McMinnville Short Film Festival

One year after: Waking up to the slow thaw

ArtsWatch Weekly: A year into shutdown, signs of revival: Stimulus aid for the arts, museums reopening, a theater with an audience of 1 to 5

A YEAR AGO TODAY I PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE, tossed the key in a drawer, and began to shelter in. Suddenly I was home (if not, thank goodness, home alone), away from the concerts, theater and dance performances, museum visits, coffee-shop conversations with artists and writers, and other rounds that had made up my peregrinations around Portland and the Pacific Northwest going back deep into the previous century. The day before, I’d been at the Portland Art Museum, walking with curator Dawson Carr through Volcano!, the big exhibition of artworks relating to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Scant days later, the museum shut down. As “ordinary” life began to crumble I was also putting the finishing touches on an essay about revivals of two retro plays I’d recently seen – Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. That piece never went beyond my computer files: Both shows were quickly canceled as Covid-19 restrictions hit Oregon, and the nation, and the world, full force. 

The world had tipped upside down, and the arts & cultural world, which in the intervening twelve months has been devastated economically by shutdowns, tipped with it. Now, after more than half a million deaths in the United States (including more than 2,300 in Oregon) and more than 2.6 million globally, the world is cautiously trying to tip itself back up again. It has a long way to go. Many millions of people in the U.S., and billions globally, are awaiting inoculation, and a new wave of infections is only a few indiscretions, mask-burnings, or rogue viral variants away. But vaccines are being manufactured much more quickly and on a much bigger scale, and delivery systems are improving. Cautious hope, perhaps crossed with reckless impatience, is beginning to rise.                     

Unknown Russian artist, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Platytera) with beaded riza, c. 1800–1850, tempera on wood panel and glass beads, 9” x 8”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; among the featured works as the museum reopens March 15.

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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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Making music, symphonic & Black

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oregon Symphony picks a new leader; we begin a Black-music column; finale for Fertile Ground

THE BIG NEWS IN OREGON ARTS THIS WEEK WAS VERY BIG: The Oregon Symphony has picked its new music director. The Austrian conductor David Dansmayr will assume the artistic post at Oregon’s largest musical organization for the 2021/22 season, becoming only the third musical director for the symphony since 1980. He’ll replace Carlos Kalmar, who led the orchestra from 2003 until this season; Kalmar replaced James DePriest, who had held the top job for 23 years. 
 

The Austrian conductor David Dansmayr takes over the top artistic spot at the Oregon Symphony. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

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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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Strike up the virtual festival band

ArtsWatch Weekly: Online Fertile Ground fest marches on, film fest updates, Hal Holbrook on jackasses & politics, monthly guides

BELLS ARE NOT RINGING AND NO MARCHING BANDS OR HIGH-STEPPING HORSES are sashaying through the center of town, but it’s festival time in Portland. We’re talking, of course, about Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new performance works, which in an ordinary year would see revelers scurrying high, low, and in between across the metropolitan area, into basement and attic spaces and grand theater halls, to be among the first people on the planet to see the beginnings of upwards of a hundred new creative works, in all stages of development, from first readings to workshops to full-blown world premieres. Over its dozen years Fertile Ground has become something like a localized Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the restriction that shows aren’t imported – they have to be made here, by people who can plausibly claim to live here.
 

A whirlwind of dance, circus, and aerial action awaits in Petra Delarocha’s “Prismagic Radio Hour,” premiering at 9 p.m. Friday in Fertile Ground.

This year everything’s changed: What had been known and celebrated for its in-the-moment acts of performance has transformed because of Covid restrictions into a virtual festival. As the 2021 festival moves into its final days – it began on Jan. 28 and closes on Saturday, Feb. 7, although projects can be viewed online through Feb. 15 – ArtsWatch’s writers have racked up a lot of screen time. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve spent hours watching, and we’ll be watching more. One thing that’s stood out has been the ability of some projects to think like hybrids, making the most under the circumstances of the possibilities of both film and live performance. 

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Derek Sitter: Exploring the ties between privilege and trauma

The Bend filmmaker hopes his ‘Tutu Grande,’ in the upcoming McMinnville Short Film Festival, will spur discussions about power, greed, and consequences

Derek Sitter’s film Tutu Grande is little more than 12 minutes long, but it’s surely the most excruciating, difficult-to-watch of the 127 films the McMinnville Short Film Festival will screen later this month. It’s also one of the best. Given the #MeToo movement, it’s in sync with the cultural zeitgeist. The film has won a slew of awards on the festival circuit and is nominated for a Grand Jury Award at the McMinnville festival, which begins Feb. 18. Watching it is like pulling the pin from a hand grenade and waiting for the explosion.

I very nearly didn’t watch it, because even a glimpse of the poster or the trailer suggests that one will be subjected to torture porn. Indeed, the opening shots offer visual cues — a man bound to a wooden slab, a stash of surgical equipment on a nearby table, and the snapping of rubber gloves by the captor — that seem swiped from Hostel or Saw. The narrative (spoilers ahead) consists of little more than a darkly comic monologue masquerading as a conversation (and a mostly quiet one at that) delivered by a father to the young man who raped his daughter.

When the grenade does explode, it’s not as you expect. A surprise awaits the rapist, sitting in the shadows.

Derek Sitter, director of "Tutu Grande," has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).
Derek Sitter, director of “Tutu Grande,” has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).

Sitter wrote the story and directed it with cinematographer Taylor Morden behind a single camera. He also plays Jesse, the father, in an understated but pitch-perfect performance. His wife, Jeanne Sanders, plays the rapist’s mother. A few short shots hold her in the frame for less than 30 seconds, but that’s possibly the most agonizing and emotionally truthful segment of the film.

Jared, the young man who spends Tutu Grande prone at a roughly 45-degree angle, is played by Nathan Woodworth. He speaks few lines but with extraordinary subtlety and nuance conveys oceans of meaning, largely with his face. Woodworth has done film and theater work in Oregon and California, including the lead role in Johnny Got His Gun, a stage production a few years ago in Los Angeles by The Actors’ Gang and directed by Tim Robbins.

Sitter is something of a rock star in Bend’s cultural scene. Family connections brought him there a decade ago, and he spent a year and a half remodeling a concrete warehouse and wood mill into the 2,500-square-foot Volcanic Theatre Pub on the city’s west side. Bend Source Weekly’s reader poll has regularly named it the city’s favorite indoor venue since it opened in 2013, and the theater is a hotbed of creativity — live music, stand-up comedy, film screenings, and live theater — from The Blasters to David Mamet’s American Buffalo. It hosts, in a non-COVID year, some 225 events. Sitter also teaches acting classes there, and for several years, Woodworth was among his students.

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