I had lunch with the director of the Best Documentary. Sounds impressive, but really we happened to be standing in the Pita Pit at the same time trying to get something to eat before heading off to the next screening. We had 20 minutes.
Such is the nature of film festivals. I crammed about 25 films into about 3 and a half days.
We have our very own da Vinci Days Film Festival here in Corvallis. It’s very good on so many levels and every year I’m up to my elbows in it—from being a judge, which I’ve done since it was on training wheels over ten years ago, to hosting the event at the Avalon, then the Darkside. However, I do not get to see a lot of film. I’m too busy burning NTSC DVDs from PAL discs or moderating a filmmaker panel. Fun stuff. Important stuff. But, not watching films.
When I go to the Ashland International Film Festival, I watch films. This year I went with a buddy of mine, Brad. I hadn’t planned on going to the fest for a pile of personal reasons that stacked sentimentality over practicality, all of which failed to impress Brad. He had a room with an extra bed so all I had to do was get my pass and show up. One by one he popped the top off of each of my other excuses until I was checking road conditions in Southern Oregon and tossing the tire chains in the trunk anyway. We were like a couple of college kids watching film from nine in the morning until past midnight, eating not-so-good-for-us food, and generally hanging out with anyone who would talk to us anytime we were not in the dark watching a flickering screen. Brad is not in the biz. He is a geologist who loves film the way I love Yosemite’s Half Dome. We had a ball.
Ashland is a lot like Corvallis in so many ways it is a little freaky, from the political atmosphere to the general vibe of the downtown area. It seems to be a caffeinated version of our town. But I go for the film, not for the familiarity, and there was film. Ashland International Film Festival presents film that lives outside the Michael Moore pop documentary world where emotion is cheap and profits are high. At this film festival people with a few bucks and big ideas come to show off what they can do with those two things.
Local-Boy-Made-Good Peter Richardson was a Philomath kid (who now lives in Portland) whose 2006 movie CLEARCUT played at the Avalon to sell-out crowds. His most recent documentary won Juried Best Feature Length Documentary at the AIFF (and won Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at Sundance). HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is an intimate film that follows the end of life process for terminally ill people who choose to legally check out on their own. When the screening was over there was not a dry eye in the house. Peter took the stage for a Q&A. Soon he was joined by family members of the people whose last moments of life we had just witnessed on that screen. The emotional tidal wave swept through the audience all over again. This is not the type of experience you get through Netflix. This is why we go to the movies rather than make them come to us.
There is so much technology out there now that allows people to watch movies anywhere. This same technology puts in the hands of anyone the power to make a movie. For the price of a shitty used car you can get the same camera BLACK SWAN was shot with. And at film festivals, like Corvallis’ own da Vinci Film Festival, people who have stories to tell can have a place to tell them. In this age where everyone is getting Twitter-pated and YouTubed in lieu of actually sharing an experience, film festivals are one of the strongholds of those who refuse to give up the notion that a huge part of what makes art art is the human contact. Being in the same place at the same time to feel something cements our bond to each other and allows us to celebrate life or call for change. Cinema is the bonfire of today. It is still a place where we gather to tell stories and learn.
A film festival is also a filter. With the availability of technology comes the availability of a lot of crap. Just because everyone can make a movie doesn’t mean everybody should. With film festivals popping up like iPads at Starbucks it pays to look at how long a festival has been around. I just returned from the tenth annual Ashland film fest. This year will be da Vinci Day’s twelfth. This is a good indicator these fests do an effective job of filtering out the films best shared between those whose life experience hasn’t learnt them getting hit in the crotch is not high comedy. In other words, the chances of you having to sit through something that sucks out loud is pretty low if it is being played at an established film festival.
When the press and crush of people and film cause what feels like will be a permanent ringing in my ears, I head for the park. The sound of Lithia Creek knocks the whitecaps off the top of my adrenals. As I was leaning over the rail of a bridge watching the water dance, I noticed a young woman walking onto the bridge. She was one of the family members of a terminally ill person in HOW TO DIE IN OREGON. She looked like she, too, was detoxing from too much human contact. I watched cancer do its dirty work with a parent and there was no way in hell I would be in a movie about it, let alone answer questions about it in an auditorium full of people who had just seen my life unfurled on the big screen. My reflex was to turn to her and thank her for her courage, usurping a minute from her walk. Instead I smiled and nodded. She smiled back and looked like she was about to put on her game face when I turned away. When I glanced at her again she looked slightly relieved. We were in the park for the same reason. We were also at the festival for the same reason. However, sometimes art is best digested away from the bonfire. She turned back and smiled when she crossed the bridge before disappearing down the trail. I’d like to think she was acknowledging my restraint.
I’m lucky that my trip back to Corvallis is a trip home to film. With a handful of titles to try to bring to you I also bring with me the faith that there is a place for independent cinema in Corvallis. We host a couple film festivals every year at the Darkside and do dozens of special events where projects get to see the light of the big screen with more than a sofa full of people watching. As much as I enjoy the occasional big-budget special effects showcase that passes as a movie these days, the soul of cinema lives in the minds of those who make the little films with big ideas. Make time for them when you can. The future of film depends on it.