McMinnville Short Film Festival marches on — pandemic or no

Organizers are coming up with two scenarios for February's 10th annual event, and a virtual fundraiser this weekend will showcase greatest hits from the past

Having spent most of 2020 reporting on Yamhill County events large and small that have been canceled due to COVID-19, I find it a relief to reveal an ambitious cultural project that is marching onward.

The McMinnville Short Film Festival was one of a few major events this year that managed to slide under the wire in February before the pandemic shut everything down. The festival takes over the largest auditorium at McMinnville Cinema 10 for a busy weekend, showcasing excellent films from the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Audiences get to meet the filmmakers amid discussion, networking, and, of course, wine. February 2021 will mark the 10th year, and the festival will be held (Feb. 19-21), pledge founders and organizers Dan and Nancy Morrow, one way or another.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

This weekend is the festival’s mid-year fundraiser, which isn’t so much a sneak preview as a greatest hits party. And of course, it’s virtual. Starting at 3 p.m. Friday and running till 11 p.m. Sunday, a sliding-scale donation is all you need to treat yourself — at home, on your TV, tablet, phone, etc. —  to a nearly two-hour smorgasbord of award-winning short films in a variety of genres spanning the festival’s nine years. That’s the window during which you must start watching — and you can watch any number of them, in any order, at your convenience. Multiple viewings are allowed. Once you begin, you’ve got 24 hours during which the eight-film program will be available. The longest film is 20 minutes; most run 10 to 12 minutes. Most are introduced by the filmmakers. In lieu of the meet-and-greet, a 45-minute webinar featuring most of the filmmakers is also available.  

Elnaz Resaei plays Nahal, recipient of a surprise birthday party, in “We Were There,” a film by Saeed Vahidi and a 2020 award-winner at the McMinnville Short Film Festival. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival
Elnaz Resaei plays Nahal, recipient of a surprise birthday party, in “We Were There,” a film by Saeed Vahidi and a 2020 award-winner at the McMinnville Short Film Festival. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival

A complete list of titles appears below. The strongest pieces include Saeed Vahidi’s drama We Were There, which this year won the Best Genre Award. As the tale opened with plans for a surprise birthday party, I began to worry that Vahidi had too many characters and was going to lose control. But make no mistake: Vahidi and his cast have absolute control over a complex, but tightly written, and supremely well-acted story, which feels a bit like a 20-minute episode of an angst-ridden A Million Little Things. It’s definitely a high-wire act, executed flawlessly.

Greg Chwerchak’s Sac de Merde is a gem of another cut entirely, a 14-minute comedy about a New York woman’s dating woes that includes possibly the funniest and most outrageously uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Arielle Haller-Silverstone (who co-wrote the script) is delightful as the main character/narrator, who — as viewers learn in the webinar — is essentially re-enacting an event that actually happened to her. Talk about owning it.

Arielle Haller-Silverston stars in “Sac de Merde,” which she co-wrote based on a real-life event.

Those are the two most polished works, but others also shine. Newberg’s Jerry Eichten just happened to have a camera with him one day when he noticed a family of geese traveling through downtown McMinnville. So he followed them, across parking lots and through busy traffic, as they made their way to relative safety. After about 15 minutes of shooting and an hour or so of editing, he had a perfect, family-friendly film, Walking Tour. It will, for a few minutes anyway, lift you out of 2020 and make you feel good about the world. 

AJ Gordon’s directorial debut, Shanghai Faders, which makes fantastic use of Portland’s Old Town, is a lot of fun. It follows a motorist whose car breaks down in the middle of the night, leading him into a subterranean part of Portland that out-weirds Portland weird. Imagine David Lynch directing Bad Day at Black Rock for an episode of Night Gallery. The fundraiser also brings back Zach Putnam’s The Kenton Lead Blob*, which won the 2017 Recology Award and is a deep dive into the issue of lead contamination in a Portland neighborhood.

Putnam’s movie-making life started in middle school, when his grandfather gave him a Sony Hi8 camcorder. “I convinced some of my teachers to let me make videos instead of writing papers,” he said. “I’ve been working that scam ever since.”

He studied filmmaking in Southern California and logged time in the film and television industry there before realizing he preferred to work on smaller projects where he had greater control. “When I moved to Portland in 2008, I focused on working with nonprofits, because I usually feel good about supporting their missions, and they always have interesting and important stories to tell.”

Putnam echoes other filmmakers I’ve talked to about McMinnville’s festival. “Very few put forth the kind of effort that the MSFF team does to enhance the festival experience, both for the audience and for the filmmakers,” he said. “Things like receptions for the filmmakers and thoughtfully hosted Q&A sessions for the audiences elevate the festival experience and make it the kind of social and interactive event that it should be, pre-COVID. Even since the pandemic, I’ve seen them pivot and adapt to continue serving this community.”

The Morrows actually are planning two events. A tentative scaffolding is being prepared in case the 2021 main event can be held, in part or full, in person. The more likely scenario is that it’s all or mostly virtual, with the social aspect of the festival — meeting the filmmakers — Zoomed into people’s living rooms.

AJ Gordon's “Shanghai Faders” is a darkly funny surreal noir shot in Portland. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival
AJ Gordon’s “Shanghai Faders” is a darkly funny, surreal noir shot in Portland. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival

“We are working with Zoom’s production team on supporting a webinar-style production that’s live,” Nancy Morrow said. “Filmmakers would be on there and ready to answer questions live to anyone watching. It’s still not the same, but it’s a possible way to connect during COVID.”

Organizers weren’t sure if film submissions would even come in this year, but there are plenty: 180 submissions so far, and the deadline is Nov. 1. One possible reason for the large number is there’s no requirement that the production be made within the last year. “Several of our films are from two years ago or more,” Morrow said. “We say that if a filmmaker feels their film can stand the test of time, they are welcome to submit, no matter when it was made.”

“From what we are seeing,” she added, “we’re going to have another amazing round of films to showcase.”

This weekend’s fundraiser comes on the heels of two pieces of film-industry news. The owners of Silverton’s storied Palace Theatre announced their intention to shut down when their lease ran out Oct. 1. Co-owners Stu Rasmussen and Roger Paulson have owned the theater since 1974. In the past year, they’ve been slammed by the pandemic. As they were about to dip a toe back in the movie-screening waters, Oregon’s fires erupted, and for several days Silverton was among several smoke-choked Willamette Valley towns poised to evacuate.

Also last week, Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, announced that it had shut (temporarily) 663 theaters in the United States and Britain. Blockbusters like the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, have been kicked down the road into an uncertain 2021, and with audiences wary about returning to theaters, the talk is grim. On Wednesday, Patty Jenkins, the director of a new Wonder Woman film that’s been delayed three times during COVID-19, told Reuters that the industry is staring into the abyss. “If we shut this down, this will not be a reversible process,” she warned. “We could lose movie-theater-going forever.”

“Forever” is probably a bit much, but the more immediate casualties seem likely to be the $300 million behemoths cranked out for franchises like Star Wars, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and James Bond that pay the bills for chains like Regal.

In other words, it’s a uniquely strange moment in the film industry, where the smallest may be better positioned to weather the storm.

Expect aliens and green poop in "The Plumber," an animated comedy by Portland's Christian Bergmans and Clark Soll. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival
Expect aliens and green poop in “The Plumber,” an animated comedy by Portland’s Christian Bergmans and Clark Soll. Photo courtesy: McMinnville Short Film Festival

“The film industry is chomping at the bit to return, whether it’s a short-film filmmaker or a Hollywood production,” said Morrow, whose familiarity with the industry goes back to the 1990s, when she and Dan opened an independent video store in McMinnville. “I would guess the short-film filmmakers will bounce back quicker. They often can produce a film with fewer people on their crew and cast than a feature film can.” She has heard that a lot of screenwriting was done this year.

Viewed through that prism, the 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival (and this weekend’s fundraiser) are arguably more significant than they might be in “normal” times. The fundraiser holds the promise of perhaps introducing the festival more successfully to local audiences, particularly those who may be happy to stream at home but might not have been regular theatergoers before the pandemic. The suggested ticket price is $5, but the Morrows note that this is a fundraiser, so whatever people can contribute above and beyond is an investment in the festival’s future.

These are the films that will be screened this weekend, Oct. 16-18: 

  • Walking Tour by Jerry Eichten (Newberg) – 2011 Over-18 Winner
  • Four Daughters by Ray Nomoto Robison (Medford) – 2012 award nominee
  • Wake by Austin Smagalski (Los Angeles) – 2014 Sunrise Rotary Emerging Artist Award
  • The Plumber by Christian Bergmans (Portland) – 2015 Grand Jury
  • Shanghai Faders by AJ Gordon (Portland) – 2016 Best Director
  • The Kenton Lead Blob* by Zach Putnam (Portland) – 2017 Recology Award
  • Sac de Merde by Greg Chwerchak (Los Angeles) – 2019 Grand Jury
  • We Were There by Saeed Vahidi (Vancouver, B.C.) – 2020 Best Genre

ARTS JOURNAL:  I’ve been dipping into Bill Moyers’ The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, the Amazon Video series Mozart in the Jungle, and devouring the newest book by the great music writer Alex Ross: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which is a leading candidate for my favorite book of the year. Also watched the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl, making the mistake of starting quite late at night and going to bed with that in my head. 

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

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