Walla Walla, Wash. – Robert Sickels, associate professor of rhetoric and film studies at Whitman College, will have a temporary change of quarters from January to May 2010 as he takes on the role of Fulbright Scholar and lives and breathes the world of Hong Kong cinema while joining one of Asia’s largest film studies programs.

Sickels recently was named a 2010 Fulbright Scholar, one of 1,250 recipients nationally — and Whitman’s most recent faculty member to be bestowed the title. The prestigious grant will give him the time and opportunity to delve into a longtime fascination: the films of the Hong Kong New Wave, which are known for their kinetic editing and visually striking, balletic action sequences, he said.

He hopes he’ll have the chance to meet and learn from some directors he holds in great esteem. Sickels, like world-famous directors John Woo and Hou Hsiao Hsien, will be affiliated with Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film.

Sickels specializes in Hollywood cinema, and he can pinpoint in a movie an array of cinematic influences on that particular film’s director, citing examples of camera work, editing and homage. And he can catch and is aware of American filmmakers’ use of Hong Kong cinema techniques, but the Fulbright will help give him first-hand knowledge of the business side of the art form.

“I wanted to do something different,” he said about why he pursued the Fulbright opportunity. “I wanted to push the boundaries of what I study.”

His research will focus on reaching “a better understanding of how cultural circumstances in seemingly disparate countries half a world apart could nevertheless lead to what are spiritually very similar movements.” He then will bring his broadened understanding and experiences into his Whitman classes.

About his own filmmaking, Sickels says “I’m primarily a documentarian. My specialty is taking that which is small, local and regional and casting it in such a way as to hopefully shed light on larger cultural issues through this very specific lens.”

Sickels said his arrival at Whitman College in 1999 coincided with the advent of digital technology in filmmaking. “I created the filmmaking classes and it kind of exploded from there,” he said, about the classes and his own filmmaking. He said Whitman has been incredibly supportive, providing resources for such needs as training for various editing programs.

Sickels first began loving film at about age 4, when he saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at a Seattle drive-in. He remembers feeling “electrified” during the scene in the tunnel that includes a “crazy montage” of images. It was the second film in a double feature; his mother and two older sisters had fallen asleep, but he was wide awake.

He sees about 30 movies a month, now — as many as 10 of those in a theatre. “It’s research, but it’s also fun. I love the way the best movies tell engaging human stories through imagery. I never get tired of it,” he said.

Sickels, who has a Ph.D. in American literature and film studies from the University of Nevada at Reno, said he always knew films would be on his career path. “As long as I can remember, I wanted to talk about movies as a teacher at the college level,” he said.

The Fulbright is one of several recent significant professional events for Sickels. He served as executive producer and co-editor to director Ben Kegan’09 on Team Taliban, which has shown at the nation’s top film festivals. And recently, Sickels’ own new short documentary, Walla Walla Wiffle, was picked up by PBS after a programming director called it “one of the sweetest films” she’d ever seen. It will be televised on PBS in January. The seven-minute short documents the joy and child-like abandon that a group of men finds when they can leave behind adult pressures and responsibilities for a day while participating in Walla Walla’s annual one-day wiffle ball tourney.

He said he believes teaching movies is a significant pursuit “because the movies are, in many ways, our greatest artistic currency. It’s how we relate across cultures, and even when things are specific to a given nation, they still feature that universal visual language. And we can learn so much about each other by understanding our shared language,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what country the movie is from if you get the visual language.”

Hello, Hong Kong.

— Virginia Grantier