See (and Save) the World

A Seattle-based nonprofit promotes film groups as catalysts for social change.

For its size, the Emerald City is an absolute jewel for cinephiles. We have a sprawling international film festival; eight Landmark theaters; Scarecrow Video, considered by many filmmakers to be America's best video store; and numerous small venues with quirky programming (Northwest Film Forum, the Grand Illusion, and Central Cinema, to name just three).

Other cities aren't nearly so lucky. Until recently, movie lovers in places like Mead, Neb. (population: just over 500), had to sign up for Netflix, the popular rental-by-mail program, in order to see much of anything good. And though Netflix offers 50,000 titles, the company charges a monthly fee and emphasizes mainstream fare. Plus, being the only person in town geared up to watch an obscure documentary about migrant workers must get old pretty fast.

Enter the Film Connection, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded in November 2003 to encourage the formation of film-discussion groups nationwide. Director Heather Merrill says the organization—whose current lending library contains 365 films, most of them independent, foreign, political, and/or documentary— wasn't modeled on Netflix.

"No, we modeled ourselves after book clubs and the discussions that happen there," she says. "Making films available is only part of what we do; we also work to foster community and promote dialogue." The level of idealism involved is inspiring: Groups register for free, borrow films (one at a time, and only on DVD) for free, and pay no postage or late fees. (The organization's financial support comes from donors, one of whom founded the group and wishes to remain anonymous. Film groups that donate $110 or more can check out up to three films at a time.) The idea is to get people discussing larger issues through the medium that's arguably most effective for spurring people to action. The Film Connection's Web site,, gives advice on moderating a postviewing discussion.

Why aren't there more films in the library? While a few have been purchased from distributors, filmmakers, or online vendors like, most titles are donated, Merrill says. When the organization began, film curator Ruth Hoffman guided the collection; that responsibility now lies with a nine-member advisory board that includes Hoffman, local filmmaker/producer Mercedes Yaeger, and Scarecrow Video manager Norm Hill. It's a win-win situation when filmmakers donate their work to the Film Connection, and Merrill reports that "the majority" are accepted, but she adds: "It's actually much more common for us to solicit the work of a filmmaker because the topic fits a specific programming need or it's an especially interesting project." Being selective in the search for films—the kind groups will enjoy, talk about, and remember months later—may be the key to the organization's success. Read a book about the environmental impact of polyvinyl-chloride siding? No thanks. Watch Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold's hilarious, moving—and, yes, thought-provoking—documentary Blue Vinyl, on the same subject? Now you're talking.

But are people talking? The Film Connection has 1,250 member groups so far. Roughly two out of three members live in cities, and over 75 percent reside on either the East or West Coast, but Merrill is hoping that will change in the coming years. There's no marketing budget, so it's safe to assume the Web site is the organization's primary way of reaching places like Mead. And while it's hard to know how soon Mead's residents—possibly all of them—will gather in someone's living room to check out the Swedish midlife romance A Song for Martin, there's already local evidence of film groups' ability to recast movies as catalysts for change.

According to Ballard resident W.E.S. Harman, his film group isn't anything formal—just "a bunch of friends who spent a lot of time in each others' homes." But in fact, Harman and company have used the Film Connection much as it was intended to be used. Their "documentary nights" have included The End of Suburbia, a 2004 film on oil depletion that prompted Harman to join "a peak-oil awareness and sustainability group." (Not surprising, since it's one of the Film Connection's most frequently borrowed titles; other popular favorites include the Norwegian documentary series A Journey in the History of Water, the critically acclaimed Afghani film Osama, and American journalist Greg Palast's 2004 exposé Bush Family Fortunes.)

City Farmers, a half-hour doc about urban gardening, inspired several members of Harman's group to ramp up their own gardening efforts. "In no way do I consider our circumstances unique," Harman says. "So film's potential as an instrument for change is enormous."

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