Falling in love with movies and film festivals

Justin Zimmerman of the McMinnville Short Film Festival talks about his gateway films, the festival life, and this weekend's mini-fest fundraiser

The hottest movie ticket in Yamhill County this weekend isn’t at a theater. That distinction belongs to the Ice Auditorium on the Linfield College campus, where the McMinnville Short Film Festival will hold a sneak preview.

Eight films will be screened Saturday night (including one of last year’s crowd favorites, the hilarious I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs). Afterward, audience members will meet some of the filmmakers and players behind the ninth annual event, scheduled for Feb. 21-23. Tickets are only $5, and Linfield students with ID get in free. The mini film fest runs from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Proceeds will be split between the  McMinnville Short Film Festival and scholarships for immigrant students in Yamhill County.

Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as a filmmaker and a judge before becoming executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates
Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as an entrant and a judge before being named executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates

One guy who will be in the audience and working the crowd afterward will be filmmaker Justin Zimmerman, who last spring was brought aboard as the festival’s executive director.

Zimmerman’s Portland-based Bricker-Down Productions has had films in more than 150 international festivals and won in dozens of them. Zimmerman also contributed a story to the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Love Is Love. His connection with the McMinnville festival, founded by Dan and Nancy Morrow nearly a decade ago, goes back several years — first as an entrant and later as a judge.

I sat down a few weeks ago with Zimmerman during one of his visits to McMinnville, where he’s been discovering our restaurants and shops as he meets with the festival’s growing roster of partners (Linfield College among them) in preparation for February’s event. The festival has expanded to three days, entries are up, and it’s booked the largest auditorium at the local Coming Attractions multiplex for the entire weekend. “I have peers and friends in the world of film festivals, film programmers, executive directors, etc.,” he told me, “who, if they saw the budget of what we’re doing, they would be astounded.”

Zimmerman and I talked for about 90 minutes in a conversation that veered from his background and experiences and the festival to a few geek-out moments over movies we have both seen and loved. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your first movie memory growing up?

Zimmerman: I was fortunate enough to see Return of the Jedi, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters in a theater. Those really hit me. I remember those having a visceral effect. I remember seeing E.T. at a drive-in theater, that one blew me away. Movies really spoke to me. I was pretty young when I realized how powerful a movie could be. I didn’t have the training to contextualize it — the cinematography, the score, the acting, etc. — but it was very early on that I fell in love with movies.

What did you study in college?

Ohio State didn’t have a film production program, so I studied English and film criticism. I was fortunate to have a professor who taught the history of art named Ron Green, who was one of the most amazing film voices you could ever hope to find. I was studying Milton and Shakespeare and comparative world religions. I studied abroad in England and Ireland. Being in Scotland when Trainspotting hit was incredible. I took these courses in English where professors would teach what they were interested in: Feminism in horror movies; Orson Welles into Kubrick; and looking at the films of these wide-angle auteurs. It was remarkable.

Any particular film leap out, get inside your head?

My gateway film was Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris. That film defies categorization. I saw it as an undergraduate, and I said, “This is what I want to do.” It’s this perfect 80-minute movie. I saw that, and I thought, “You can do anything. I need to do this.”

I was going to ask who was the first filmmaker whose work you really felt compelled to study… would that be Morris, then?

Yeah, but also really early on, even before that. Because you’re watching a lot of stuff back in the Blockbuster and Hollywood Video days, where you’d get a movie like Army of Darkness and you’re like, “Who did this?” Or Peter Jackson. I remember watching Dead Alive the first time and showing it to my roommates and being like, “Someone in New Zealand with three million bucks made the craziest film I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Who is this?” And then Sam Raimi makes Spiderman, and Peter Jackson makes The Lord of the Rings.

Tell us about the McMinnville Short Film Festival, what you’re doing.

We’re talking about not only the ninth year, but also the 10th year. This year is important not only because it’s showcasing this huge step forward for the festival, but also showing where we are going in 2021. A film festival making it 10 years is incredible. It’s such an important thing, sustainability.

Do a lot of festivals fail?

Oh yeah! I’m one of the very few that I know of, an executive director of a film festival who is actually a working filmmaker. I’ve been to over 150 film festivals myself. I went to multiple film festivals this year and I will go to more at the end of this year. Next year, I will have a full film-festival slate. This is something I bring to the role. The festival doesn’t have to send me places, because I’m already there. This festival has been one of my favorites since I first became involved as a filmmaker.

Scott Ballard's short film “North & Nowhere” will be screened Saturday night at Linfield College with seven other shorts as part of a McMinnville Short Film Festival "sneak preview" fundraiser. Photo courtesy: Justin Zimmerman/ McMinnville Short Film Festival
Scott Ballard’s short film “North & Nowhere” will be screened Saturday night at Linfield College with seven other shorts as part of a McMinnville Short Film Festival fundraiser. Photo courtesy: Justin Zimmerman/McMinnville Short Film Festival

What do you like about it?

It’s a film-focused festival. It’s warm and inviting. You know that the individuals who invited you care about you and your film. The screenings look and sound great. The ceremonies — regardless of whether you were nominated or won — are so much fun. And people genuinely enjoyed being together. This was a festival I was excited about submitting to literally years before I first became involved as a judge and then as executive director. I would not have done it if Nancy and Dan, and [assistants] Diane Longaker and Diane Goodman, who have been such a huge part of the film festival for as long as I’ve been involved, hadn’t stayed on in major roles to help make sure these next couple of years were going to embody the previous years.

You’re adding a day this year?

Yeah. It’s crazy. We have an opening day now. We have completely streamlined the awards. We will have almost twice as many screenings.

Nancy told me you have the big auditorium at Cinema 10 for the whole weekend.

Not only that, but we’ll also structure [screening] blocks based on theme, genres. You’ll get a sense of what you’re getting into when you sign up for a block. We have a brand new website. We are five months away from the film festival, and we have twice as many submissions as our average yearly total. The number of films coming in, and the quality of films coming in, is incredible. The rest of the film world is paying attention to the things that are happening here. It’s incredibly exciting.

How many other short film festivals are there?

There’s not a ton of them, and that’s another reason I came on. I make feature-length films, but I look at short films as an art form all their own. Some people look at a short film as a commercial, or a reel, or practice. But it is a legitimate art film, and if you structure a short film correctly, it can have a reach that far exceeds a feature-length film.

Here’s the thing. There aren’t a ton of short-film-focused film festivals in the country. It’s one of the reasons MSFF is unique. We’re showcasing the best short films. Dan and Nancy early on said, “There’s something we can do here for filmmakers that not a lot of others are doing.” The reward for this community is that they’re getting to see films from around the world that most people have never seen. The uniqueness and the quality of the films that are coming our way —  it’s going to be a hell of a year. And we’re just getting started. I told them when they brought me on that it was going to be my job to make the screening committees have some of the toughest decisions they’ve had in their lives.

Not to pick on anyone, but can you give me an example of a film festival experience that contrasts with what you’ve experienced in McMinnville?

I’m in a film festival in two weeks, and I still don’t know when or where it’s playing. And this festival has been around a while. There was a festival I went to where one of the speakers went in and out the entire time. If I’m going to be involved with something, I want to be involved with a festival that takes my work seriously. Real early on, I felt like the team behind the MSFF took me and my work seriously, and that’s why I’m here.

As a filmmaker and a storyteller, what stories interest to you?

If you look at my work, people say it’s incredibly diverse. But I’ll follow a strong character anywhere. I think that’s what a lot of people miss, especially in the documentary world. In general, people are so excited about the story or the technology or whatever, they forget what makes you want to spend time with someone in the first place, which is a strong character.

What is on filmmakers’ minds these days? What are you talking about when you get together?

The same general things come up: How am I going to get the resources to make the films I want to make? When they’re done, what do I do with them? What is my financial or professional world going to look like in five or 10 years? How do I get it distributed? And how do I make it out there in the wider world with my creative vision intact?

Justin Zimmerman's 2019 documentary, “The Other Border” features a Ohio high school student, Gerardo, who was arrested by ICE and spent almost 2 months in prison. The film will be among those screened Saturday at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Justin Zimmerman/ McMinnville Short Film Festival
Justin Zimmerman’s 2019 documentary, “The Other Border” features a Ohio high school student, Gerardo, who was arrested by ICE and spent almost 2 months in prison. The film will be among those screened Saturday at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Justin Zimmerman/ McMinnville Short Film Festival

Tell us what’s happening this weekend.

We’re going to have an opening night of films at Linfield College in the Ice Auditorium. It’s not only a celebration of our partnership with Linfield, but it’s also going to be a mini “best-of” festival. We’re going to show a small number of short films from across the spectrum, to show what a short film can be. Most of the films we’re screening have some local connection, and most of the filmmakers are going to be there, including our special guest for 2020, Scott Ballard, whose film North & Nowhere we’ll screen. To introduce me, we’ll show my newest documentary, The Other Border.

We’re going to have an evening of film, food, and fun. And, of course, wine. People will be able to talk to the filmmakers and learn what we’ll be doing the ninth year and also what we can look forward to in the 10th year. It’s basically an announcement of what we’re all about. It’s our responsibility to introduce ourselves, and I’m taking that incredibly seriously.

ARTS JOURNAL: I attended an artist lecture Monday night in Newberg, regarding an exhibit on the George Fox University campus that I expect to write about next month. Clearly, nearly every arts major at the university was in attendance. From my vantage point in the third row, I could see about a half-dozen notebooks in students’ laps. Nobody was taking notes — at least not the type you and I might take. They were drawing.

*

This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

Comments are closed.