The 11th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival roars back onto the big screen this week, which is where films should be seen. The event, which features more than 100 short films from around the U.S. and the world, will be held February 10-13 at McMinnville Cinema 10.
The diversity is strong with this one. Not only are there screening blocks for every imaginable genre (each of which runs about 90-120 minutes), there’s an unprecedented level of BIPOC and LGBTQ representation both on screen and behind the camera, as well as a significant number of female directors. And there are multiple ways to watch: in-person, virtually at home, or both.
“We are going to proceed in person,” said Dan Morrow, who with his wife and festival co-founder Nancy has built the MSFF into one of Oregon’s most popular film festivals.
“We talked about it, the board discussed it, and we all felt like, ‘Okay, we know how to do this,’” he added. “It’s a small enough group of people. We’re requiring vaccinations as part of it, we require masks at all times, and we feel like the filmmakers, especially, are people who get it and are willing to respect it. I mean, they’ve been through it themselves, trying to get anything filmed with all the protocols that are needed. So we feel like it’s the right thing.”
“Filmmakers, especially” is integral to the formula and vibe the MSFF has strived for in the last decade. The founders never miss a chance to emphasize that it is a film festival for filmmakers, and virtually every film artist I’ve talked to over the years emphatically agrees that it is.
“They make it very personal,” said Heather Older, who spent years working in the industry in Los Angeles before getting her short film screened at the MSFF in 2020.
“When I walked into reception, I was greeted by Nancy, and she knew my film, she commented on it,” Older noted. “That made it much different than coming into a film festival where it’s ‘Welcome, here’s your badge.’ Maybe they saw your film, maybe they didn’t. She made such a personal effort to know every filmmaker and which filmmaker did what, and it just set the tone for the entire festival.”
Now living in Oregon with a “day job” as a respiratory therapist with Providence Health System, Older volunteered in 2021 to help with fundraising for this year’s event, and she’s also in pre-production on her next short film.
“There are a lot of festivals that are really just glorified screenings, they’re not really festivals,” Older said. “A festival is networking – there are panels, there are mixers – it’s a creative social event and it’s intended to develop further collaboration.”
In her case, it did: two collaborators on her current project are New York filmmakers she met at the MSFF in 2020.
The focus on filmmakers shouldn’t detract from the MSFF’s potential as an event that has broad community appeal. That’s something with which festival organizers have struggled. The MSFF is widely known in the industry, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, and New York, but it’s not uncommon to find people here in Yamhill County who both love watching movies and are surprised to learn that McMinnville has a film festival where you can see Oscar-worthy work on the big screen.
Exhibit A for that claim may be found this year in the deeply affecting film Feeling Through by New York filmmaker Doug Roland. Scheduled in Friday’s 12:30 p.m. drama and comedy block, it’s a two-man show based on the director’s own experience of meeting a DeafBlind man in New York one night who needed help finding a bus stop.
The beautiful story runs barely 18 minutes and was an Oscar nominee in 2021. Feeling Through stars Robert Tarango, the first DeafBlind actor to have a major film role, and it’s difficult to imagine an audience not rising to their feet in puddles of happy tears as the credits roll. If these uncertain times have you discouraged by the human project, Feeling Through is a powerful antidote.
And, in a masterstroke of programming, the Feeling Through story grows in the telling through one of the festival’s virtual-only blocks: Connecting the Dots. It’s a documentary that shows how Roland created the film, working closely with the Helen Keller National Center. And if your post-Feeling Through cry whets your appetite for more, just wait – during the filming, Roland was, after years of searching, reunited with the man he helped at the bus stop. And they filmed that, too, and the two remain friends today.
It may be a subjective call, but it seems to me that this year’s MSFF crop is more deeply felt, more serious. Perhaps reckoning with the pandemic and the reactionary turn in our politics has put filmmakers in a frame of mind to go deeper. That’s not to say viewers are looking at a smorgasbord of downers, but even the fictional work resonates with genuine honesty. Dinner for Two, for example, is a poignant, humanely told story about a waiter whose customer is clearly imagining that he has a date. Incredibly, you learn in a credits note that it was based on an actual incident. The 16-minute short Counting tells the tale of a budding romance that is complicated by the fact that one half of the couple is afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s not played for laughs or pathos; director Sarah Young just tells the story. These, and several others in multiple categories, including animation, remind one of the oft-quoted observation that everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
Interestingly, one of the obviously Covid-inspired films is a documentary based on an actual event and is one of the most entertaining and optimistic of the bunch. Whitney’s Giant-Ass Cinnamon Rolls tells the story of an Oregon couple whose afternoon baking project during quarantine went viral and, with enthusiastic assistance from Portland musicians Storm Large and k.d. lang, turned into a successful fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank.
And while much is made of the fact that the MSFF draws filmmakers from all over the nation and the world, there’s also a lot of Oregon up there on the screen this year. The apocalyptic tale West Winds was shot on the coast; the documentary Prison Blues is about an Oregon inmate who builds guitars in the prison workshop; and Being Me in the Current America is a monologue, powerfully delivered by Shareen Jacobs, about living while Black in Lake Oswego. Being Me is directed by Portland’s Dmae Lo Roberts who also writes for Oregon ArtsWatch.
Another reason to get on board this year’s MSFF: You don’t have to regret that you missed the great movies from last year that you may hear people still talking about. An encore block of 2021’s best of the best will include Derek Sitter’s electrifying Tutu Grande, the delightful animated short Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream by Oregon’s Steve Cowden, Alex Huebsch’s The Chris Mosier Project, and Katherine Fisher’s Proof of Loss, which won last year’s Grand Jury Award for Best Drama.
All told, there are a lot of films, a lot of ways to see them, and a chance to hear from the creators behind roughly half the entries in panel discussions afterwards. Sure, you can pay $7 for a single screening block at the door, but given the programming, the $75 all-access weekend pass, which includes the awards dinner Sunday night (and the ability to stream everything at home for one week after the festival closes) is a bargain. Visit the website for a complete schedule, more information about the films, trailers, Covid protocols and to buy tickets.