says that in the absence of the sort of subsidies that the Film Board of Canada enjoys, a regional film cooperative simply isn't sustainable in our culture.

Have filmmakers been left stranded? Local filmmaker Andrew Dickson, whose work has shown at the New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals, as well as the Northwest Film Festival, says that despite the paucity of local grant resources, "I would argue that Portland is a lot more conducive to filmmaking than other cities" because of a grassroots community that doles out labor and equipment based on trust and a track record of follow-through. "Once you get to know people," he says, "it's a pretty nurturing place."

Still, without institutional support like the Start-to-Finish program at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum or the industry mechanisms of larger cities, there may be limits to what you can do here. "There's a lot of action at the ground level," notes artist Bill Daniel, "but not much midlevel infrastructure." Does Portland's filmmaking collective unconscious, decades after the acrimony between the Film Study Center and the Northwest Media Project has faded, still yearn for an institution to promote their interests? Or is grassroots-level favor-banking enough? For now, at least, filmmakers who want to take the leap from labor of love to filmmaking career–and take their films to a wider audience–are making a go of it on their own.

Zelig Kurland is a freelance photographer and writer who lives in Portland. His photographs of facilities affected by Oregon's budget travails can be seen online at www.measure28.org.

About This Story


  • Author: Zelig Kurland
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012