YAMHILL

And the winner is… the McMinnville Short Film Festival

Last month’s all-virtual festival receives rave reviews from participants and organizers, and we tell you which films took home the honors

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.

Rich Herstek, who won the Best Oregon Filmmaker Award for “Trevor Waits” at the McMinnville Short Film Festival, says he moved to Portland for the thriving local film scene. “While we are making films in Oregon,” he says, “we are making them for the world.”
Rich Herstek, who won the Best Oregon Filmmaker Award for “Trevor Waits” at the McMinnville Short Film Festival, says he moved to Portland for the thriving local film scene. “While we are making films in Oregon,” he says, “we are making them for the world.”

“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.”

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Linfield University hits its streaming stride

Poetry, podcasts, theater, dance, and music are all available virtually from the McMinnville school

On any list of pre-COVID Things I Miss Most, visiting Linfield University in McMinnville ranks near the top, along with writing in coffee shops and seeing faces. The school’s panoply of cultural offerings — live theater and music, readings and lectures, and the art gallery — has been largely unavailable to the public since last March. The shift to streaming video, though well-intentioned, has been tentative and uneven. 

I haven’t caught everything Linfield has streamed into the world since COVID hit, but a free recital in February featuring the Oregon Symphony’s James Shields on clarinet and, more recently, the Zoomed appearance of acclaimed poet Ross Gay felt like the beginning of something, an optimistic hint of spring in the second half of winter.

Ross Gay, poet
Poet Ross Gay’s reading is available on Linfield’s YouTube channel.

Normally, author readings are held in the Nicholson Library, but Gay’s was live-streamed from (presumably) his living room over Linfield’s YouTube channel, and it will remain there, which is a good thing.

The prepared-for-the-press remarks by Joe Wilkins, who heads creative writing at Linfield, are as good an introduction to Gay as any: “Ross’ poems are fun, wise, and full of rhythm and sound, and reading one of his essays is like having a long talk with a good friend.” Having listened to the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award winner read excerpts from The Book of Delights and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude for 45 minutes, I’d echo those sentiments. True, streaming is not the ideal, but a publicist for Gay told me the 46-year-old poet has done nearly 30 of these things now online; he’s clearly found a rhythm.

“I’ve been pressing his book of essays, The Book of Delights, into the hands of just about everyone I know,” Wilkins said.  The book was written, Gay told the audience, as a writing prompt exercise: Write one essay a day, every day, in 30 minutes. “I learned how to write essays a lot better over the course of a year,” he said.

It’s a lively reading featuring some terrific stories and spirited commentary by the author. It’s a must-see for those who love poetry, or who want to.

THE SHOWS MUST AND WILL GO ON: Linfield Theatre’s “season like no other” heads into spring with a program of both streaming staged productions and, in a new development, podcasting. 

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How to make an American quilt

A conversation about the difference between America's ideals and its reality leads to a fiber arts show at the Chehalem Community Center

In his sprawling trilogy on the mythology of the American West, historian Richard Slotkin observes that there is a “continued preoccupation with the necessity of defining or creating a national identity” in the United States. In recent years, the preoccupation has become a roiling public obsession. Ask Google, “What does it mean to be an American?” and you’ll see many people grappling with the question — in newspapers, in community gatherings, and in academia.

And in art. A new exhibit at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center brings the question to Yamhill County, refracted through textile arts, both by a single artist and crowd-sourced.

What Does It Mean to Be an American? is a collaborative project by Alicia Decker and Ellen Knutson, two Portland artists and educators. The show runs through April 2.

The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Embroidered details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates
The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates

Knutson is a research associate at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, where she works with university faculty and librarians on deepening their connections to their communities. She is also a printmaker. Since 2017, Knutson has worked with Oregon Humanities to facilitate discussions around Oregon on the question that titles the show.

Decker is a freelance designer and adjunct assistant professor at Portland State University. According to the show’s notes, her “research-based studio practice involves storytelling through textiles; utilizing illustration, various printing and dyeing methods, quilting and embroidery, to create compelling visual fiber-based narrative through print, pattern, and color about events currently shaping our world.”

The two met at one of Knutson’s town halls about a year and a half ago, and Decker suggested expanding the conversation into a visual art exhibit.  

“My goal has always been to build community and deal with some difficult questions about things that are going on in the world through fibers,” she said.

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McMinnville Short Film Festival: Good things in small packages

The 10-day festival starts this week, bringing 127 films, none longer than 20 minutes, to the comfort of your home, including a free block of films for kids

The 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival, which launches 10 days of streaming cinema Thursday, is one of the few big-tent cultural events in Yamhill County that managed to skirt COVID in 2020 and has emerged in an arguably stronger position for 2021.

True, we will not have an opportunity to press the flesh with talented Oregon filmmakers such as Derek Sitter, whose film Tutu Grande we unpacked here a couple of weeks ago. Nor will it be possible to experience the spectacular visuals of films such as the animated My Generation or the two performed-underwater films, Lacrimosa and Casiopea, on a big screen, where they deserve to be seen. In a theater, GraceLand’s exhilarating climax might have produced a joyous communal moment like the audience rising to clap along at the end of Love, Actually. My vote would be to bring it back in 2022 to see what happens.

Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, "My Generation," is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.
Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, “My Generation,” is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.

What is happening is potentially fortuitous synchronicity. The festival has (this year, anyway) gone virtual at the precise moment that the movie-loving public is fully and necessarily on board with streaming movies at home. Given the timing, the festival (unlike the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which had to cancel last year’s event and then scrambled to throw a virtual fest together) had a whole year to plan. From a marketing standpoint, it represents a unique opportunity. Instead of attracting a few hundred people, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, to see movies in McMinnville for a weekend, the festival can put 127 films from around the world (and its own name and brand) on a global stage for 10 days. Dan Morrow, who founded the event with his wife, Nancy, said a test run last fall with a streaming platform showed that it would work and, more importantly, that movie fans would buy tickets.

“Biting off 127 films, that’s way more than we’ve ever done before” Morrow said. “We did 85 films last year, and that was a very full three days of screenings down at the theater, and so this year we don’t have that time constraint.”

Eyeballing my notes from watching everything, I’d say half of this year’s crop of narrative films (excluding the documentaries, in other words) represent exceptional and occasionally superior artistry and storytelling. Two-thirds of the rest are competent, enjoyable films made with varying degrees of talent and professionalism. The balance (mercifully a minority and spread evenly throughout the program) comprises more obviously amateurish work, although even there, one finds sincere efforts to create something meaningful. For example, I didn’t particularly care for the home movie-ish Februarium!! in the “Experimental/A Bit Strange” category, which tells the true story of a “holiday” created to honor the filmmaker’s deceased friend. But for weeks after seeing it, I found myself thinking about the issues it raises about the healing power of art, the relation between art and memory, and the social-construct qualities of virtually any holiday.

The festival has grouped films into genre-specific collections of six to 15 films. The films themselves run anywhere from three to 20 minutes, and each screening block (most of which are unlocked for a three- to four-day viewing window) runs about 80 to 90 minutes. Each block is $10, with discounts for purchases of three or more; an all-access pass costs $85, which is less than you’d spend on dinner for two and a two-hour movie preceded by 15 minutes of annoying trailers. That highlights another advantage of the virtual festival: It’s nearly 20 hours of film content, and no trailers with sound dialed up to 11. 

In “GraceLand,” a 10-year-old girl, played by Katie Beth West, believes she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley.

The 127 films include 37 from around Oregon, more than 20 from the Los Angeles area, and 18 from a dozen countries outside the U.S., including Taiwan, France, Chile, India, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Brazil, and Italy. Along with the documentary, environmental, and Native American cinema I wrote about last week, there’s drama/comedy, experimental/a bit strange, animation, and suspense/horror and sci-fi. Three categories — locals, student films, and a children’s block — are available free all 10 days. Also, because so many people are Zooming from home, participation in pre-taped filmmaker Q&A sessions hit a record high. More than 90 of the people who have entries in this year’s festival appear at the end of each screening block in a panel discussion. The opening-night welcome will be livestreamed for free at 5 p.m. Thursday here, and awards will be presented live on Feb. 28.

The thing that struck me about this year’s collection is how so many of the films speak to and echo others and explore similar themes across the categories. There are plenty of ways one could do this, of course, but I’ll stick to half a dozen categories of my own. Plus, a few of my personal favorites. (On the registration pages for many of these films, a free trailer is available.)

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McMinnville Short Film Festival gets real

Documentaries play a big role in the festival that kicks off Feb. 18, with particular focus on the environment and Native Americans

It is apparently now possible, with affordable software, a laptop, and a cellphone, to create visuals and special effects of the same quality you’d expect of a Marvel film or a new chapter of Star Wars — to essentially create Hollywood-scale spectacle at the kitchen table.

Some may find that encouraging, but what I’m more optimistic about is looking at the 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival menu and seeing how many filmmakers are doing the exact opposite: telling real people’s stories, exploring real issues, real problems, and real joys. There’s plenty of thoughtful and entertaining fare to be found in each of the festival’s categories: drama/comedy, horror/suspense, experimental, animation, etc. But the all-virtual event, which kicks off 10 days of streaming on Feb. 18, is also a documentary smorgasbord, with some wonderful and interesting work in the mix.

The festival offers 127 films this year, and the documentaries are all over the place, nearly three dozen of them. You’ll find a dozen in the documentary screening block that unlocks Feb. 25-28, but other categories also include them. The locals block, available to viewers Feb. 19-24, includes a visually gorgeous tribute to Samuel Boardman, the Massachusetts-born engineer and surveyor who founded the Oregon State Parks system, and another about Indigenous dance. A collection of 10 environmentally themed films (Feb. 19-21) and 11 Native American films (Feb. 20-22) offer more reality-based cinema.

"Azteca Dance" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“Azteca Dance” by McMinnville resident Karla Contreras is nominated for the “Best Locals Award” in the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Given the deep ties Indigenous peoples have to the land, it’s not surprising that several of those films are documentaries with the environment as their subject, including Can the Blueback Survive? and Yehow. Both are nominated for the festival’s Shawash Ilihi Award, which for the second year will be presented to the best “films by Native American filmmakers and/or films that foster understanding of the culture, traditions, and contemporary issues of Native Americans.” I would add here that the locals block also includes one of my favorite Indigenous films this year, Azteca Dance, which is also up for an award in that category.

That the Native American category exists came about from the festival’s partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, whose reservation lies about 20 miles west of McMinnville. It is one of nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. Chris Mercier, the vice chairman of the Tribal Council, said the name of the award comes from the tribe’s primary language.

“We call the language chinuk wawa,” he said. Although the festival uses a slightly different spelling for Shawash Ilihi, he added, “the word is one of our names for our land and people.”

Independent cinema, which by default includes short films and micro-cinema, doesn’t get the press that mainstream fare gets, and within that cultural ecosystem, Indigenous cinema gets even less, according to Jordan Mercier, the cultural education director at the tribe’s Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

“Native American filmmakers face considerable challenges when telling stories that will resonate with people outside the Indigenous community,” he said. “It’s a very specific niche, but because I work in Indian country, the films and recurring themes are hardly foreign to me.”

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Derek Sitter: Exploring the ties between privilege and trauma

The Bend filmmaker hopes his ‘Tutu Grande,’ in the upcoming McMinnville Short Film Festival, will spur discussions about power, greed, and consequences

Derek Sitter’s film Tutu Grande is little more than 12 minutes long, but it’s surely the most excruciating, difficult-to-watch of the 127 films the McMinnville Short Film Festival will screen later this month. It’s also one of the best. Given the #MeToo movement, it’s in sync with the cultural zeitgeist. The film has won a slew of awards on the festival circuit and is nominated for a Grand Jury Award at the McMinnville festival, which begins Feb. 18. Watching it is like pulling the pin from a hand grenade and waiting for the explosion.

I very nearly didn’t watch it, because even a glimpse of the poster or the trailer suggests that one will be subjected to torture porn. Indeed, the opening shots offer visual cues — a man bound to a wooden slab, a stash of surgical equipment on a nearby table, and the snapping of rubber gloves by the captor — that seem swiped from Hostel or Saw. The narrative (spoilers ahead) consists of little more than a darkly comic monologue masquerading as a conversation (and a mostly quiet one at that) delivered by a father to the young man who raped his daughter.

When the grenade does explode, it’s not as you expect. A surprise awaits the rapist, sitting in the shadows.

Derek Sitter, director of "Tutu Grande," has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).
Derek Sitter, director of “Tutu Grande,” has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).

Sitter wrote the story and directed it with cinematographer Taylor Morden behind a single camera. He also plays Jesse, the father, in an understated but pitch-perfect performance. His wife, Jeanne Sanders, plays the rapist’s mother. A few short shots hold her in the frame for less than 30 seconds, but that’s possibly the most agonizing and emotionally truthful segment of the film.

Jared, the young man who spends Tutu Grande prone at a roughly 45-degree angle, is played by Nathan Woodworth. He speaks few lines but with extraordinary subtlety and nuance conveys oceans of meaning, largely with his face. Woodworth has done film and theater work in Oregon and California, including the lead role in Johnny Got His Gun, a stage production a few years ago in Los Angeles by The Actors’ Gang and directed by Tim Robbins.

Sitter is something of a rock star in Bend’s cultural scene. Family connections brought him there a decade ago, and he spent a year and a half remodeling a concrete warehouse and wood mill into the 2,500-square-foot Volcanic Theatre Pub on the city’s west side. Bend Source Weekly’s reader poll has regularly named it the city’s favorite indoor venue since it opened in 2013, and the theater is a hotbed of creativity — live music, stand-up comedy, film screenings, and live theater — from The Blasters to David Mamet’s American Buffalo. It hosts, in a non-COVID year, some 225 events. Sitter also teaches acting classes there, and for several years, Woodworth was among his students.

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Riva Wolf: Under a black cloud, a bright palette emerges

A McMinnville retrospective shows the late artist’s range, from echoes of the Holocaust to Fauvism to “Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss”

When Riva Wolf attended the 1986 screening of the nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, it was as both artist and witness. Wolf’s parents and two brothers died in Auschwitz, and a collection of nearly 20 of her paintings, drawings, and etchings, some based on her family, filled the lobby of the New Community Cinema in New York. A reporter at the scene wrote that her work was “like an echo of the monumental movie playing inside.”

Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates
Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates

Wolf died last fall at age 87. A retrospective exhibition curated by her son, Gershon Wolf, and his wife, Veronica Ruth, makes the echo audible for a few weeks in Yamhill County. Riva Wolf — A Solo Retrospective can be seen through Feb. 14 at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Nearly three dozen pieces are available for purchase in the artist-owned and -operated gallery and may be viewed during regular business hours or by appointment.

Gallery co-owner Marlene Eichner and her husband, Steve, first met Riva after befriending Gershon at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Salem in 2018. “He was new to Salem,” Eichner  recalled. “He is a wonderful musician and played guitar for some of our events.” His mother moved to Oregon from New Mexico, where she had been active in the arts community, three years after the 2015 death of her husband, Donald, an accomplished photographer.

The plan, Gershon said, was to start fresh in Oregon with a new business name, social media campaign, and a multi-media show incorporating the family’s work that would bounce around the West Coast. Eichner invited Riva Wolf to visit Currents, where she met other artists. There was talk of her resuming oil and pastel painting and possibly being represented by the gallery.

The family’s artistic launch in Oregon came a year ago with a show of Donald Wolf’s photography marking his yahrzeit – the observance of the anniversary of his death. Later that month, a show of Riva’s work at the Chabad Center, titled Knock at the Door, included a documentary of the same name about Wolf’s family in Europe during the war.

"Self-Reflection," by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)
“Self-Reflection,” by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)

Shortly after, Gershon and Riva prepared a third show for the Borland Gallery in Silverton. They planned to open in March 2020 — a point on the calendar now fixed in the nation’s collective memory.

“COVID hit and ruined our show,” Gershon said. “Technically, we set up and had an opening with food and music, but only like five people came to the opening. A few others came while the show was up that first week by appointment, and then we started taking it down.”

By this time, Riva was ailing from a brain tumor that had been diagnosed on New Year’s Day 2020. There would be no more painting. She died in a Salem hospice in November.

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A couple of months before much of Oregon burst into flames last year, Gershon noticed that Currents was auctioning artwork online. He asked Eichner if he could throw in a few pieces of his mother’s work.

“They gave me a full-blown show instead,” he said.

Summer wildfires interrupted the show’s curation. Silverton was spared, but between the Beachie Creek and Lionhead fires, the Wolfs took no chances. “I literally had to truck all the art out of the house when the fires were coming and stash it at the temple,” Gershon said. Eventually, he came up with enough pieces for a show.

What’s striking about the Currents exhibition is that it isn’t obvious that the pieces are by a single artist. Looking at the body of work that spans more than half a century, it becomes clear that this woman who survived the Holocaust and spent the rest of her life under what Gershon calls a “black cloud” was an accomplished artist versatile in a variety of media and stylistic approaches. Also, she was not content to make any one topic her subject.

Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories”series).
Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled, lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories” series).

A few pieces evoke the Holocaust; others are less obviously tied but have a somber, reflective tone. Still other paintings are playful, blending bold colors with expressive flourishes reminiscent of Fauvism, a style that emerged in early 20th-century France. Wolf, who traveled extensively in Europe after the war, studied that movement carefully and delighted in creating a visual palette, Gershon said, “where Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss.”

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