Bushra Azzouz reflects on 25 years teaching filmmaking at the Northwest Film Center.
At the Northwest Film Center, beginning students start at the feet of a master. Art of Filmmaking is the Film Center’s 101, and—both because and in spite of the fact that some students never move on—this foundational instruction comes straight from the top.
For the past 25 years, that master has been Bushra Azzouz, the Iraqi-born “rebel kid” who launched herself to the other side of the world to study theater at Reed College back in 1973. “I wanted to be as far away as possible from everything I knew,” she remembers. “Even the eastern United States were too close, and I liked the fact that I had to look up Oregon on the map.” At Reed she learned about American pop culture and U.S. history through conversations with other students, and her budding interest in contemporary theater was met with the Anglo-Saxon insistence on familiarity with Shakespeare, which she had previously “barely read.”
She ended her time there only to find that she was short half a credit, so she enrolled in a film class at Portland State University taught by Andries Deinum, who, with Tom Taylor, had cofounded the school’s Center for the Moving Image in 1969. It was Deinum who opened her eyes to film as another language.
She decided to try a film production course, unsure if she would “take to the technology.” Her undergraduate degree secured, Azzouz embarked on the five-year process that would eventually yield …And Woman Wove It in a Basket, a 70-minute documentary that explored the life of a contemporary Native American woman, as well as the documentary process itself. Basket won a number of awards, including at two Native American festivals, and screened at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the course of its making, Azzouz also earned a graduate degree in film from San Francisco State, and was still working on its final edits when a series of mutual friendships led her to the Northwest Film Center, which was looking for additional faculty.
Azzouz was immediately drawn into the diversity of the community-based institution, particularly of age. “Teaching students film is giving them a voice,” she says. “I liked the idea of empowering people who weren’t all 20 years old, and kind of got addicted to the variety—seeing the 16-year-old who ends up helping the 65-year-old woman with the gear. That kind of collaboration between people and age groups is really powerful.”
Hand in hand with her work as an educator, themes of contrasting identity and stifled points of view would color her other films, including Women of Cyprus and No News, a personal response to the September 11 attacks that drew on the long history of cyclical violence her family has endured in the Middle East. Her current project, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison, studies the production of Shakespearean comedies by inmates at an Oregon state prison for men.
Symbiotically, and in addition to countless hours shaping the curriculum and advising the Film Center’s students, Azzouz has led outreach projects as a teacher and mentor to those at the fringes. There was Eddyville, a rural Oregon town, where she had middle-school students interview the oldest members of their families, mining for memories of the place. She’s also been lead mentor for the Film Center’s Project Viewfinder, which collaborates with organizations like Outside In and New Avenues for Youth to give Portland’s young homeless the opportunity to share their perspectives through film.
“That was glorious,” Azzouz says. “We did it for two years, with [a total of 14] kids served, so it was about quality and depth. You appear to teach about focus or
rhythm, but you’re always teaching about life: how to relate to other people.”
In her 25 years of teaching at the Northwest Film Center, Azzouz has witnessed her share of industry-wide shifts, most pointedly the shift away from film to digital. Unlike many of her film-world contemporaries, she’s largely unfazed. “The truth is,” she explains, “I’m not interested in technology, but in storytelling.”
As for what’s next after such a lengthy teaching tenure, Azzouz says lately she’s found herself thinking a lot, “About refugees. And migrations. And that humans have always migrated. Animals migrate. That it’s part of the cycle of the world. I don’t know yet what it will mean, or if I’ll do anything about it in film.” A lifelong world traveler (including a recent stint in India), she’s comfortable with the idea that the seed will become refined—or possibly it won’t. As she often advises her students, before clarity materializes, you simply must put one foot in front of the other and learn to trust in the process.
Written by Marjorie Skinner