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BendFilm 2023: Seems like old times as the festival celebrates twenty years of user-friendly cinemania

Four days at the Bend Film Festival yield a bounty of gripping documentaries, local gems, and highly anticipated indie releases.

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Daisy Ridley stars in Sometimes I Think About Dying, which screened at the 2023 Bend Film Festival
Daisy Ridley stars in “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” which screened at the 2023 Bend Film Festival

My experience at the 20th Bend Film Festival almost got off to a bumpy start. Prior to the first screening I attended on Thursday, October 12, a gentleman six or seven seats to my right was rustling through a cellophane bag’s worth of caramel corn. As showtime approached, he showed no signs of letting up, forcing his hand down into the bag only to emerge with a paltry amount of tooth-rotting treats, seemingly oblivious to the way the resulting din echoed throughout the auditorium in what felt like Dolby 7-channel sound. Even as the film was introduced and the land acknowledgment trailer played, he persisted.

HOWEVER, just as my spirit, strained from a three-hour drive that morning, approached a point of no return, he stopped. I don’t know if he had finished his crinkly confection, or if he simply possessed what should be rudimentary theatergoing etiquette. But the crisis was averted, and that was the last moment I doubted that it was going to be a great weekend of cinema.

This was the first festival I’ve attended in person since before the pandemic, and the experience of watching a dozen films over four days with little prior knowledge of them was one I’d missed. The generally beautiful weather (other than the cloudy morning of the eclipse) and welcoming community (people in Bend are either quite content or very good at pretending) only helped matters. And the skillfully curated selection of movies was almost a bonus.

An ideal festival program, at least on the scale of Bend’s, includes a competition section with undiscovered gems, a few highly anticipated art house coming attractions, a diverse selection of short programs, and a tribute to an indie-film stalwart. BendFilm checks all the boxes.

The first category includes that first-day screening, a Lebanese-American documentarian Jude Chehab’s Q, ostensibly a look at three generations of Muslim women: the filmmaker, her mother, and her grandmother. But there’s more here than just a home-movie-fueled tribute. Jude’s mother, after living a Westernized life in America with her husband and two children, joined a secretive, women-only Islamic sect known as Qubaysiat, as her own mother had before her. The film is less interested in exposing the details of the group than it is in the effect of its powerful hold on the relationship between its subjects.

Q was just the first in a roster of impressive nonfiction works. BendFilm includes competition categories for both Indigenous Features and Environmental/Outdoor Features, and I was fortunate enough to catch the winners in each category.

Bad Press chronicles the efforts of independent journalists in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation fighting a censorship battle against their tribal government. (It may shock you to learn that Native constitutions do not grant freedom of the press as the U.S. constitution does.) It has a profane, pissed-off protagonist in reporter Angel Ellis at its center, which makes for a very entertaining David-versus-Goliath story.

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Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s (Blackfish) harrowing eco-doc The Grab, on the other hand, is a far more sobering tale. A team of investigative journalists led by Nate Halverson spends years pulling the strings on a global movement by governments and their intermediaries to buy up arable land and water access in anticipation of several shortages of both resources due to climate change. When Erik Prince (formerly of Blackwater) is only the tip of the iceberg, you know this is some scary stuff.

I wasn’t as impressed by the Narrative Competition winners, America (Best Feature) and the Oregon-filmed Sometimes I Think About Dying (Best Cinematography). The former is an effective but standard Sirkian melodrama by Israeli director Ofir Raul Grazier, and the latter stars Star Wars’s Daisy Ridley in a much more mundane role as a dowdy, depressed, death-obsessed cubicle worker in a grey Oregon coastal town. Sometimes I Think About Dying is the second feature by writer-director Rachel Lambert, and it feels influenced equally by Kelly Reichardt and Todd Solondz. Ridley’s Fran is a paragon of introversion, while her co-workers in the bureaucracy of Astoria’s port authority are depicted as shallow automatons for whom an unexpected box of donuts is cause for exaltations and communion. The tedium is eventually interrupted, but it takes too long for the inciting incident to break the film’s depressive spell.

The powerful homecoming drama Talia’s Journey, which took the Best Director award, however, may have been the best film I saw. Talia is a Belgian-born Senegalese young woman who travels to her ancestral homeland to get in touch with her roots. At first, this seems like a clever flipping of the script of these sorts of stories, as the reserved, modest Talia discovers that the cousin she’ll be staying with is a thoroughly Westernized fashionista who runs with a crowd that seems straight out of The Real Housewives of Dakar.

Co-writer/director Christophe Rolin slyly depicts the influence of cultural imperialism and the resulting economic disparity, but things get back on a more traditional narrative track when Talia meets her cousin’s impoverished neighbor Malika, who makes a living by purchasing songbirds by the dozen and then charging tourists and passersby 100 francs for the privilege of freeing them. It’s a marvelous metaphor driven home by Talia’s visit to the slave port memorial off the coast of Dakar, and Malika becomes Talia’s vehicle (allegorically and literally) as she embarks on a plan to seek out her grandmother in a village deep in Senegal’s interior.

Talia’s Journey is crisply and vibrantly shot, and elevated considerably by the subtle, serious performance of Nadège Bibo-Tansia as Talia and the ferocious, heartfelt physicality of Aminata Sarr as Malika. Although it flirts with cliché during its second half, this is a potent piece of work.

Titles coming to theaters and/or streaming platforms in the next few months comprised the Spotlight programs. Palme D’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall charts the investigation into a death in the isolated French Alps, and is scheduled to open in Portland on October 27, while Todd Haynes’ May December hits theaters on November 17 and Netflix two weeks after that. It stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore and, like Anatomy of a Fall, is a frontrunner for Oscar nominations. Look for more on each in this space. On the nonfiction side, Nicole Newham’s revelatory doc The Disappearance of Shere Hite also has a November 17 release date, though whether it will appear in any Oregon theaters remains an open question. It’s a captivating portrait of the sex researcher (and former model) whose mega-selling 1976 “The Hite Report” catapulted her into the front lines of America’s backlash against feminism. As one of presumably many who vaguely recalled the name but little more, it’s a genuine eye-opener marred only by the absence of a new interview with Hite, who died in 2020.

As its Indie Filmmaker of the Year, BendFilm invited writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose piercing but affectionate dissections of bourgeois urban life have provided great roles for women such as Catherine Keener and Julia Louis-Drefyus. That includes her most recent, You Hurt My Feelings, which stars Louis-Dreyfus as a novelist shaken when she discovers her husband secretly dislikes her work, and 2010’s Please Give, in which Keener humorously tries to assuage her guilt over her comfortable existence by engaging in often haphazard bouts of generosity. Both films screened over the weekend, each followed by a Q&A session with Holofcener, the rare female auteur who has negotiated the male-centric minefield of independent moviemaking.

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The short film programs were one area I neglected during my time in Bend, partially because I knew that many of them would be available as part of the festival’s online component, which runs through Sunday, October 22, and which can be viewed on demand here. This is the real spot to discover emerging talent and experience the true variety of form and content that filmmakers working without boundaries can achieve.

Of course, it’s no substitute for visiting the festival in person. The logistics of attendance are simple enough, as the vast majority of screenings take place either on one of three screens at a Regal multiplex in the city’s Old Mill district (where they competed against an army of Swifties this year, making for some surreal juxtapositions), or at one of a trio of venues located within a couple blocks of one another a mile away in downtown Bend. With proper timing, decent weather, and nearby lodging, walking the fest is eminently doable. Screenings at the venerable Tower Theatre are preceded by performances from local musicians and a pass-the-hat ethos, while those at the tiny Tin Pan Theater are cozy to say the least.

You won’t catch the world premiere of a breakout big-screen smash at BendFilm. Nor will you happen across random celebrities—unless your idea of a celebrity is Portland filmmaker James Westby. (I know mine is, but I’m weird.) And the audiences may not be as self-important and cinema savvy as those at Sundance or Telluride: heard prior to the May December screening behind me was “Somebody told me this director’s from Portland!” But you will find crowds, hopefully bigger ones going forward, who open-mindedly take in a broad spectrum of cinematic experiences and are damned glad to be able to do so. And they know how to behave at the movies.

The first time I attended the Bend Film Festival, it was in 2005, the year that Mark and Jay Duplass’s feature directing debut, The Puffy Chair, played to great and deserved acclaim. Nearly twenty years later, the Duplass brothers are a vital force in independent cinema, producing, directing, and/or starring in multiple projects each year. Last year, one of the festival’s highlights was Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s jaw-dropping documentary Sweetheart Deal, set among the sex worker community in south Seattle. Shockingly, that one has yet to find a distributor, hence my shameless plug here.

That’s kind of my point, though. A film festival worth its salt should offer you chances to get in on the ground floor of a filmic fandom and also to see movies that need all the loud-mouthed champions they can get. To accomplish that in a user-friendly format, in a user-friendly city, in a user-friendly four days, is a feat that BendFilm, year after year, seems somehow to pull off.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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