WALLA WALLA — A Whitman College instructor and Bay Area native finds Walla Walla to be an unlikely muse for his personal film projects.
In 1999, fresh out of grad school, Robert Sickels was hired as a film professor at Whitman College. He said back then and to this day that position has a very limited amount of openings at any given time nationwide, so when the opportunity to teach in his favorite field arose, he took it and never looked back.
Sickels, up until this year, was the head instructor for the rhetoric and media studies program, but because of a growth in enrollment the two programs have been separated and given their own sections.
He said he hasn’t seen the exact numbers for enrollment yet, but he has high hopes for the new media studies program because of all of the promising students who pass through Whitman College.
His new position starting this fall is to be the adviser and a professor for the new program
Though, he misses his home in California he said making films has given him the artistic outlet he needs for fulfillment
Sickels said the small community of Walla Walla gives him a unique advantage to take universal ideas and experiences and create a film that is relatable to anyone.
His focus on the city was unexpected, Sickels said. He hadn’t planned on focusing on this small college town, it just happened.
“I work here, and I love to make films. It made sense,” he said.
His first film focused on Walla Walla, “The Beehive,” filmed in 2006 was centered on a farm family branching out into a different field.
With good feedback on that film he moved onto his next project in 2010, “Walla Walla Wiffle,” which received praise from critics across the country.
His newest project, “Sterling Howard Bright Drake” was inspired by a bike ride. He said he had gone out for a ride and stumbled upon a tombstone well known to the community for its size and shape.
The giant “X”-shaped tombstone caught his attention and after a moment of curiosity Sickels was determined to make his search for answers into his next film.
Sickels was pleasantly surprised to find out everything he wanted to know. He said that rarely happens in a documentary.
It was hard for Sickels to find sources initially, he said, but once word got out people came out of the woodwork to share what they knew of Drake and his tombstone.
Sickels said he was so intrigued by the story behind the tombstone and how Drake had landed in that cemetery plot, once his interviews were complete and filming was wrapped up, he was excited to be able to move onto his favorite part, editing.
In the film process, Sickels said, the most interesting and important part to him is editing.
“It’s like you’re trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without knowing what the picture on the box looks like,” he said.
When editing was complete, the results were very satisfying, he said.
“It was serendipitous how it all worked out,” Sickels said. “We set out with a hope of finding the answers to half of the questions we had, and walked away with all the information we wanted.”
Sickels’ assistant, a Whitman graduate of the rhetoric and media studies program, was able to do all the cinematography after the pair had been approved for a grant that paid Zach Ellenbogen for his work.
Sickels said he was fairly sure this film would get selected and make its way through the festivals.
“Sterling Hallard Bright Drake” has already been through one festival in San Antonio and Sickels is following his film to another.
Sometime in October, Sickels has been invited to watch his film in Louisiana, where it was selected to play in the New Orleans Film Festival. He is very excited about this festival, more so than ones in the past, because he said he loves New Orleans.
After the festival, Sickels said he doesn’t have any plans for future films. Summer is his time to do his personal filmmaking and it’s possible he may venture out of Walla Walla for his next project.