Washington's Friday Harbor Film Festival showcases socially conscious films


Friday Harbor is a resort town on San Juan Island, the most populous of the isles that comprise an archipelago famous for its variety of resident and migrating whales. This picturesque spot is in Washington State, a 30-minute flight from Seattle. At the start of the last weekend in October, Lynn Danaher, Karen Palmer, and dozens of volunteers in cheery red vests were making last-minute preparations for the 6th Annual Friday Harbor Film Festival (FHFF), held Oct. 26-28. Danaher and Palmer, who live on the island, are co-founders of the festival that centers on Pacific Rim narratives.

Filmmakers, FHFF sponsors and guests, and locals seeking tickets arrived in a steady stream at the festival's First Street storefront offices, stepping over Layla, a large golden retriever nestled beside Zandra Gutierrez's desk. If the dog is an unofficial mascot, Gutierrez is the festival's earth mother. Her smile immediately dispels the chill of a late fall afternoon. She greets many in the crowd by their first names, and presides over the festival's hub with authority, once chiding this irresponsible journalist for losing her all-access badge.

On the Thursday before FHFF's Friday evening gala, talk centered on the local ferry schedule that had just been unexpectedly curtailed, and whether or not it would affect off-island ticket sales. (It did.) Kenmore Air's seaplanes, the iconic "Beavers" (De Havilland DHC-2), had also been grounded that day because of high winds, but the regional carrier's nine-passenger Cessnas picked up the slack. Many guests, including filmmakers, some of whom arrived from abroad, were met at Friday Harbor Airport and dispatched to their hotels by festival organizers. One filmmaker mused that he liked being "coddled."

FHFF is best known for screening socially conscious feature-length and short documentaries. This year, there were four narrative films among the 25 features, including Brian Kohn's Maui, a drama about indigenous Hawaiians. Few of the films are premieres, and some are several years old but rarely screened, such as Julia Dordel and Guido Tolke's Intelligent Trees (the title says it all), and Kevin Clark's comprehensive From the Wild, about the ongoing debate over the care of wild mustangs.

Standout documentary shorts, such as Aimie Vallat and Guido Ronge's Little Rebel, a powerful argument in favor of immigration, were screened along with narrative shorts, such as Kent Loomer's intergenerational drama Keys to Life and Partho Gupte's Jasmine Sting, a scathing indictment of indifference to child poverty. Gupte, a 17-year-old college student, was the recipient of FHFF's Emerging Filmmaker award. Three movie awards granted at the festival are voted on by the audience. In the “Tales of the Heart” award category, the winner was Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski's Big Sonia, about the latter's mother, a Holocaust survivor. Overall Audience Favorite went to Kirby Dick's feature documentary The Bleeding Edge, about the medical-device industry, and “Things to Consider” was granted to Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders, which profiles Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad.

The denizens of Friday Harbor are progressives and activists; every Friday afternoon, a group of men gather on the lawn of the sheriff's office to call attention to sexual-assault victims. One well-known restaurateur confessed that she is considering removing Chinook salmon from her menu; killer whales, an endangered species, feed on that fish, also on the endangered species list. On an island where whale-watching can be accomplished from the shore, and sea lions, porpoises and sea birds abound, it is no surprise that San Juan Islanders are also eco-activists. The wellbeing of land and sea creatures naturally influences Danaher and Palmer's selection of films.

FHFF's winning short was Mark Leiren-Young's moving portrait of "Granny" in The 100 Year-Old Whale; an orca who survived the horrific era of whaling, Granny disappeared in 2017. The “Explorers and Adventurers” prize went to Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin for Chasing the Thunder, which follows the crew of the Sea Shepherd in their quest to stop the poaching of sea creatures in the Antarctic. Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young's excellent short Plane Truths chronicles the Navy's plans to expand the number of test flights of "Growlers" on nearby Whidbey Island. Some islanders in the audience, one of whom is a marine biology student, speculated that the noisiest planes in the military, along with the increasing number of commuter ferries, are disrupting the whales' echolocation.

San Juan Island and other neighboring islands are also home to agricultural communities; flying over them, one spies tilled fields, as well as small herds of cattle. Farmers also raise alpacas, goats and lambs. At Friday Harbor's weekend farmers market, one seller was telling another about Marcelina Cravat's feature Dirt Rich, which screened at FHFF. It focuses on ways to correct the world's carbon imbalance by returning the element to the soil. That effort, according to scientists interviewed for the documentary, may depend upon the use of biochar, a carbon-rich substance derived from wood that replaces pesticides and commercial fertilizers.

On a rainy Saturday morning during the festival, this mushroom lover discovered one of Friday Harbor's agricultural delights—Matsutake and Oyster mushrooms, found on lawns and in the surrounding pine forests. Quite serendipitously, FHFF screened Annamaria Talas's riveting documentary feature The Kingdom that very evening. It calls the appearance of mushrooms the "biological Big Bang," and explains the "woodwide web" sustaining every forest on the planet. Signals sent through the mycelium or long roots of mushrooms lie at the heart of that system.

About half of the features screened at FHFF were directed or co-directed by women, or represent stories that are women and girl-centered. This year's FHFF “Local Hero” Award went to female composer Alex Shapiro. In the oversaturated field of film festivals, that largely reflect the concerns of white male curators, Danaher and Palmer's Friday Harbor Film Festival is a haven of feminine sensibilities—and refreshing for its "coddling" of guests.

Pictured: Author Maria Garcia with Emerging Filmmaker Award winner Partho Gupte