Early this summer, the world learned that American billionaire and media icon Oprah Winfrey spent a cool $8.3 million on a 43-acre luxury compound on Orcas Island. The 7,303-square-foot house on the property was built in 2007 and designed by the Bellingham-based RMC Architects (a firm with a reputation for Northwest retreats), and it has a huge pizza oven.
It is a palace made of wood, according to photos and news reports, and its living-room windows present impressive views of the East Sound and the west half of an island that's shaped like an inkblot on a Rorschach test card. The property, as I recently learned firsthand, is accessed by an unpaved road that offers no room for error. A sudden turn to the right, and you are flying down a hill, breaking branches, breaking the car, breaking bones. This road makes you go slow. And everything around it grows with wild abundance. The road ends with a double driveway gate that's decorated with wrought iron trees and green-painted maple leaves.
"You know she is not living there," said Sara Donnelly, the social-media and digital-marketing person for the Orcas Island Film Festival. "That's what I heard. I think it's a place for her trainer? Or something like that. But I'm certain she has not moved in."
Donnelly said this not long after I landed in West Sound, the island's second-longest inlet. (Oprah's place is tucked in the longest one, East Sound.) I flew to the island because it seems to be getting more and more interesting. Not only does one of the biggest celebrities in the unknown universe now own property here, but it also holds the second-most prestigious film festival in the state. Started five years ago by Jared Lovejoy, with curation help from SIFF's former artistic director Carl Spence, the Orcas Island Film Festival screens star-stuffed, A-list art-house films.
For example, this year's lineup features Ali Abbasi's Border, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, as well as Non-Fiction, which stars the queen of French cinema, Juliette Binoche, and was directed by Olivier Assayas. The closing night film will be Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which won the Golden Lion for best film at 2018's Venice Film Festival.
There is also Kore-eda Hirokazu's fourth masterpiece, Shoplifters, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2018, and the Cuban film Sergio and Sergei, which is having its Pacific Northwest premiere at this festival. This is impressive because Sergio and Sergei is the kind of film (crowd-pleaser, gorgeous actors, funky story, deep in parts, lighthearted in others, and altogether an excellent bridge between the realities and contradictions of post–New Deal US and those of post-socialist Cuba) that could easily play at top festivals like SXSW or Telluride.
As if all of this weren't enough, the French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) will hold a master class in Eastsound's Orcas Center. Vallée must obviously be in love with the island, because he attended the festival last year and performed a dreamy, techno-driven DJ set at Random Howse. He also provided the locals and visitors the pleasure of spotting a celebrity. He was seen drinking at the small and atmospheric bar the Barnacle, eating pastries at Brown Bear Baking, and walking across the Village Green.
"You know, the closest thing we've come to seeing Oprah on this island is the woman who dressed up like her during this year's Fourth of July parade," Donnelly recalled as we entered town. This fake Oprah, who sat in a white convertible Mercedes-Benz surrounded by security guards (I have seen photos), brought to my mind the image of Kim Jong-un's jogging security guards rather than the larger-than-life all-American celebrity.
While having lunch at my favorite restaurant on Orcas, Roses Bakery Cafe, I asked Donnelly: "What was the biggest story on the island before Oprah's spectacular purchase?" She thought for a moment, then said, "The bear story. There was this black bear that showed up on the island last year during Memorial Day weekend. Some people said it swam here from Lummi Island."
She then explained that the story was big because it split the island's human residents into two camps. There were those who thought the bear had a right to be here because it swam here. It made that decision. It saw land. It entered the sea and it made it to the other side. We should respect that. Others wanted to capture and remove the animal because it would eventually get in trouble and, as a consequence, be harmed. The bear had to go for its own safety. The island was torn about this issue.
After enjoying some lovely glasses of wine at the Doe Bay Wine Company, I was in a roaring Kenmore Air seaplane on my way home, rising higher and higher into the late-summer air. An unhappy couple sat in front of me (the man seemed down, and the woman seemed lost in her own thoughts). A future-oriented young father and his very young daughter sat behind me. And to my left was an oval-shaped window.
I looked out the window to try to see Oprah's new spread. But what I saw instead was Lummi Island. That's where many suspect the bear swam to Orcas from. And how different was this bear from Oprah Winfrey and other humans who reached the island by water or air and opened small businesses or film festivals? Indeed, all kinds of animals were here long before people.