In preparing for its all-virtual 10th anniversary, the McMinnville Short Film Festival, which wrapped up a 127-film, 10-day run with a live-streamed awards ceremony Feb. 28, covered its bases: Organizers asked nominees to submit in advance a “thank-you” video that could be aired if they won.
Portland’s Rich Herstek’s 16-minute short Trevor Waits, an achingly poignant tone poem about the elderly title character living delusionally but happily in his private memory palace, won the award for Best Oregon Filmmaker. Of the festival’s dozen winners, Herstek came as close as any in capturing the regional film industry zeitgeist, if such a thing exists in this weird moment, and issuing a rallying call to other Oregon film artists.
“I moved here five years ago because Oregon had a thriving, independent film scene, and I have not been disappointed” said Herstek, whose work and university studies has landed him in Ohio, Eugene, New York, Boston, and Europe. “There are some real stars in the talent pool, technicians are first-rate, film crews work miracles on minuscule budgets, and people are eager to pitch in on almost any project.”
“I would urge all of us locals to remember” he concluded, “that while we are making films in Oregon, we are making them for the world.”
Thanks to COVID, the festival found itself in the position this year of delivering those films to the world via the Internet. Even though theaters were closed, sponsors stuck with the festival — seeing it, perhaps, as an investment in the future of wine country tourism and using it to get the word out. In the end, the festival may actually have enjoyed a pandemic bump, securing a prize they’ve been seeking for years by getting more locals as excited about and involved in the festival as the filmmakers are. Officials declined to release numbers, but co-founder and organizer Nancy Morrow said that if the virtual turnout had showed up at a theater, “It would have been standing room only.”
“Our expectations were far exceeded,” Morrow said. “We weren’t sure if people would buy into a virtual festival, but we had a wildly successful MSFF this year. The filmmakers were very supportive, loved the films, and networked as much as they could via our virtual events. The audience feedback was the best yet.”
Los Angeles screenwriter Anna Keizer, who penned the comedy She Had It Coming, has spent the last year being introduced to the film festival world. Her film premiered in October in the Portland Comedy Film Festival (held at a drive-in), where it was named Best Dark Comedy. The McMinnville festival was just one stop on her festival tour and it left her with a positive first impression.
“I had hesitations trying to do a festival during a pandemic, because I wasn’t sure if it could have the same benefits as an in-person experience,” she said. “Nancy and the rest of the MSFF crew proved me wrong … it has been a wonderful couple of months. And yes, I said ‘months.’”
Keizer is referring to a behind-the-scenes aspect of the festival the general audience member wouldn’t know about, but which other filmmakers also praised: the pre-festival networking that, in a pandemic year, was held with a patchwork of email, Zoom meetings, and social media posts.
“We were in constant email communication directly with the filmmakers for nearly three months, and many of them told us how wonderful that was,” Morrow said. “We did our best to make them feel valued, even if they weren’t able to be here in person.” Year after year, the festival has tried to forge an identity as a film festival oriented to the filmmaker.
“I think the key challenge for the festivals this year has been to find a way to help filmmakers connect online and run virtual networking events,” said Britain’s Chris Austen, whose film 33 Floors — about a woman tapped in an elevator where the laws of gravity seem out of whack — appeared in the suspense and horror category. “The team at MSFF have done a fantastic job of rising to the challenge.”
“They truly put their heart and soul into this event, and it really shows,” said Andrew de Burgh of Los Angeles, whose film The Legend of Santa, appeared in the animation screening block. “Nothing can replace an in-person event, but they’ve done a great job of going virtual for the first time.”
As the state opens back up this year and the vaccine makes the rounds, the festival is looking at the possibility of an in-person encore screening with social distancing that would highlight a select group of films. “We are meeting with a possible venue later in March to see what our options are,” Morrow said. “If that one doesn’t work out, we will look at other venues and see what we can do to offer an encore.”
Here are the winners of the 2021 McMinnville Short Film Festival:
- Best Locals Award: Dulce et Decorum Est, a poem by Wilfred Owen, written and directed by Walter Haussner
- Best Oregon Filmmaker: Rich Herstek for Trevor Waits
- Will Vinton Award for Best Animated Film: The Pig on the Hill, directed by Jamy Wheless and John Helms
- Best Environmental Award: Way to Go!, directed by Katherine Roselli
- Shawash-ili’i Award for Best Native American Film: Can the Blueback Survive?, submitted by the Northwest Treaty Tribes (Olympia)
- Best Documentary Award: The Chris Mosier Project, directed by Alex Huebsch
- Best Drama Award: The Interview, directed by Nate Duncan
- Best Comedy Award: Bigger Than a Breadbox, directed by Mitch Yapko
- Best Suspense/Horror/Sci-fi Award: The Feeding, directed by Isaac Ruth
- Best Experimental/A Bit Strange Award: Casiopea, directed by Fernando Manso
- Best First-Time Filmmaker Award: Two Different Kinds of Love, an animated film by Alyce Vest
- Grand Jury Award: Proof of Loss, directed by Katherine Fisher
Audience members also voted, and results posted Wednesday showed a film in the environmental category, The Bee Farmers, by Seattle’s Steve Utaski, as the overall fan favorite. Audience picks mirrored selections by judges in the categories for Drama, Experimental, Grand Jury, and Native American and included several others: My Generation in Animation; Tallulah in Locals, 40 Minutes Over Maui in Comedy, Sky Blossom – McMinnville, TN in Documentary, and In Case We Get Found (one of several films this year dealing with mass shootings) in Suspense/Horror/Sci-fi.
NEWS AND NOTES: A to Z Wineworks in Newberg has a new artist-in-residence, Hadley Hatcher, and her abstract paintings are on display in the tasting loft at the recently renovated and reopened winery. Also, that interactive art piece and “infinity room,” the Goose Cube, that you may have heard about can also be found in the Rex Hill tasting room through March 30.
Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg has two new shows, which we’ll be covering in the coming weeks: Understanding Ourselves: Narrative Paintings Curated by Jen Brown and Kairos: Eco Print Series by Lisa Brinkman.
ARTS JOURNAL: I finished reading The Poet X, a memoir-ish poem/novel by Dominican-American writer Elizabeth Acevedo. I saw Washington-based poet Kaye Spivey plug the book on Twitter and grabbed it at the local library. It’s possible I’ve not read a book from the “teen” shelf since I was a teen, but I’m glad I found this one, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018. The last 50 pages elevate the story into the impossible-to-put-down territory and simply take your breath away.