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Melissa Gregory Rue: From participant to chair of McMinnville Short Film Festival

The former Oregon resident says the festival, which starts Thursday, is unusual in its focus on celebrating filmmakers and making connections.

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Melissa Gregory Rue says Americans do not place enough value on the arts. “In the U.S., art is valued for its money-making power, not its ability to make people think, to give them a window into other cultures, to help them evolve as human beings, or to improve society.”

Melissa Gregory Rue’s documentary, Live Out Loud, won’t be available for streaming until later this year, and at 85 minutes, it’s too long to be screened at this week’s McMinnville Short Film Festival. But I wanted to talk with Rue (and see some of her work) because of another cap she’s been wearing over the past year: She’s the chairperson of the festival, which will screen more than 100 films Feb. 23-26 at McMinnville Cinemas.

We’ll circle back to Live Out Loud below, but a quick take:  Shot over a period of one year, Rue’s film tells the stories of three unhoused Portland people who find healing from trauma and a way off the streets by making films. It’s a moving testament to the transformative power of art.

It doesn’t take a feature-length film to pack a punch like Live Out Loud does, and that’s one takeaway from the selection curated by the McMinnville festival, which received more than 500 entries this year from around the world. Films such as P.J. Palmer’s North Star, Lisa Cole’s Bienvenidos a Los Angeles, Derek Sitter’s Bugtussle, Kat Rohner’s Roads Not Taken, and Daniel Egbert’s post-9/11 drama Chorus, to name just a few, tell powerful stories with exquisitely drawn characters grappling with real problems that are not contrivances, but rise organically out of real life. Some, in fact, are based on real events. 

Rue is a screenwriter, director, and producer based in Kentucky, where she grew up on a cattle and tobacco farm in Bourbon County “long before smoking was out and bourbon was cool.” Encouraged by a high school teacher, she wrote her first play, an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “Probably not that good,” she said, but her teacher “encouraged me to use my brain and dream big.”

She earned her M.A. in English literature from Portland State University and a filmmaking certificate from the Northwest Film Center (now PAM CUT) after 10 years of study there. Along with teaching and her own projects, Rue in 2020 co-produced Connectivity Project, a documentary series that explores how stories and actions “can have powerful ripple effects around the world.” She served as a juror, vice president, and then chair of the McMinnville Short Film Festival from 2021 to the present and helped relaunch Oregon Doc Camp a few years ago.  

After three decades in Portland that included working as an English professor for 20 years, studying film production, and countless outdoor adventures, she moved back to Kentucky at the beginning of the pandemic to be closer to family, but her ties to the McMinnville festival grew.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell us how you became an artist, how you found your way into filmmaking?

Rue: Growing up, I studied dance, played piano, delivered 4-H speeches, raised sheep, and acted in school plays. I also had two inspiring English teachers in high school who led me to dream of becoming a writer like Agatha Christie or Harper Lee.  I loved the arts. I loved costumes. My favorite times in high school were the end of each year when we would put on the school play.  Though my rural, public school could only afford mediocre farces, nothing compared to the excitement and community of those weeks when we came together to build, rehearse, and celebrate the return of spring.

I snuck my way into Miami of Ohio‘s theater program by winning over the chair of the department.  My first year was a challenge. I was intimidated by classmates who had studied at arts magnet schools in big cities.  At the end of the year, we had to audition to stay in the program, and I didn’t make the cut. I felt like a failure. The only good thing that happened that year was falling in love, but that meant I was tied to Oxford, Ohio. Miami didn’t have a film major, and I was too scared to try creative writing, so I switched to English literature.

In 1993, I moved to Eugene with friends from college. My first experience on a film set was working on a self-help video for kids transitioning from foster care to independent living. I remember thinking how amazing it would be to work in the film industry, but the path seemed too risky, so I continued my literature studies at PSU with the goal of becoming a professor. 

I discovered the Northwest Film Center while completing my master’s degree and working as a teaching assistant, but it took me another decade to take my first class there. I was teaching college composition and literature full-time at Portland Community College. I was living the life I thought other people expected of me, but I wasn’t happy. A favorite student came by my office one day and asked me what I planned to do with my life.  I thought he was belittling my work as a teacher, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his question. Thanks to that student and a good therapist, I finally gave myself permission to become a filmmaker. 

What films resonated with you as a youth and, in hindsight, perhaps influenced your work?

I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. I watched it at least once a year.  Everything about it captivated me — the story, the music, the costumes, the sets, the choreography. Later, I discovered The Twilight Zone series. Those stories were groundbreaking in calling out discrimination and encouraging social justice.  I’m sure they were a major influence. In high school, the films that blew me away also had profound social commentary:  Apocalypse Now, Being There, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Though I don’t agree with his directorial style, I loved Hitchcock’s work. Sadly, I was not introduced to female filmmakers until my 20s, when I lived around the corner from a tiny video rental place on Belmont Street. 

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It must have been particularly discouraging to see another all-male slate of Best Director Oscar nominees this year.

Time for protest, to be sure.

You’re the first woman I’ve spoken to about film who praised Apocalypse Now. I’ve certainly encountered guys who, obviously missing the point, perversely get off on the helicopter raid. What do you like about the film?

Ha! I hadn’t thought of that misinterpretation of the Apocalypse Now battle scenes.  What a strange, sad world. Apocalypse Now stands firmly against the insane perpetuation of war and violence in our world. The film also has amazing cinematography, set and sound design, and acting.

Filmmaker Melissa Gregory Rue has described "Esperanza's Turn" as a story about a "12-year-old farmworker (played by Niku Edlund-Farsad) who taps into her imagination to confront a racist bully at school." The short screened at the 2020 McMinnville Short Film Festival.
Filmmaker Melissa Gregory Rue has described “Esperanza’s Turn” as a story about a “12-year-old farmworker (played by Niku Edlund-Farsad) who taps into her imagination to confront a racist bully at school.” The film screened at the 2020 McMinnville Short Film Festival.

How did you come into the McMinnville Short Film Festival’s orbit?

My short drama Esperanza’s Turn was selected for the 2020 McMinnville Short Film Festival.  It was the only in-person screening we were able to do that year and quite a special one because my mom and two of her closest friends, Kathy and Ron, flew out from Kentucky to attend.   Kathy was one of my favorite teachers in high school.  I hit it off great with (festival founders) Nancy and Dan Morrow, and I was impressed by the care they put into organizing MSFF.  Unfortunately,  a lot of festivals only care about what the filmmakers can do for them.  I’d never experienced one that focused so much on celebrating the filmmakers and encouraging new connections.  So, when Nancy asked me to join, I was happy to help out.

What is your role with the festival now?

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I am the chair of the board and a juror, but I am leaving after this month to focus on my next documentary.  My primary role has been to help our executive director, Heather Older, prepare for meetings, generate new ideas for the festival, fundraise, recruit and interview new board members, and communicate with filmmakers. 

Your films Esperanza’s Turn and Live Out Loud each, in their own way, illustrate the transformative, life-affirming and even life-saving power of art. In one, dance and in the other, filmmaking.

Growing up in a small town in Kentucky that valued sports far more than education or the arts was extremely frustrating for me.  I wanted to be an actress, but I felt like I’d never be able to catch up with my peers from big cities. 

My travels across the U.S. showed me that the lack of respect and support for art and artists wasn’t just a small-town problem.  Our society cares little about art unless it’s making people millions of dollars.  We need only look at the way the mainstream media ranks movies based on their box office earnings.  In the U.S., art is valued for its money-making power, not its ability to make people think, to give them a window into other cultures, to help them evolve as human beings, or to improve society. 

And yet, throughout history, art has played a major role in helping civilizations advance.  I strongly believe that if we want to live in a more peaceful, compassionate world, we need to invest much more money into direct funding to artists, in arts education for public schools, and in arts education and programming for underserved communities.  

Where do film festivals fit right now in the larger scheme of things?

Film festivals are a wonderful community-building tool.  They also have the potential to generate major income for towns and cities.  This is especially true for small towns like McMinnville.  We would love to expand our partnerships with businesses in the region and work together to grow this festival into an event that will help McMinnville and surrounding areas prosper. 

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McMinnville is interesting in that it’s a relatively small city and yet it has a film festival that, in terms of programming, is one of the area’s biggest cultural events. Filmmakers seem to be sold on it, but what would you say to locals who haven’t discovered it yet? What should they know?

Please leave your sofas and join us for a line-up of films you won’t find at home. We program a broad range of genres, styles, and films from all over the world.  Our films can make you laugh, cry, scream, and/or give you a window into a variety of cultures you’ve never experienced. Between screenings, you’re invited to meet our filmmakers at casual events and ask questions. You can’t do that at home! 

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The McMinnville Short Film Festival runs Thursday, Feb. 23, through Sunday, Feb. 26, ending with an awards dinner at The Bindery in downtown McMinnville, 610 NE Fourth St. This year’s keynote speaker is Peter Billingsley, perhaps better known as Ralphie from A Christmas Story.

An all-access pass that includes the dinner is $120; without the dinner, $80. Individual film blocks, which run about two hours, are $8 each. Categories include drama, comedy, LGBTQ, documentary, environmental, Indigenous, horror, experimental, Oregon filmmakers, students, and locals. For more information, tickets, and a complete listing of events and times, visit the McMinnville Short Film Festival website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an 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 working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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