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Bellingham artists find creative silver lining despite pandemic

COVID-19 restrictions inspire local creators and organizations’ work instead of breaking spirits

Actor Brian Lee sits on the stairs as Kristen Elizabeth works sound, assistant director Briana Savage sets mark, and co-director and cinematographer Elena Stecca frames the scene in Bellingham, Wash., in 2019. Work was for the horror short film “Silent Threads,†released in 2020. // Courtesy of Dave Walker via Elena Stecca

By Sophia Struna

When COVID-19 locked the world down last March, Conor O’Keefe turned to what he does best: making movies.

“When COVID-19 started, I just started making films out of boredom kind of, doing them like I would when I started making YouTube videos, I would just film them with my friends,” said O’Keefe, owner and director of Walking Distance Media and Cokeefe Content.

O’Keefe wasn’t the only local artist looking to share their work. Bellingham Film created the “Locally-Made Movie of the Week” initiative at the end of March, partnering with the newly-formed Whatcom Arts Project, striving to keep the community connected to the arts in quarantine.

Once an artist’s submission is reviewed and selected, the film is presented Monday evenings at 4:30 on Bellingham Film’s Facebook page.

Lorraine Wilde, social media strategist for Bellingham Film, said the “Locally-Made Movie of the Week” events are beneficial for everyone involved.

“People can see their work during this time ‘cause they can't see it in a theater,” Wilde said. “[It also gives] people opportunities like if they see someone's work that connects to them, [to] reach out to that filmmaker and say, ‘I'd like to work with you on a future project.’”

Two of O’Keefe’s works are now part of the organization’s 43 total films shared over the course of the initiative. His most recent short film, shared on Feb. 1, added to the organization’s continued work to provide a platform for artists’ creativity nearly a year after lockdown began.

“It was kind of going back to the same thing of just, like, filming something by myself or like with one other person,” O’Keefe said. “I just noticed that a lot more people kind of responded to stuff I was posting just because everyone was sitting at home.”

O’Keefe said he also thought the local organization’s call for film submissions was a good chance for more people to see his work, since opportunities to connect with others in the industry disappeared.

“I think sometimes when you spend a lot of time making something, you can like keep it too close to the chest or, you know, not want to show it to anyone,” O’Keefe said, adding that his work being seen by the public also defeats a fear of comparing himself to other creators.

Monique Anair, director of education at the Seattle Film Institute, said she also recognized the challenges and unique opportunities the pandemic brings to artists, especially students.

Anair said many of the student projects are centered around quarantine.

“The stories are all around sort of, ‘What is this? What is this world we're living in?’” Anair said. “So a lot of times this technology is used for journaling and personal experience.”

While artists are met with challenges of how to create, Anair said the pandemic is encouraging a new type of creativity, which will be a good representation of where society was today.  

“You can go back and you can look at 'The French Connection' and you can see what that environment looked like — it's capturing time and place,” Anair said.

Additionally, Anair added that artists’ quarantine projects  allow people stuck at home to see their work and feel a sense of connection, despite the separation of the pandemic.

“People need to keep creating, whether it's because it's personal and it's for their own psychological wellbeing and mental health,” Anair said. “But also for us to experience and consume it and to know that there's a similar story, and I think, you know, that's the connection.”

Chris Blanchett, the communications director for Seattle Film Institute, also found teaching aspiring artists right now has created new tools and skills unique to the current time and place of the pandemic.

“We've been using Zoom as a narrative device and you can actually do some really interesting things with it,” Blanchett said. “We're running full on acting programs where [the actors are] really rehearsing via Zoom up to the last minute, then coming in and doing the scene … and it's worked remarkably well.”

Blanchett compared how the world reacted to the Spanish Influenza pandemic nearly 100 years ago, noting struggles back then were not reflected in creative works the same way we have seen today. For example, movies made using only Zoom, which are result of mandatory shutdown.

Blanchett added the continued creation of movies and artists’ dedication to finding new outlets in lockdown is creating movies that are helping people get through this period of time.

Students from Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth, who are as young as six and as old as 17, have also transitioned their theater arts work in creative ways.

Anna Evans, the interim executive director of BAAY, said students have been participating in Zoom classes and online productions to continue working on what they love.

Evans also added that despite changes to the program, participating in arts and the opportunity for creativity remain the most valuable part.

“I've seen kids at BAAY find a voice and a confidence to stand as themselves and speak out as themselves in front of audiences,” Evans said. “They’re, you know, life skills and I so firmly believe in the power of what we're doing to help kids just become more, more fully human.”

Evans acknowledged the difficulties the creative community has faced amid the pandemic, however she remains inspired by the local artists who have continued to find new ways to keep doing what they do.

“It's a tough time,” Evans said, “but that is an opportunity for extraordinary creativity.”


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