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.”

"Can the Blueback Survive?" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“Can the Blueback Survive?” explores the effects of habitat loss on the blueback salmon, and by extension, members of the Quinault Indian Nation.

“I recall there being a surge in native films following Dances with Wolves, but we’re talking decades ago now,” he continued. “And even then, many films centered around natives were ‘historical’ pieces, and I think there is an expectation movies involving Indigenous people will always be about the settling of North America, or westerns. The story of modern-day Native America is worth telling, but it will always be different from the role natives have played historically throughout film history.” Mercier is one of this year’s judges, and while obviously he can’t play favorites, he did say that it’s clear “we have some really talented filmmakers who could help lend a voice to natives in the film industry.”

The very nature of the Indigenous experience in post-European-settlement America dictates that the subject matter of the films Native Americans make is often somber and the tone melancholy. Rightly so. Can the Blueback Survive? and Yehow, for example, both deal with environmental degradation, as does Spokane Tribal Water Quality Standards on the Spokane River. All three of these (along with most films in the environmental category) make excellent use of filming-by-drone, a technique making it possible to get extraordinary shots that couldn’t even be managed by a helicopter. Then there’s the 8-minute short that deals with a horrifying subject: Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, a cinematic collage of sorts that uses dance and the image of a red dress falling to the ground to symbolize the thousands of Indigenous women who disappear each year. 

"Becoming: Orlando Dugi" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“Becoming: Orlando Dugi” profiles a Navajo/Dine fashion artist.

Another crop of films within the Indigenous category examines Indigenous culture, particularly as refracted by the arts. I’ve already cited Azteca Dance, made by Karla Contreras of McMinnville (although that one is included in the locals block). Becoming: Orlando Dugi is an exquisite film (clearly shot during the pandemic) that profiles a dedicated and skilled Navajo/Diné fashion artist and is also up for the festival’s tribal award. Awaken looks at efforts by Quechan tribal elders to pass along their music to youth who are also into metal music. My favorite was She Carries On by Isaac Fowler and Tim Morris of McMinnville. It tells the story of a Cherokee tribe in North Carolina that opened up the violent, rite-of-passage male-centric sport of stickball to women for the first time in more than a century. Archival footage is paired with interviews with the players, now adults.

"In Your Palm" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“In Your Palm,” in the environmental block, explores the devastation caused by the palm oil industry in Indonesia.

The environmental block is remarkable both for the diversity of topics and the wildly different styles and approaches to the material. In Your Palm is a wrenching look at how the palm oil industry is devastating both the forests and people of Indonesia, a film that prompted me to angrily write in my notebook, “We’re killing ourselves!” It packs an impressive amount of both information and narrative arcs into little more than 20 minutes. Surprisingly, it is not one of the three nominated for best picture in the environmental category.

 Art of Pollution is a completely different type of film in the same category. It’s an amazing 4-minute montage of mostly aerial shorts of tailing ponds, chemical-residue deposits, and mines across 12 European countries, accompanied by an urgent, Hans Zimmer-esque score by Felician Kalmus. It raises interesting questions about the nature of beauty and aesthetics. And then there’s the delightful, family-friendly Way to Go!, which is about the most unlikely of film topics: a toilet — to be specific, the immaculate, state-of-the-art composting toilet at the 7,900-foot elevation of Mount Shasta.

The documentary block is also strong, particularly with several films that deal with youth. The initial strangeness of the Australian-made A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old-Girl, which is up for best documentary, quickly gave way to delight and triumph. The Chris Mosier Project is a mesmerizing film that clocks in at barely 10 minutes and tells the story of a trans man who grew up in Chicago loving athletics and went on to become a Team USA competitor. And from Southern Oregon, there’s High School Reflections 2019, where filmmaker Abram Katz spent some time with an Ashland High School-based workshop for youth dealing with isolation and depression. It is a sobering companion piece to A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old-Girl.

"Sky Blossom McMinnville TN" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“Sky Blossom — McMinnville TN” is up for a Grand Jury Award in the festival.

If there’s a must-see in the bunch, however, it’s Sky Blossom — McMinnville, TN, from Richard Lui of San Francisco. It’s one piece of what is apparently a larger project that explores how young people are stepping up to care for people with disabilities. The segment screened by the festival is about a double-amputee veteran whose wife and daughters reorient their lives (and house) to make his life as whole as possible. Not surprisingly, it’s up for a Grand Jury Award. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

The McMinnville Short Film Festival runs Feb. 18-28, with live events on both opening and closing days. Streaming access to film blocks by category may be purchased online for $10 each; the locals, student, and just for kids blocks are free and available Feb. 19-24. Everything you could possibly need to know about compatibility with apps, hardware, etc., can be found here.

Ross Gay, poet
Poet Ross Gay gives a virtual reading Feb. 16 at Linfield University.

POETRY AT LINFIELD: A COVID outbreak at Linfield University in McMinnville has prompted the school to hit the pause button on in-classroom learning, but otherwise they’re gearing up for a steady diet of streaming arts and culture this spring. First up is the acclaimed poet and essayist Ross Gay, who will give a virtual reading at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, on the university’s YouTube channel. It’s free and available to the public.

“Ross Gay is the one writer you need to be reading right now,” Joe Wilkins, director of creative writing at Linfield University, said in a press statement. Gay is a professor of English at Indiana University and is the author of four books of poetry, including: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and The Book of Delights. He will read from both for this event. 

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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