The McMinnville Short Film Festival will unveil more than 80 films this weekend, beginning Friday night, and even the very limited sneak preview I got — “only” a couple dozen films — was enough to leave a variety of impressions along with a few thoughts about the state of cinema as an art form and the cultural health of Yamhill County.
In the spirit of the event, I’ll present these random thoughts, observations, and impressions in a series of easily digestible short takes.
THE FESTIVAL IS A SIGNIFICANT YAMHILL COUNTY EVENT. Just shy of a decade old, it has emerged as one of the more ambitious cultural undertakings in the area, arguably in the same league with infrastructure projects such as Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center as well as the more recently launched Aquilon Music Festival, which runs several weeks. The film festival started small and rather anonymously with a few screenings and has blossomed into a three-day extravaganza that fills McMinnville Cinema 10’s largest auditorium with often-breathtaking work from around Oregon, the United States, and the world. Founders Dan and Nancy Morrow set out to make it a filmmaker-friendly event. If the testimonials of film artists (many of whom come to talk about their work) are any indication, it is indeed that. But it’s also something that ought to have mass appeal to mainstream audiences (not just cinephiles) and those who perhaps don’t get to the theater as much as they used to. Bottom line, locals haven’t really discovered this thing yet in large numbers. They need to.
THERE’S NOTHING NEW HERE. By that I mean: Cinema started as a short-format medium. When the National Film Preservation Foundation released the first of its many American Treasures collections in 1997, the package squeezed 50 films from the earliest days of filmmaking onto four DVDs. Most ran 10 minutes or less and some ran little more than a minute or two. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its first film-short Oscar in 1932 — to The Music Box, a Laurel and Hardy flick about the pair trying to move a piano up a flight of stairs. Under one name or another, live-action short films have had their own category at the Oscars since 1957. Thanks to a variety of streaming services, it’s never been easier to see them.
SO MANY CHOICES, BUT SO EASY TO CHOOSE. The single best thing about this year’s festival is that it’s easy to see precisely what you want. For three days starting Friday at Linfield College, 85 films will be shown in nine screening blocks organized by theme. Documentary-lovers need not be subjected to horror films; animation fans will find their thing in a Saturday afternoon block; those with an interest in the environment or Indigenous stories and issues will find most of those films in separate screening blocks.
INDIGENOUS VOICES. The Native American category (which screens at 10 a.m. Sunday) is new this year and well worth your time; it’s the only category for which I was able to see all the entries. Interestingly, most of the eight entries are from Canada, including Alexandra Lazarowich’s thrilling Fast Horse, a film about Indian relay horse-racing that picked up an award at the Sundance Film Festival, among other venues. The genres run the spectrum, and two of the most affecting are the documentary Holy Angels and the drama Taken Home, each running about 20 minutes. Both are from Canada and, in their own way, deal with Indigenous children. With sensual imagery, Holy Angels features an interview with a woman who was among the First Nation children essentially kidnapped by European colonizers, thrown into convents, and methodically stripped of their cultural identity. Taken Home deals with two Indigenous siblings adopted by a well-meaning but somewhat tone-deaf and ill-prepared white couple. These films are a means of bearing witness to both the legacy and ongoing practice of colonization.
THE HIGH QUALITY OF DIY. To be fair, not all the films hold up. A few are clearly made by amateurs — well-meaning, no doubt, but perhaps just starting out or in a bit over their heads. Fortunately, those are the exceptions. The vast majority of the 26 or so films I watched illustrate how far we’ve come since the days of home movies shot on a camcorder or cell phone. Easy access to high-quality technology has enabled even filmmakers working on a shoestring to obtain stunning shots with a drone, for example, or reach a professional level of editing on a laptop with affordable software. Film after film contained shots and images I wanted to linger over. The mix contains some beautiful and thoughtful work. And, I might add, some remarkable performances.
PROVINCIALISM IS NOT PERMITTED. Though it certainly features a good share of movies by Oregon-based filmmakers (Portland’s Jason Rosenblatt, Newberg’s Cosmo Spada, etc.), the festival is not a terroir festival for cinephiles. This is a sampling not only of the best short films shot in Oregon, but also the best short films, period. Along with a solid showing by regional artists, there is work from Canada, Spain, Turkey, Arizona, New York, Japan, Texas, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Poland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Kentucky. It’s not just a short film festival; it’s an international film festival, in Yamhill County, of all places.
THE FILM ABOUT FILM. “Must-see” is overused, but there’s one film that I hope locals will see, and then perhaps act on. In the documentary block Sunday afternoon, Kendra Jacobson of Portland introduces us to The 99W. The Newberg drive-in theater, owned and operated by Brian Francis, was built in 1953 and is one of only three remaining drive-ins in Oregon. The film is 12 minutes long, but it packs in an astonishing amount of local history, film history, and anecdotes. I’ve never seen a movie at the 99W. But now, I really, really want to.
A FEW PERSONAL FAVS. Along with Fast Horse and The 99W, my personal favorites included: in the Experimental/Strange block, Matthew McKee’s Yuryung, it is strange, but captivating and lyrical; in Animation, Severance, by Christian Eusebio; in Narratives (the 6:30 p.m. Saturday block), the linguistic high-wire act of Word on the Street, by Sean Parker and Austin Hillebrecht; and finally, in the Student Showcase (also a new category this year, featuring a dozen films at 10 a.m. Saturday) the wonderful Let.Go.Before.Trying, a luminescent tone piece about a courtship between two young women. It’s wordless, but no words are necessary, and the final moment packs an unexpected and emotionally complex wallop. I loved it.
THE BIG PICTURE. The festival has emerged at a particularly ideal and, in some ways, inevitable cultural moment. Inevitable, because we frolic in the YouTube age. Whether by design or accident, YouTube has emerged as the major global platform for what amounts to the world’s largest collection of short films. More than 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s a platform that enjoys about 2 billion logged-in monthly users (including 73 percent of American adults and 81 percent of Americans ages 15-25, according to Pew Research Data). Given that, along with the widely acknowledged phenomena of declining attention spans, there’s practically a built-in audience for the short-film format.
All of which leads to why such an event now is so fortuitous. My feeling is that we’ve possibly arrived at the moment that Maus and Watchmen represented for comics as an art form in the 1980s. Viewers, because they’ve been conditioned online to expect and enjoy the format, are starting to take short films seriously and to invest considerable time looking for the good stuff. If you’re in these parts, look no further than McMinnville and the McMinnville Short Film Festival this weekend. The good stuff is here, and the best is likely yet to come.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.