By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
On this Memorial Day, a unique American group serving fallen heroes and their families is the focus of a West Seattle filmmaker’s newest work – which is days away from its first Puget Sound screenings.
We spoke with Ellen Frick earlier this spring. Today seems like the perfect time to tell the story of her documentary, “Patriot Guard Riders,” because of the holiday, and because of showings coming up Saturday in Tacoma and Sunday on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
The Patriot Guard Riders’ members, hundreds of thousands strong, are motorcyclists – mostly Vietnam veterans, Ellen explains, who first came to fame for protecting fallen soldiers’ families from the hate-spouting Westboro Baptist Church, which has sent representatives to funerals to claim the soldiers died because of America’s failure to outlaw homosexuality.
“I read about it in TIME magazine, the bikers in Oklahoma who started going to the funerals nad blocking the protesters. I thought, wow, this is really odd bedfellows … you don’t think of bikers as coming to the rescue so much,” Ellen recalled. “I started looking into it and didn’t know if it was really a film. (But) the story is so rich,” with the motorcyclists going on to expand their mission.
First, some of her backstory – which itself is multifaceted:
(Photo courtesy Ellen Frick, at center)
Ellen has lived in West Seattle for 30 years. Her filmmaking career has spanned only a third of that. “I used to be an environmental engineer. I specialized in landfills, recycling, solid waste … I’ve only been making films for 10 years; I switched my life over.”
The spark for that switchover: She was diagnosed with breast cancer and asked herself, “Is (environmental engineering) really what I want to be doing?” She took a nine-month filmmaking class through the University of Washington Extension and interned at KCTS-Channel 9, typing transcripts (a task of which she observes, laughing, “I have people doing that for me now”).
Her work since then has included the PBS “POV” series-featured “A Healing Art,” an award-winning story about artificial-eye makers.
“Patriot Guard Riders” has been in the works for two years, Ellen says. While bookings are now multiplying, when we spoke, it had only been screened about half a dozen times, all outside this area, including an IMAX theater in Galveston, Texas, and a theater in Evansville, Indiana, the setting for about a third of the film, as the story is told of a bereaved mother who joins the Patriot Guard Riders after they provide protection from protesters at her son’s funeral.
(Photo courtesy Ellen Frick)
While the rides began primarily as that means of protection, and then evolved into a way for veterans to ensure that “never again” will war returnees – dead or alive – be reviled like those from Vietnam, Ellen says the Patriot Guard Riders have acquired another mission: “Now what it’s really become is this huge place for healing among those veterans who talk to each other about their post-traumatic stress.” A Vietnam veteran from Portland, she notes, is among the main characters.
In her film, the Westboro Baptist representatives have their say as well. “We had amazing access to the Westboro compound – we interviewed Shirley Phelps, daughter of (the preacher) Fred Phelps. They’re all civil-rights attorneys. Then we did a ridealong with them to protest at a funeral in Iowa, while we had another team with the bikers.”
Ellen observes, “It’s been a really tough film to structure – so many issues, and how do you make sense of it?” Then of course, is the matter of funding. “It’s pretty much self-funded. We’ve gotten a couple of grants, nothing big, there’s not that much money (available).” But they’ve raised some by selling patches, and offering pre-orders for DVDs of the film. (You can contribute in those ways, or others, through this page of the film’s official website.)
And the film has a natural marketing contingent – the Patriot Guard Riders’ captains, who are in every state. “They want to have screenings,” Ellen said, while noting she can’t be present for all of them, nor does she have to be – just as long as, “I always make sure there’s a Patriot Guard Rider and a Gold Star parent [one who has lost a child].”
The venues have ranged from the aforementioned Texas IMAX to “the back of some Harley shops in Kentucky.” Making the film has introduced her to communities she had not previously encountered: “I had not ever known a Harley-Davidson owner before, and did not know anyone in the Army; I was just in (the) little liberal Seattle cocoon.”
In a world with which Ellen is familiar, she is a leader in the local film community, currently chairing the Seattle Documentary Association, “getting people out to know each other, and to help with works-in-progress screenings.”
For now, the focus is on getting her new work out to audiences. The film’s Facebook page calls next weekend’s Tacoma screening its West Coast premiere; it’s at 7 pm Saturday at the Rialto Theater, with tickets available online; the next night, at 7 pm Sunday, it screens during the STIFF film festival, at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill (map), with ticket information here.
Getting the 73-minute documentary seen means a fulfillment of Ellen’s mission: “My hope is to get the message out. … The thing that really warms my heart about (the Patriot Guard Riders) is that they expanded their mission to stand on the sidelines at any veteran’s funeral where they are invited. Even World War II funerals, where they are the only people there. We say, from the greatest evil has come the greatest good. (The Westboro Baptist protesters) have become largely irrelevant.”
EDITOR’S SIDE NOTE: A year and a half ago, we covered a Patriot Guard Riders sighting in West Seattle:
They stood guard outside Delridge Community Center during the October 2009 memorial for Alan Gelvin, a Vietnam veteran and motorcycle-team performer.