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.)

TRAUMA: The king of this hill — films dealing with real-world pain — is Tutu Grande. But there’s a remarkable mix of topics and styles in this bunch, and three deal with specific events. Proof of Loss is an elegiac meditation on the fallout of post-wildfire life in California: a young woman visiting her widowed father for whom the blaze represented something of a release from his own pain. Dulce et Decorum Est is little more than a staged reading of Wilfred Owen’s haunting anti-war poem, posthumously published in 1920, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never hear it read more beautifully than actor Steven Earl Oliver, shot in exquisite black and white, does here. A Friend of Mine and Pizza Party both deal thoughtfully with the aftermath of sexual assault.

AWKWARD!: Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David is arguably the heavyweight champion of Schadenfreude-based comedy, and he would have been right at home in the masterful Macie’s Parade, where a family Christmas gathering goes wrong. Velcro is also very funny, featuring a couple in bed negotiating comfort levels for the night. Air conditioning on or off? Window open or shut? Leaning toward the absurd end of the spectrum are Braces and Delilah, the latter about a woman who blows it on her third wish from the genie. Both were written by Portland filmmaker and festival regular Jason Rosenblatt. Finally, check out Coffee With Exes,  a fast-paced series of micro-scenes in which a woman meets with men she once dated.

GENDER/SEXUALITY: I’ve already alluded to one I’d put in this group: GraceLand, in which a 10-year-old girl believes she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. That may sound gimmicky, but it’s an effective tool for exploring issues of self-identity as well as a triumphant celebration of reality revealing itself through art. Child actor Katie Beth West is simply extraordinary, having been cast after what I understand was a long audition process. The Australian film Agender looks at gender issues through a more fantastical lens, as it imagines a thug “who swaps life in prison for a new body.” The best, in my opinion, is Show & Tell, which illustrates with a subtle touch the high price transphobia exacts on both child and parent.

"My Daughter Yoshiko," an entry from Florida that's available during the Drama/Comedy Block 1, is one of several films this year that look at issues related to parenting and youth.
“My Daughter Yoshiko,” an entry from Florida that’s available during the Drama/Comedy Block 1, is one of several films this year that look at issues related to parenting and youth.

PARENTING: My Daughter Yoshiko ought to be watched by anyone who doesn’t understand autism. Clocking in at only 15 minutes, it packs an impressive number of powerful and emotionally truthful moments. postpartumm looks at a phenomena that afflicts one out of five women who experience childbirth, with a nice balance of humor, pain, and empathy. Two of my favorites feature parents talking with a child. A widowed father in The Moon & the Stars talks to his daughter about mortality, and in Two Different Kinds of Love, a family-friendly animated piece, a mother explains to her daughter why she was adopted. This, along with dozens of other films in all categories, serve to remind that in skilled hands, a short film can pack as much story and feeling as a feature-length work and is just the right length. On only two or three occasions did I watch something and think, “This could have worked as a 90-minute feature.”

YOUTH: Several films, most of them documentaries, are sincere, humanely crafted pieces that look at the experience of being a young person and the range of challenges and problems that can entail. A couple — A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old Girl and High School Reflections 2019I discussed last week. In this grouping, I’d also include Close as Brothers (which also deals with autism) and That Week Each Year, a snapshot of a summer camp for kids of all ages who struggle with inflammatory bowel disease. The British film Rehak is a Spielbergian fairy tale about childhood friends. My personal favorite, however is Another Day, narrated by a Black girl (wonderfully played by Bobbi MacKenzie) “in the whitest state, city, and school” and how the culture functions to render her invisible. Portland filmmaker Sommer Martin, who is active with the Couch Film Collective, received a nomination for Best Oregon Filmmaker for it.

Portland filmmaker Sommer Martin's film "Another Day" focuses on a student who experiences discriminatory and hurtful instances with her classmates, teachers and administrators in the days leading up to a Black History Month school assembly where she performs.
Portland filmmaker Sommer Martin’s film “Another Day” focuses on a student, played by Bobbi MacKenzie, who experiences discriminatory and hurtful events with her classmates, teachers, and administrators in the days leading up to her performance in a Black History Month school assembly.

LIFE ITSELF: Based largely on moving performances by actors in lead roles (combined, in a couple of cases, with extraordinary technical virtuosity), I’m lumping together works that illustrate something essential about life itself in all its complexity and awesome mystery. Three films — Gail, Late Shift, and Trevor Waits — deal humanely with the experience of late-life personal loss. The last is wonderfully enigmatic and haunting. The Indian film Manasanamaha makes fine use of both animation and running the film backwards (accompanied by wonderful music) to tell the story of romantic courtship. Casiopea is an astonishing and sensuous work that for much of its 14 minutes employs a nude woman swimming in the sea as a metaphor for something I can’t recall having ever seen in a film. Another surrealist work, the Austrian Lacrimosa, features two young actors who perform the bulk of the story underwater against a green screen, giving the impression that they are floating through an imaginal landscape.

In the animation block, "Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream" tells the story of an interspecies friendship.
In the animation block, “Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” by Lake Oswego’s Steve Cowden, tells the story of an interspecies friendship.

PERSONAL FAVORITES: Two films in the animation block ranked among my personal favorites for the whole festival. Lake Oswego filmmaker Steve Cowden depicts an adorable friendship between a housebound dog and orphaned cat in the charmingly scored Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream. The French entry My Generation is arguably the most spectacular film. Using a receding freeway as its entry point and central metaphor, My Generation is like an animated Bosch painting, barreling for eight minutes through the gauzy and nightmarish artifice of modernity. The inability to see it on a big screen is somewhat compensated for by the fact that, thanks to streaming video, you can do all the freeze-frames you want. I’ve seen it six or seven times now.

The horror entries weren’t among my favorites, but one stands out. The Feeding is one of several entries shot during (and no doubt inspired by) the pandemic. It’s about a woman quarantined in her apartment with something trapped in a closet. It’s very much a tale reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, as is another of my favorites, The Interview. Nominated for Best Drama, it  appears in a drama/comedy block that runs Feb. 20-22 and depicts a job interview that turns out to be a conversation of life-and-death importance. In The Interview, we also have what is arguably this year’s best Hollywood cameo, by Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame.

Black Coffee playfully but realistically depicts the verbal dance leading up to a First Kiss (in a coffee shop) and will have you hanging on every word. Whiteout is also terrific fun. Shot inside a car in a single take, it depicts a chance encounter with a disoriented man at night in a snowstorm. Knowing that it actually was shot at night in a snowstorm makes it all the more impressive; apparently, it took a half-dozen tries before they captured the footage you see. I wrestled with the plausibility of the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, but otherwise it’s perfect. 

"Gather in the Corner," one of several films dealing with school shootings, takes the idea of "arm the teachers" for a spin. Seattle actor Jeff Zornes plays a firearms instructor charged with the task.
“Gather in the Corner,” one of several films dealing with school shootings, takes the idea of “arm the teachers” for a spin. Seattle actor Jeff Zornes plays a firearms instructor charged with the task.

By my count, three films deal with the issue of mass shootings (none shows any violence). By far the best is Gather in the Corner, a pseudo-documentary following a gun-safety instructor visiting a classroom as part of an “arm-the-teachers” policy. Tonally, the film (along with the performance by Seattle actor Jeff Zornes as the gun expert) is pitch-perfect. By playing the scene straight with deliberately banal dialogue, the film effortlessly brings out the pathology of the social ill and the nightmarish absurdity of this proposed solution.

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.

One Response.

  1. Timothy Wilson says:

    To laud Gather in The Corner without even a mention of Thoughts and Prayers is pretty tone-deaf. I would argue that Thoughts and Prayers, in 2 minutes, delivered a more powerful message, and a more comprehensive one. My whole family, including 2 kids who are 23 and 18, totally felt it.

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