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Claremont School of Theology hosts annual film festival at Willamette for the first time

Piper Lehr

Lifestyles Editor

Over the weekend of Feb. 11 - Feb. 13, Claremont School of Theology (CST), a school which Willamette is [affiliated but not merged with], held their annual Common Good International Film Festival at Willamette University (WU)’s Salem campus in Ford Theater (Ford 122) for the first time since the relationship was forged. President Thorsett said back in Sept. 2021 that, “even though a merger can’t be completed at this time, CST’s presence here” was already making itself visible - and this event serves as a poignant example of just how the affiliation is emerging on both campuses.

According to Jeremy Fackenthal, the director of the film festival who also got his PhD at CST, this event is typically held in Claremont, California and was designed around a specific class. The class (Faith & Film) is open to the general public as well as CST students. “The faculty member who started the festival [Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki] also put together a class that ran alongside the festival,” he explained. He also mentioned that the festival was partly designed as a way for her to be able, “to teach people about a particular philosopher that she liked and thinks should be influential or transformational for people.” She thought that film would be an easier, more accessible way for her to share this philosopher’s principles with people.

The specific philosopher frontheaded at this festival is Alfred North Whitehead. When asked why Whitehead was chosen specifically, Fackenthal responded that the founder, as well as the organizers moving forward, all like how his philosophy, while stressing an awareness of our responsibility to the well-being of others, also provides his followers with a glimmer of hope in the future: “Whitehead emphasized the process of becoming rather than just sort of talking about static substances or existence,” he explained. This philosophy ties into two of the five criteria for deciding winners of awards at the end of each night: both “the film shall exhibit sensitivity to the human situation, promoting the dignity of all” and “the film shall cultivate a realistic hope of creative transformation.” Whitehead’s philosophy has also impacted the overall theme and title of the festival throughout the years, which similarly stresses the idea that human beings live interdependently, that we are all responsible for promoting the “common good” in society. Fackenthal further stated that the theme of the “common good” and the five criteria to decide award winners do remain stagnant, but that new features of the theme emerge “from the way that the film program comes together” each year. He also noted that originally the word “Whitehead” was a part of the festival’s title, but they recently rebranded because they thought only having “Common Good” at the forefront would be easier for people to understand and remember. The word “international” (which is also tagged on to the title) more refers to the fact that they make a conscious effort to show international films than the idea that the festival is actually “international” in the strictest sense.

An example of how this philosophy can be translated into film is the showing they had on Saturday Feb. 12 at 3 p.m. of “Terror and Hope” by Ron Bourke. The film shows the research occuring in Syria after the civil war that started in 2011. The researchers commenting on-screen noticed that past research has largely focused on the trauma that participants have faced as a result of their war experiences, and also that it has a tendency to label participants as “victims.” They tried to circumnavigate this by focusing more on humanitarian efforts in order to improve their lives moving forward, and also by treating them more as “survivors” - thereby “creatively transforming” their lives, as Whitehead would say.

Another notable aspect of the film fest was the discussion period that happened after; this is not a traditional feature of either movie theaters or film festivals in general. When asked what he thought an after-discussion has the potential to add to the movie experience, Fackenthal stated, “it just illuminates the whole filmmaking process…I think that’s helpful for people in the audience in order to digest…to begin to put into words how that experience watching it maybe even shapes them in some way.” He also noted that whenever they can, they get the directors of the films to appear at the screenings as a special treat and for a more in-depth discussion (and indeed, Ron Bourke was at the “Terror and Hope” screening).

On the nature of the awards feature of the festival and how winners are decided, Fackenthal explained how things previously operated while also describing how this process has been tweaked due to the affiliation. Traditionally, the Claremont Faith & Film class: “would meet together after each film screening and have their own private discussion about the film, and at the end of weekend decide on the best film, the film that most exhibited [Whiteheadian] philosophy.” At last year’s festival, however (which they held over Zoom due to pandemic restrictions), they, for the first time, “had students from WU help with film selections and then meet together over the end of the weekend to talk.” This year, with their typical in-person event being held on Salem campus for the first time, they’ve continued that trend as well.

When asked a bit more specifically about how the WU/CST affiliation has affected the festival, Fackenthal stated that one of the more salient effects for him has been that he’s garnered a lot of, “Willamette faculty who are really supportive and that want to help see this continue,” including Carol Long and Jeanne Clark, “the core cinema studies faculty at Willamette,” and Amadou Fofana who teaches cinema courses at WU in addition to his primary focus in French. According to Fackenthal, his hope for the film festival in the future is that, “it can find a home in Salem and begin to build a following...a little bit more.”

While those are the plans for the near future, Fackenthal, however, isn’t sure if the Common Good International Film Festival is ever going to make it back to Claremont at all. “I don’t know. I have wondered over the last couple of months,” he stated. “I think there could be strong possibilities for doing a virtual festival even post-COVID…because it could be an opportunity to sort of bridge between some of the folks who attended the festival for years and years in southern California and still make this an opportunity that’s successful to Willamette students.”

When asked if there was anything else that he wanted Salem campus to know about this event, Fackenthal stated that he’d like to see more engagement from WU students in the future if possible. “We’ve had students like Alanna [Kelly ('21)]...and others participate in the selection process and I’d love to see any student who’s interested in filmmaking or film festivals or film criticism jump in and help out in some way.”

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