documentary film

McMinnville Short Film Festival gets real

Documentaries play a big role in the festival that kicks off Feb. 18, with particular focus on the environment and Native Americans

It is apparently now possible, with affordable software, a laptop, and a cellphone, to create visuals and special effects of the same quality you’d expect of a Marvel film or a new chapter of Star Wars — to essentially create Hollywood-scale spectacle at the kitchen table.

Some may find that encouraging, but what I’m more optimistic about is looking at the 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival menu and seeing how many filmmakers are doing the exact opposite: telling real people’s stories, exploring real issues, real problems, and real joys. There’s plenty of thoughtful and entertaining fare to be found in each of the festival’s categories: drama/comedy, horror/suspense, experimental, animation, etc. But the all-virtual event, which kicks off 10 days of streaming on Feb. 18, is also a documentary smorgasbord, with some wonderful and interesting work in the mix.

The festival offers 127 films this year, and the documentaries are all over the place, nearly three dozen of them. You’ll find a dozen in the documentary screening block that unlocks Feb. 25-28, but other categories also include them. The locals block, available to viewers Feb. 19-24, includes a visually gorgeous tribute to Samuel Boardman, the Massachusetts-born engineer and surveyor who founded the Oregon State Parks system, and another about Indigenous dance. A collection of 10 environmentally themed films (Feb. 19-21) and 11 Native American films (Feb. 20-22) offer more reality-based cinema.

"Azteca Dance" in McMinnville Short Film Festival
“Azteca Dance” by McMinnville resident Karla Contreras is nominated for the “Best Locals Award” in the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Given the deep ties Indigenous peoples have to the land, it’s not surprising that several of those films are documentaries with the environment as their subject, including Can the Blueback Survive? and Yehow. Both are nominated for the festival’s Shawash Ilihi Award, which for the second year will be presented to the best “films by Native American filmmakers and/or films that foster understanding of the culture, traditions, and contemporary issues of Native Americans.” I would add here that the locals block also includes one of my favorite Indigenous films this year, Azteca Dance, which is also up for an award in that category.

That the Native American category exists came about from the festival’s partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, whose reservation lies about 20 miles west of McMinnville. It is one of nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. Chris Mercier, the vice chairman of the Tribal Council, said the name of the award comes from the tribe’s primary language.

“We call the language chinuk wawa,” he said. Although the festival uses a slightly different spelling for Shawash Ilihi, he added, “the word is one of our names for our land and people.”

Independent cinema, which by default includes short films and micro-cinema, doesn’t get the press that mainstream fare gets, and within that cultural ecosystem, Indigenous cinema gets even less, according to Jordan Mercier, the cultural education director at the tribe’s Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

“Native American filmmakers face considerable challenges when telling stories that will resonate with people outside the Indigenous community,” he said. “It’s a very specific niche, but because I work in Indian country, the films and recurring themes are hardly foreign to me.”

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Nine short takes on 85 short films

With subjects ranging from Indian relay horse-racing to Newberg's own 99W drive-in, there's a lot to like in this weekend's McMinnville Short Film Festival

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.

“Eat the Rainbow,” in the Experimental/A Bit Strange block Sunday, is a musical fable about an odd-yet-kind man who becomes a disruptive force when he moves into a conservative suburban neighborhood.

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.

“Word on the Street” is a one-joke comedy in the style of film noir that dazzles with a clever, rhyming, linguistic hook. One might say it’s an interesting presentation of cinematic experimentation that’s likely to win your admiration.

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.

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Comment: Our Bodies Our Doctors

An Oregon-made film about abortion providers premieres at the Portland International Film Festival. Friderike Heuer looks at the issues.

Story and photographs by Friderike Heuer

The Portland International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, March 7, and continues through March 21, has a long (42 years and counting) and honorable tradition of focusing on controversial subjects. This year is no exception. On March 8, International Women’s Day no less, it features the world premiere of Our Bodies Our Doctorsa documentary film by Janice Haaken exploring the experiences of contemporary abortion providers.

The team: Director Jan Haaken front center; from left to right: Katrina Fairlee, Sound Recordist, Timothy Wildgoose, Photography, Caleb Heyman, Co-director of Photography, Samantha Prauss, Assistant Director. Not featured: David Cress, Producer.

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