It’s no secret that arts nonprofits, and film festivals in particular, are having a rough go of it these days in Oregon. Several mainstays on the state’s cinematic scene have experienced significant tumult in recent years, severely exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic: The Portland International Film Festival has been assimilated into PAM CUT, the Ashland Independent Film Festival has been on hiatus but is currently planning a return in spring 2024, and the Bend Film Festival just concluded a successful weekend but has yet to name a permanent successor for executive director Tod Looby, who departed in May.
One place, however, where the odds continue to be defied is in La Grande, where the 14th Eastern Oregon Film Festival transpired from October 19th to the 21st. The relatively remote city of under 15,000, four hours from Portland and three from Boise, Idaho, may seem like an unexpected place to find filmmakers, artists, musicians, and assorted others gathered around burn barrels talking movies and making friends until deep into the night. But the stereotype of Oregon past the Cascades as a cultural desert is as misguided as it is lazy.
There are basically two communities served by EOFF. Filmmakers from as far off as New York City come to screen their work and meet fellow travelers. Generally, these are folks with the passion and dedication to spend months, sometimes years, on projects while working day jobs. I met director-star James Benson and his co-star Sarah Willis, who brought their stylish, darkly funny short Crisis, about a melancholy firefighter who discovers he has obscenely wealthy relatives. I also met Johana Putnam, an actress who used COVID quarantine as an opportunity to write, direct, and produce her debut, a psychological thriller centered on a woman who comes back to her childhood home after her mother’s death and starts to develop suspicions about her creepy neighbor. With a cast of two and a free location (Putnam’s actual childhood home), Shudderbugs is proof that a feature-length film can be made—one that’s even dramatically compelling—for merely the $11,000 it cost to rent the cameras and equipment.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
But I also met locals whose enthusiasm for the festival and hospitality towards visitors was infectious. Some were visually distinct from, let’s say, the typical La Grande resident. These are the ones with the body jewelry and unique hair, the ones who, one suspects, are more likely to stay in town rather than escape to Boise or Portland because of events like the Eastern Oregon Film Festival. Others were more traditionally garbed film buffs and civic boosters, whose appreciation is directed at one man and one man only: Christopher Jennings.
Jennings, a co-founder of EOFF, is its director, programmer, organizer, chief cook, and bottle-washer. He’s a bearded, chain-smoking dynamo in a baseball cap and a blazer, and he seemingly has the ability to be in multiple places at one time, at least for this one weekend of the year. Introducing film after film, shuttling attendees from one venue to another, overseeing the festive afterparties, or dealing with the weekend’s inevitable unforeseen glitches, Jennings is so in-demand that it’s hard to get more than a few consecutive sentences of conversation with him. And the folks in La Grande know what they’ve got: whenever he finishes thanking the festival sponsors and volunteers before a screening, someone in the audience will shout out their gratitude to Jennings, which is seconded and applauded.
As befits a community with only one commercial cinema (which was showing Killers of the Flower Moon, Saw X, Paw Patrol, and Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour), the logistics at EOFF are charmingly catch-as-catch-can. Eastern Oregon University’s two theater spaces serve as a hub, while some showings take place at The Lodge at Hot Lake Springs, a recently restored rustic hotel about 15 minutes outside town. There, signs warn against entering the aptly named Springs, in case the copious steam rising off the near-boiling water wasn’t enough to dissuade, and guests can enjoy a hot soak of the more civilized variety, until late into the night. Finally, the festival’s shorts programs screened at the historic Liberty Theater, which opened in 1910 but has not operated as a cinema since 1959. Efforts to restore and re-open the Liberty are in their final stages, and the weekend’s screenings were held in its framed-but-unfinished auditorium, with blankets draped over the front door windows to keep the sun out. In other words, it’s kind of perfect.
What about the films themselves, you might (understandably) wonder? If it’s possible to say this without sounding like a condescending Portlander, the selection was significantly more professional and entertaining that I expected. The highlight for this erstwhile DVD-slinger was definitely Kim’s Video, a years-in-the-making documentary about one man’s quest to find out what happened to the inventory of New York City’s most beloved video store after it went out of business. David Redmon’s journey takes him to Sicily and Seoul, and deep into the worlds of both Italian politics and incurable cinephilia, and is peppered with a knowing array of deep-cut film references.
Another documentary highlight was Wil Kristin’s Finding Groovopolis, a funny and moving chronicle of its maker’s efforts to understand his late father by adapting the unfilmed screenplay he wrote decades ago. Adeptly weaving together home movie footage, present-day interviews with sometimes reluctant family members, animated segments, and scenes from the screenplay, Kristin and editor Ryland Brooks never succumb to the solipsistic pull of the “personal documentary,” and the result should appeal to anyone who’s ever had a parent they didn’t fully understand. (Which is, like, everyone, right?) This was the final work-in-progress preview screening prior to the film’s official premiere at PAM CUT’s Tomorrow Theater in November.
On the narrative front, the aforementioned Shudderbugs and Crisis each show a ton of promise. The opening night selection, director Ryan Martin Brown’s feature debut Free Time, is a dryly amusing comedy about a cubicle drone (Colin Burgess) who impulsively quits his job so as not to waste the prime of his life, but then finds himself quickly bored and broke. And the festival closed with The Secret Art of Human Flight, in which a widower (Grant Rosenmeyer) enlists the help of an eccentric online guru (Oscar nominee Paul Raci) named Mealworm in an attempt to overcome both grief and gravity. Both are wry, funny, oddly sincere films.
It’s not too likely that most of the films that played EOFF will come to a theater near you, although one hopes that a good portion will find a streaming home. In a universe where the tenth film in the Saw franchise even exists, movies made by and about human beings, with all the flaws and rough edges that implies, rarely find much purchase. But the Eastern Oregon Film Festival is a place that celebrates those human-scale stories and the humans who make them, and maybe only in a place as relatively off the beaten path as La Grande can pull that off. Jennings recently attended the Sundance Film Festival for the first time, and found it positively overwhelming. He hopes with EOFF to recreate the spirit that Sundance started with, and to sustainably tend that spirit for as long as possible.
One aspect of that spirit can be seen in a residency program that led to the filming of a feature titled Breakup Season during the first months of 2023, the first such filming in the Grand Ronde Valley in decades. The cast includes Chandler Riggs (The Walking Dead), Samantha Isler (Captain Fantastic), and James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros., American Splendor), and is the feature directing debut of H. Nelson Tracey. Here’s hoping it’s ready by the time next year’s fest comes around.
The festival’s future success, however, is far from assured. One of Jennings’ catch phrases, usually uttered after he’s been profusely thanked for his Herculean efforts, is that he wishes he had a machine that could convert gratitude to dollars. It’s only a labor of love as long as one loves doing it, and without the resources to create an infrastructure, the Eastern Oregon Film Festival will remain a gutsy, scrappy, but ultimately limited testament to what a small community of dedicated film hounds can accomplish. That said, I can’t wait to come back next year and check out the restored Liberty Theater—even if there aren’t blankets over the windows.