film festivals

Ashland Film Festival celebrates the power of young people

Streamers: The indie festival rolls out a virtual and live-event 20th season, opening Thursday with a lineup strong on documentaries

In a sign of the halfway-hopeful place in which we find ourselves these days, the Ashland Independent Film Festival is returning this year in a hybrid format for its 20th anniversary. A virtual, online version of the fest kicks off Thursday, April 15, and runs through April 30, followed by five evenings of outdoor, socially distanced screenings in late June, by which point both vaccination rates and summer weather should make such events more feasible.

The online portion of AIFF kicks off with a screening of The Water Man, the directorial debut of actor David Oyelowo (Selma). It’s a family-friendly drama about a boy (Lonnie Chavis) who seeks out a forest-dwelling supernatural being that he believes can help his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo, who also appears in the film, will participate in an online talk on April 16. Ashland has always been a festival that punches above its weight, and that continues this year, especially in regard to the documentary offerings.

A scene from the documentary “Youth v. Gov”

Those range from the outrageous to the inspiring, and from the sublime to the ridiculous. One common thread is the power of youth. Of both local and global interest is Youth v. Gov, a thoroughly engaging look at the groundbreaking, potentially lifesaving lawsuit filed by a group of 21 children against the United States government, alleging that the continuing support of fossil fuel technology amounts to a deprivation of their constitutional rights to life and liberty. Led by attorney Julia Olson of the Eugene nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, the case made news back in 2016 when an Oregon District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to sue. This led to a barrage of attempts by the Trump Administration to get the case thrown out, a process that Youth v. Gov chronicles in a way that provides clarity on the legal maneuverings and insight into the impressive cast of kids and their formidable lawyer.

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And the winner is… the McMinnville Short Film Festival

Last month’s all-virtual festival receives rave reviews from participants and organizers, and we tell you which films took home the honors

In preparing for its all-virtual 10th anniversary, the McMinnville Short Film Festival, which wrapped up a 127-film, 10-day run with a live-streamed awards ceremony Feb. 28, covered its bases: Organizers asked nominees to submit in advance a “thank-you” video that could be aired if they won.

Portland’s Rich Herstek’s 16-minute short Trevor Waits, an achingly poignant tone poem about the elderly title character living delusionally but happily in his private memory palace, won the award for Best Oregon Filmmaker. Of the festival’s dozen winners, Herstek came as close as any in capturing the regional film industry zeitgeist, if such a thing exists in this weird moment, and issuing a rallying call to other Oregon film artists.

Rich Herstek, who won the Best Oregon Filmmaker Award for “Trevor Waits” at the McMinnville Short Film Festival, says he moved to Portland for the thriving local film scene. “While we are making films in Oregon,” he says, “we are making them for the world.”
Rich Herstek, who won the Best Oregon Filmmaker Award for “Trevor Waits” at the McMinnville Short Film Festival, says he moved to Portland for the thriving local film scene. “While we are making films in Oregon,” he says, “we are making them for the world.”

“I moved here five years ago because Oregon had a thriving, independent film scene, and I have not been disappointed” said Herstek, whose work and university studies has landed him in Ohio, Eugene, New York, Boston, and Europe. “There are some real stars in the talent pool, technicians are first-rate, film crews work miracles on minuscule budgets, and people are eager to pitch in on almost any project.”

“I would urge all of us locals to remember” he concluded, “that while we are making films in Oregon, we are making them for the world.”

Thanks to COVID, the festival found itself in the position this year of delivering those films to the world via the Internet. Even though theaters were closed, sponsors stuck with the festival — seeing it, perhaps,  as an investment in the future of wine country tourism and using it to get the word out. In the end, the festival may actually have enjoyed a pandemic bump, securing a prize they’ve been seeking for years by getting more locals as excited about and involved in the festival as the filmmakers are. Officials declined to release numbers, but co-founder and organizer Nancy Morrow said that if the virtual turnout had showed up at a theater, “It would have been standing room only.”

“Our expectations were far exceeded,” Morrow said. “We weren’t sure if people would buy into a virtual festival, but we had a wildly successful MSFF this year. The filmmakers were very supportive, loved the films, and networked as much as they could via our virtual events. The audience feedback was the best yet.”

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McMinnville Short Film Festival: Good things in small packages

The 10-day festival starts this week, bringing 127 films, none longer than 20 minutes, to the comfort of your home, including a free block of films for kids

The 10th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival, which launches 10 days of streaming cinema Thursday, is one of the few big-tent cultural events in Yamhill County that managed to skirt COVID in 2020 and has emerged in an arguably stronger position for 2021.

True, we will not have an opportunity to press the flesh with talented Oregon filmmakers such as Derek Sitter, whose film Tutu Grande we unpacked here a couple of weeks ago. Nor will it be possible to experience the spectacular visuals of films such as the animated My Generation or the two performed-underwater films, Lacrimosa and Casiopea, on a big screen, where they deserve to be seen. In a theater, GraceLand’s exhilarating climax might have produced a joyous communal moment like the audience rising to clap along at the end of Love, Actually. My vote would be to bring it back in 2022 to see what happens.

Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, "My Generation," is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.
Ludovic Houplain’s 2019 animated film, “My Generation,” is an eight-minute drive down a freeway where the scenery is a glitzy panorama of capitalism, finance, surveillance, sports, politics, religion, and mindless entertainment.

What is happening is potentially fortuitous synchronicity. The festival has (this year, anyway) gone virtual at the precise moment that the movie-loving public is fully and necessarily on board with streaming movies at home. Given the timing, the festival (unlike the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which had to cancel last year’s event and then scrambled to throw a virtual fest together) had a whole year to plan. From a marketing standpoint, it represents a unique opportunity. Instead of attracting a few hundred people, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, to see movies in McMinnville for a weekend, the festival can put 127 films from around the world (and its own name and brand) on a global stage for 10 days. Dan Morrow, who founded the event with his wife, Nancy, said a test run last fall with a streaming platform showed that it would work and, more importantly, that movie fans would buy tickets.

“Biting off 127 films, that’s way more than we’ve ever done before” Morrow said. “We did 85 films last year, and that was a very full three days of screenings down at the theater, and so this year we don’t have that time constraint.”

Eyeballing my notes from watching everything, I’d say half of this year’s crop of narrative films (excluding the documentaries, in other words) represent exceptional and occasionally superior artistry and storytelling. Two-thirds of the rest are competent, enjoyable films made with varying degrees of talent and professionalism. The balance (mercifully a minority and spread evenly throughout the program) comprises more obviously amateurish work, although even there, one finds sincere efforts to create something meaningful. For example, I didn’t particularly care for the home movie-ish Februarium!! in the “Experimental/A Bit Strange” category, which tells the true story of a “holiday” created to honor the filmmaker’s deceased friend. But for weeks after seeing it, I found myself thinking about the issues it raises about the healing power of art, the relation between art and memory, and the social-construct qualities of virtually any holiday.

The festival has grouped films into genre-specific collections of six to 15 films. The films themselves run anywhere from three to 20 minutes, and each screening block (most of which are unlocked for a three- to four-day viewing window) runs about 80 to 90 minutes. Each block is $10, with discounts for purchases of three or more; an all-access pass costs $85, which is less than you’d spend on dinner for two and a two-hour movie preceded by 15 minutes of annoying trailers. That highlights another advantage of the virtual festival: It’s nearly 20 hours of film content, and no trailers with sound dialed up to 11. 

In “GraceLand,” a 10-year-old girl, played by Katie Beth West, believes she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley.

The 127 films include 37 from around Oregon, more than 20 from the Los Angeles area, and 18 from a dozen countries outside the U.S., including Taiwan, France, Chile, India, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Brazil, and Italy. Along with the documentary, environmental, and Native American cinema I wrote about last week, there’s drama/comedy, experimental/a bit strange, animation, and suspense/horror and sci-fi. Three categories — locals, student films, and a children’s block — are available free all 10 days. Also, because so many people are Zooming from home, participation in pre-taped filmmaker Q&A sessions hit a record high. More than 90 of the people who have entries in this year’s festival appear at the end of each screening block in a panel discussion. The opening-night welcome will be livestreamed for free at 5 p.m. Thursday here, and awards will be presented live on Feb. 28.

The thing that struck me about this year’s collection is how so many of the films speak to and echo others and explore similar themes across the categories. There are plenty of ways one could do this, of course, but I’ll stick to half a dozen categories of my own. Plus, a few of my personal favorites. (On the registration pages for many of these films, a free trailer is available.)

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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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Coming attractions: McMinnville Short Film Festival

The Yamhill County calendar also includes three new gallery shows and a jazz performance by the Christopher Brown Quartet

We begin this week’s column with a quick run through the essential news-you-can-use for the McMinnville Short Film Festival, set for Feb. 21-23. In recent years, it’s emerged as yet another tent-pole cultural event in Yamhill County. Next week I’ll have a deep dive into some of the films that will be screened.

Filmmaker Scott Ballard will be keynote speaker at the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

By every measure, the event — founded by Dan and Nancy Morrow of McMinnville in 2011 — has grown considerably from very humble beginnings. The festival next week expands to three days to accommodate a whopping 85 films from the United States, Canada, and the international film community. A second venue has been added: Along with booking the largest auditorium at McMinnville Cinema 10, organizers have arranged for an opening-night screening in Linfield College’s Ice Auditorium.

The festival is for everybody, even those who don’t think of themselves as cinephiles or who watch movies infrequently. Nine categories are arranged by genre and include two narrative viewing blocks. Besides offering documentaries and environmental films, horror and “experimental” works, the festival has two new categories this year. It is partnering with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde on a Native American block, and with McMinnville Kiwanis and Sunrise Rotary on a Student Showcase block that will feature work by students in grades 6-12 and college.

The awards dinner is Feb. 23 on the Chemeketa Community College campus in McMinnville, next to the theater. Portland filmmaker Scott Ballard is the keynote speaker.

Check out the website, peruse the titles and screening blocks, and plan on a weekend of interesting, thoughtful work that’s as good as or better than anything Hollywood spits up these days. Purchase tickets here for as few or as many screenings as you like.

Kathleen Buck’s abstract paintings are among the works in a new show in McMinnville’s Currents Gallery.

YAMHILL COUNTY’S GALLERY scene has three new shows open or coming up fast. Two are in McMinnville: Currents Gallery downtown offers More Glorious Gourds and Powerful Paintings, by local artists Claudia Herber and Kathleen Buck. Both artists are award-winners in their fields. Herber has won in the annual Wertz Gourd Festival; Buck has long been active with the Watercolor Society of Oregon and has won her share of awards. Both will present abstract work in the show, which runs Feb. 17 through March 15. An opening reception will be held Friday, Feb. 21, during the 3rd Friday on 3rd Street Art & Wine Walk.

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Falling in love with movies and film festivals

Justin Zimmerman of the McMinnville Short Film Festival talks about his gateway films, the festival life, and this weekend's mini-fest fundraiser

The hottest movie ticket in Yamhill County this weekend isn’t at a theater. That distinction belongs to the Ice Auditorium on the Linfield College campus, where the McMinnville Short Film Festival will hold a sneak preview.

Eight films will be screened Saturday night (including one of last year’s crowd favorites, the hilarious I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs). Afterward, audience members will meet some of the filmmakers and players behind the ninth annual event, scheduled for Feb. 21-23. Tickets are only $5, and Linfield students with ID get in free. The mini film fest runs from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Proceeds will be split between the  McMinnville Short Film Festival and scholarships for immigrant students in Yamhill County.

Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as a filmmaker and a judge before becoming executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates
Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as an entrant and a judge before being named executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates

One guy who will be in the audience and working the crowd afterward will be filmmaker Justin Zimmerman, who last spring was brought aboard as the festival’s executive director.

Zimmerman’s Portland-based Bricker-Down Productions has had films in more than 150 international festivals and won in dozens of them. Zimmerman also contributed a story to the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Love Is Love. His connection with the McMinnville festival, founded by Dan and Nancy Morrow nearly a decade ago, goes back several years — first as an entrant and later as a judge.

I sat down a few weeks ago with Zimmerman during one of his visits to McMinnville, where he’s been discovering our restaurants and shops as he meets with the festival’s growing roster of partners (Linfield College among them) in preparation for February’s event. The festival has expanded to three days, entries are up, and it’s booked the largest auditorium at the local Coming Attractions multiplex for the entire weekend. “I have peers and friends in the world of film festivals, film programmers, executive directors, etc.,” he told me, “who, if they saw the budget of what we’re doing, they would be astounded.”

Zimmerman and I talked for about 90 minutes in a conversation that veered from his background and experiences and the festival to a few geek-out moments over movies we have both seen and loved. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your first movie memory growing up?

Zimmerman: I was fortunate enough to see Return of the Jedi, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters in a theater. Those really hit me. I remember those having a visceral effect. I remember seeing E.T. at a drive-in theater, that one blew me away. Movies really spoke to me. I was pretty young when I realized how powerful a movie could be. I didn’t have the training to contextualize it — the cinematography, the score, the acting, etc. — but it was very early on that I fell in love with movies.

What did you study in college?

Ohio State didn’t have a film production program, so I studied English and film criticism. I was fortunate to have a professor who taught the history of art named Ron Green, who was one of the most amazing film voices you could ever hope to find. I was studying Milton and Shakespeare and comparative world religions. I studied abroad in England and Ireland. Being in Scotland when Trainspotting hit was incredible. I took these courses in English where professors would teach what they were interested in: Feminism in horror movies; Orson Welles into Kubrick; and looking at the films of these wide-angle auteurs. It was remarkable.

Any particular film leap out, get inside your head?

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McMinnville Short Film Festival is long on innovation

This weekend's eighth annual event includes 50 films from around the world

On any given day, Coming Attractions Theatres’ multiplex in McMinnville screens 10 films. But this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 10, in the theater’s 208-seat auditorium, you can see 50 – and you don’t have to sit for 18 hours straight to do it.

This weekend’s 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival is a considerably larger and more polished affair than when it began with a single screening that included “movies” clearly shot on iPhones. This year’s crop comprises high-quality shorts shot by professionals on high-end equipment with full production crews. Portland is represented well, obviously, but an impressive international showing includes movies from Israel, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, and Germany. Each of the four screenings runs from 80 to 110 minutes, no film runs more than 20, and you can talk to many of the filmmakers at the end of each show.

A common thread that emerges from talking with both filmmakers and festival attendees is that once they go, they’re likely to return. “I have been to the McMinnville festival, and I’m a fan,” said Tim Williams, who heads the state agency Oregon Film. “I love that they get so many filmmakers there, I very much enjoy their keynote speakers, and I love that it is in the middle of wine country, which means there’s good food and drink in your free time.”

Nancy and Dan Morrow spent years running a successful and eclectic video store in McMinnville. Today, they’re helping keep film alive by hosting the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

How did this happen? Why did it happen here?

The festival is the brainchild of Dan and Nancy Morrow, who until a few years ago owned the coolest video store in Oregon outside Movie Madness in Portland. Operating out of a house built in 1908 across Oregon 99W from Linfield College, the Morrows over 15 years built Movietime Video into an essential resource for hard-core film buffs. Sure, they had the latest Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream fare, but they also packed the shelves with foreign and art films, cult classics, Americana gems from the TCM Vault, and manga.

The TV wall alone was astonishing and offered the same breadth and variety available in every other section. Not only could you get Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, but you also could find throwbacks like Adam-12, Perry Mason, or even Tenspeed and Brownshoe. (Full disclosure: For a couple of years, I did some freelance writing for the store.) When Movietime shut its doors in April 2016, joining the nationwide wave of locally owned indie video-store closures, it felt like a funeral. (They have since converted the building into The Gallery at Ten Oaks, which features work by Oregon artists.)

The Morrows started the festival in 2011, building on the experience of a film competition they’d sponsored earlier that year for McMinnville’s UFO Festival. One screening was held in the local community center. Year by year, the event grew. Submissions started to climb and the films kept getting better. They partnered with Coming Attractions so audiences could see the work on a big screen. Screenings were added. The festival also booked speakers; in 2015, filmmaker Will Vinton gave the keynote address.

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