For the first time in three years, the Bend Film Festival will be welcoming back crowds Oct. 6-9 for a full, in-person edition. With the futures of both the Portland International Film Festival and the Ashland International Film Festival cloudy at best, Bend stands poised to become the state’s preeminent annual cinematic event. (And if you can’t make it to central Oregon this weekend, there’s still a virtual version beginning next week.)
Fortunately for those who love movies and those who make them, the festival seems up to the task. This year’s lineup is full of intriguing items, from potential Oscar nominees to promising indie features to a cornucopia of inventive shorts. Seven narrative features and eight documentaries will compete for prizes, with special slates of female-directed, environmental-themed, and locally made films also screening at numerous venues around the city, including the festival-owned Tin Pan Theater.
Among the Northwest filmmakers in competition are Reed Harkness (“Sam Now”) and Jan Haaken (“Necessity: Climate Justice and the Thin Green Line”), while a couple of other Oregon-made efforts deserve special mention as well. Director Alex Lehmann’s Acidman is an unexpectedly affecting, sci-fi-tinged tale wherein a woman (Diana Agron) visits her long-estranged, eccentric loner of a father (Thomas Haden Church), who lives in a shack in remote Central Oregon and believes he has been observing extraterrestrial visitors. On a smaller scale, Philip Lauri and Steven Oliver’s Takilma Stories profiles the members of a longstanding intentional community that was founded by back-to-the-landers in the late 1960s and perseveres to this day.
Selin Sevinc is in her second year as the head of programming for the Bend Film Festival, but has been with the organization since 2017. Her work is year-round: Submissions open in January of each year and are accepted until June, so the process of viewing and evaluating them culminates in the summer. Once those programs are assembled, the work turns to pursuing films that already have distribution for the festival’s Spotlight section. “This year we got over 1,600 submissions in total; I believe around 1,000 of those were shorts,” she says. “I personally watched close to 1,200 of those.” In the end, around 100 films, including shorts, are selected for the festival.
What Sevinc looks for, she says, is “intentionality in the filmmaking process. I want to believe that every decision is a deal-breaker. Those are the little details that make a filmmaker stand out.” In addition, she values work that “shows me something I haven’t seen before. It could be a subject matter, a protagonist, or stylistic choices.”
One such film this year is Unidentified, a low-budget Korean sci-fi set in a future where giant enigmatic spheres have been hovering over major cities for the past few decades. “Here’s someone,” Sevinc says, “who’s made a film that doesn’t quite look like anything else. All of these pieces are fitting together, and there’s a design behind them.”
Movies aren’t selected in a vacuum, though—there’s an art to assembling a diverse array of titles. “Not every film in a festival should have heavy subject matter. You have to balance it with comedy, or maybe romance,” says Sevinc. It’s also important to appeal to a variety of audiences—after all, if you hold a film festival, you want to sell some tickets. Among those crowd-pleasers is the festival’s opening-night selection, The Pez Outlaw. This appropriately whimsical documentary profiles Steve Glew, an obsessive curmudgeon who became wealthy and infamous in the 1990s by smuggling rare Pez dispensers into the U.S. from Eastern Europe and selling them on the collectors’ market.
Some highly anticipated films on the fall arthouse circuit show up in Bend’s Spotlight program. Vicky Krieps (who held her own against Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread) plays Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi, in Corsage, and new films from international auteurs Stephen Frears, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Lena Dunham have their first Northwest screenings.
More than a chance for audiences to dive into the latest films, though, Bend has always styled itself as a “filmmaker’s festival.” This year, it welcomes director Tamara Jenkins as its IndieWoman of the Year and First Features Honoree, and will host screenings of Jenkins’ films Private Life and Slums of Beverly Hills (the film that gave Natasha Lyonne her first big break). In addition, actors Tatanka Means (Hulu’s Reservation Dogs and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon) and Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway and Dead Man) will be recognized as Indigenous Filmmaking Honorees.
They’re among the dozens of filmmakers who will have an opportunity to network, commiserate and swap stories in the festival’s supportive, welcoming environment. “It gives them an opportunity to elevate their careers,” says Sevinc. For that reason, she tries to include work that showcases directors with potential, even if the work itself may be rough around the edges. “You’d be surprised how many bad films are made with a lot of money.” (In fact, I’m not, but the point holds.)
“Even in the indie world, we see a lot of films that have relatively high budgets that we do not accept,” Sevinc continues. “The only exception is in the documentaries, where I do like to see a filmmaker who can rise above their resources.” That can mean taking the time to allow a film to emerge, rather than putting together a cut prematurely and submitting it to festivals. A great example of that perseverance is the Seattle-made doc Sweetheart Deal, which tracks the relationship between four addiction-ravaged Seattle sex workers and the would-be savior who offers them respite in his parked RV. Filmed over several years by directors Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller (who passed away in 2019), it’s a masterful piece of verité filmmaking that culminates in a staggering reveal.
While many of the films already mentioned will likely make their way to a theater screen or streaming service near you, that can’t necessarily be said of the dozens of short films that Sevinc has programmed. These are grouped into several blocks, identified by intriguing themes such as “Aftermath,” “Germination,” “Togetherness,” and “Transitions.”
Despite the return of a full, in-person festival, a remote option will still be offered. To Bend’s executive director, Todd Looby, that might be a permanent shift in the film festival firmament. “I definitely see it as a permanent fixture, and the system we use is so user-friendly and secure that it’s a really great experience for the viewer at home.” The Sundance Film Festival, for instance, recently announced that it was maintaining a “hybrid” model for 2023.
One concern might be that increased virtual availability could eat into in-person attendance, but Looby remains optimistic the two can co-exist. “It’s really the same debate we’ve been having since the early 2000s: What kind of threat to festivals and arthouses face in this new age of technology? But every year, it’s proven that it only adds to the whole experience. Streaming is huge, yet festivals are much huger than they were twenty years ago. People really love seeing movies with people.”
- The 2022 Bend Film Festival’s in-person edition runs from Thursday, October 6 through Sunday, October 9, with the virtual version following from October 10-23.