Meaning in Movies: Beacon Hill Group Hopes Films Spark Activism

by Marcus Harrison Green

"Meaningful Moviegoers" grab concessions prior to a screening.
“Meaningful Moviegoers” grab concessions prior to a screening.

Flooding to the movies on a Friday night is about as typical for the average American as a diet forsaking anything resembling a vegetable, but what is rarely found during those jaunts to the multiplex is any reason whatsoever to engage in discourse with your fellow moviegoers that extends beyond, “Excuse me,” while shuffling shamefully to your seat after the previews have already commenced.

You come alone, watch whatever brain cell deadening confection Hollywood has shrewdly marketed to you, and leave alone- more than likely never making eye contact with anyone associated with the hoard of strangers in whose company you just spent nearly two hours. As such, there is no surer bet than wagering that the inspiration to join them in attempting to change the world more than likely missed grazing your mind by a wide margin, let alone striking it. But if they have their way, a group in South Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood will push that inspiration a lot closer to its mark.

Featuring chairs drawn in tight assembly as neighbors hang on each others every word as intently as Moses during dictation of the Ten Commandments, heads alternating between nods of unflappable agreement and a state of stoic repose upon introduction to profound ideas, and spirited discussions that make the atmosphere pulsate with a vivacity that is more typical of an EDM dance club on a Friday night than a community gathering space – with issue focused documentaries that act as the catalyst of the foregoing- Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies,in its fourth month of operation,is seeking to show that despite what currently seems a preponderance of evidence to the contrary-Jeffersonian Democracy is indeed alive and kicking, and in South Seattle nonetheless.

The “Meaningful Movies” brand, first begun in the Wallingford neighborhood 11 years ago, has become distinguished for screening thought provoking films that challenge residents to engage in deliberate discourse and community activism. The end goal being for them to apply what had just been shown on screen to the improvement of communal daily life- in addition to formulating a collective solution to the litany of problems that the films touch on- including human sex trafficking, climate change, and income inequality.

It was seeing this living, breathing cauldron of the civically engaged upon visiting a Meaningful Movies venue in Wallingford that sparked the desire of Christina Olson-the community steward of Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies-to create an offshoot of the film series to the south end.

“I had always been interested in engaging documentaries that sparked conversations, but the best places around Seattle to catch them were at Meaningful Movie venues that were only located in various north end neighborhoods. I used to always think: Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to go across the ship canal on a Friday night just to see a great movie. It occurred to me that probably the only way I could stop doing that was if I brought them here to us in South Seattle,” exclaims Olson.

Olson, having previously succeeded in securing a grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods for a garden project, was emboldened to apply to them for funding she used as start up money in getting Meaningful Movies off the ground in Beacon Hill. She ended up partnering with Beacon Arts, the primary organizer of art related events in the area, to help with marketing efforts.

In June, Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies became the newest affiliate of the network’s 11 venues and the only located in the South Seattle area. In its brief time it has attracted those residents who are looking to foster an actual community amongst the people they casually interact with on a daily basis.

“So often neighbors just pass by each other, and don’t discuss topics or engage with each other in any significant way. This acts as a gathering post where people can come and exchange ideas.” says Olson.

The Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies – which shows films every third Friday of the month at the Garden House on Beacon Hill- has gone out of its way to make sure the movies that are presented to its community vary both in tone and message, and have featured topics as diverse as the extinction of honey bees, to the acidification of our oceans, to worker co-operatives.

“It would be easy to provide only environmental films, but we want to stay open and attract a variety of interest and a variety of people instead of becoming: That movie group that’s always harping about migration, or is always on an environmental kick,” shares Olsen.

As important as the films themselves are, they function as only appetizer to the main course, which is the moderated community conversation that ensues just after credits roll, allowing even the rhetorically shy to chime in.

“After each movie we draw the circle of chairs together and everyone shares what they thought about the film how if resonates locally,” says Olson.

“All of our discussions are facilitated because my experience has been that often times in public forums there are strong personalities that can dominate and we don’t want that. We have a series of guidelines so  that whoever wants to be heard can be heard. We realize  there are some people who are just not quick thinkers and talkers and we want to honor that too.”

It is this parsing of community opinion that Olson believes can serve as a launching pad for transformation within the community which is why she often invites local advocates to the films to enhance the topics being broached.

“The next film we are showing cooperatives in Spain and how they function and we want to have a discussion about how we translate that to possibly forming other cooperatives in the South Seattle area.We’re actually going to have a speaker from “People’s Memorial Association” which is a funeral and burial co-operative to talk about how they formed. We want the neighborhoods of Beacon Hill and beyond to asks questions such as maybe we can form co-operatives of our own here, and not depend on the mercy of a developer for jobs in our area,” says Olson.

But the movies are providing an even more practical purpose according to Beacon Arts director Betty Jean Williamson-who along with Olson heads up Meaningful Movies’ promotion. “I do think that we fill in that gap for people on specific issues where they might only be subject to talking points or “junk food” news that our media currently reports.”

“We want to give the opportunity for people who want to have discussions and want more in depth information about topics that affect us as a society to join us in doing just that. We are currently inviting people from around the area to come be a part of our steering committee to decide what topics should be presented.”

In its brief tenure, the south end affiliate of Meaningful Movie’s steering committee- made up of local Beacon Hill residents- has had the great fortune of choosing films that couldn’t be more timely than if they were in synch with the US Navy Observatory’s Master Clock.

“When we showed Migration is Beautiful it just so happened that we screened the film during the time all the news broke about the children migrants coming across the border into Texas. The government was planning to house them in military institutions. One of our guest that night happened to be involved in immigration issues and she said: We’re proposing an alternative. Why don’t we accommodate them at Discovery Park where the decommissioned barracks of old Fort Lawton could house and provide adequate services in a group setting?”

The relevance of the movies continues to not only attract a huge swath of southend area residents, but has been patronized from those living as far away as Mountlake Terrace and Poulsbo, something that both Olson and Williamson have a growing ambivalence about.

“My greatest fear is that the work that I am doing to facilitate access to arts and creating art in our community can become a lever for gentrification and that is my nightmare. Look at what happened to Belltown and what’s currently going on in the Central District,” says Williamson.

Still, Olson is doing all she can to make sure its local flavor stays intact as she wants to showcase local filmmakers-and by local she means with a capital L, as in within a 5-10 mile radius of Beacon Hill. “Though we didn’t select any this season, we’d like to eventually serve as a venue for local filmmakers within our community, even immigrants. We are currently looking into one that deals with the Ethiopian population of South Seattle.”

As Olson and Williamson embark on making the series a year round affair with viewings and discussions taking place at least twice a month, they face an uphill battle as the initial funding from the Department of Neighborhoods runs out in December which means that the fledgling franchise will have to more than likely depend on the graces of local philanthropists to keep operating beyond the holiday season.

“People really love what we’re doing, and I think we will be successful. It is truly just a matter of time. We’re still under a lot of the neighborhoods radar and are seeking to reach out to them,” says Olson. “As we grow and more people from around the area discover each other and get engaged in the discussion around the topics our films introduce, we feel that the entire community will be strengthened!”

Meaningful Movies Showings ( All films are shown at The Garden House: 2336 15th Ave. South, Seattle, WA, 98114. Doors open at 6:15pm. Film Starts at 7:00pm and includes free popcorn):

Friday, Oct 17th: Shift Change: Film makers Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young will be in attendance along with People’s Memorial Society and a local group that provides assistance in creating coops.

Friday, Nov 21st: Princess Angeline: Film looks at the history of Seattle’s first people the Duwamish Tribe.  Film maker Sandy Osawa will be in attendance.

Friday, Dec 19th: Nothing Like Chocolate: Film centers around sustainable, organic, fair trade, bean to bar chocolate produced in Grenada.  Great door prizes guaranteed!

More Information: www.beacon-arts.org and www.meaningfulmovies.org