(Photo by Steven Addington Photography)
Celebrating 20 Years of Film & Community
How do you open the 20th annual edition of the iconic Bend Film Festival — unspooling October 12-15 in person? BendFilm decided to keep it short — film, that is. Film festival organizers use their opening night choices to set agendas and tone for the entire event, and this year, BendFilm kicks it off with a block of groundbreaking (and occasionally tearjerking and sidesplitting) short films.
“Changing things up feels like an appropriate way to celebrate a milestone birthday,” said Program Director Selin Sevinç. “Filmmakers who are working in the short format leave behind a lot of feature film constraints. There’s a purity, and an experimentation that becomes possible. I think that it’s fitting to center the filmmakers who are going to be driving the future of the medium. We’re going to be hearing more from these people, so let’s get acquainted!”
(Indeed, we may be hearing more from them on a very large stage: Bend Film Festival is one of only 27 American film festivals that qualifies short films for Oscar nomination, specifically in the Indigenous, Narrative and Animated categories.)
Starting with shorts offers an opportunity to delve briefly, but thoughtfully, into topics and preoccupations that represent the program in its entirety. Cheekily titled “Matters of Life and Death,” it’s got films that take on those two topics, sure, but along the way touch on daydreaming, boredom, confessions, race, and ramen.
The Opening Night shorts block, in that way, is a great analog for the Festival at large: unexpected juxtapositions that create something more than the sum of their programmatic parts. There are, to be clear, a lot of other parts: a full slate of 22 main films in competition, many of which will be making their world, U.S., or regional premieres; panels and offscreen conversations and events; music videos; a dozen Spotlight features that programmers loved at other recent festivals from around the world, and, of course, juried awards at the Festival’s in-person ceremony on October 14 (Award winners, plus other films including Spotlights, will screen in-person October 15; a limited selection of the program will be available online October 16-22).
“When we program, we’re looking to put films in dialogue with each other, across categories,” says Sevinç. “Exodus and Exposure are two very different films: the first, a narrative feature, is the story of an unlikely friendship between a human smuggler and a refugee; the latter, a documentary about an all-woman team on a 2018 expedition which remains the most recent one to reach the North Pole. Both films are about resiliency, journeys, and collaboration against long odds.”
And the works don’t just interact across sections: they also transcend format. Some short films will run before feature film presentations, a very intentional choice as programmers noticed resonances between select shorts and features. Sevinç notes: “We saw features that expanded and completed shorts, and shorts that complemented features. We’re tickled by these pairings because it creates a space for the programmer to have an open curatorial dialogue with the audience and even with the filmmakers themselves.”
Looking at the program as a whole, some throughlines are discernable. Transformational journeys, with all their myriad pitfalls and expansions, are mined for meaning and discovery, from a luxurious villa in Dakar (Talia’s Journey, cover photo) to reaching the North Pole (Exposure) or escaping war-torn Syria (Exodus), or a simple weekend away with a best friend (Summer Solstice). These films mine personal histories of resilience, with deep looks into personal and political pasts: whether of a groundbreaking sex researcher (The Disappearance of Shere Hite), a double-amputee cyclist (No Legs. All Heart.), a queer woman uncovering her father’s identity as a cross-dresser (Anima: My Father’s Dresses) or the first Black pilots and engineers at NASA (The Space Race). And the classic indie sensibility of speaking truth to power resonates across work that will change audiences’ views on modern monetary theory (Finding the Money), how songs can spark revolutions (Patria y Vida: The Power of Music), and the story behind the battle for one of earth’s key resources (The Grab). Parents and children alike can celebrate films about writing and illustrating children’s books (Story & Pictures By) and the importance of traditions that respect ecosystems (Four Souls of Coyote).
And rarely is the empathetic focus sharper than when being created and lensed by this year’s Indie Filmmaker of the Year honoree, Academy Award-nominated writer and director Nicole Holofcener.
“She illuminates her characters’ everyday lives and seemingly ordinary, almost petty problems with grace, ease, and compassion,” said Sevinç. “Her indie filmmaking sensibilities aren’t only apparent in the size of her budget and production: her stories are subtle, but that’s where her strength lies. Her films speak the truth of what it feels like to live in the real world with our spouses, children, parents, and friends.”
Two of Holofcener’s finely-wrought portraits of neuroses and insecurities, both studded with stars and laughs (some full of rueful self-recognition) will screen at the Festival this year. Friends With Money (2005) stars Jennifer Aniston as a hapless housecleaner adrift in an affluent milieu, with star turns from Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack in the supporting cast, and the director will be on hand for a live Q&A following the screening.
Her most recent film, You Hurt My Feelings, centers on a novelist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) whose marriage is upended when she overhears her husband’s (Tobias Menzies) honest assessment of her latest book, with another outstanding supporting cast including Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed and Jeannie Berlin. After that screening, Holofcener will have an onstage conversation with longtime Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper.
The final day of any festival can be bittersweet — but this year, BendFilm will mitigate that energy with its closing night film: the buzziest and most energizing film of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, May December, directed by longtime Portland filmmaker Todd Haynes and starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.
(That’s not the only Cannes heat in the lineup — Spotlight features Anatomy of a Fall took home the best-of-fest Palme d’Or award, and The Taste of Things won the Best Director Award).
Not all the goods are imported: The Festival’s a longtime favorite of locals, winning The Source’s Best of Central Oregon Award for “Best Non-Profit Serving Arts and Culture” and attracting culture-curious residents and tourists alike. Set in the heart of Bend’s downtown, and spanning five film venues ranging from the historical (Tin Pan, Tower) to the modern (Regal Theater, Open Space), the Festival mixes filmgoers with filmmakers and industry executives in theater lobbies, a dedicated venue for panels and six party venues.
Perhaps a testament to the Festival’s lasting impact on the region: record-high numbers of film submissions, which have yielded a bumper crop across the slate. “This year we have a shorts block and two features in the Local Focus program,” notes Sevinç. “We hadn’t given three full slots to the Local Focus program before, and feel lucky we have a growing local filmmaker base in Central Oregon.”
Another change that reflects increased submissions: a dedicated Indigenous program, with its own competition and jury. Prior, they were combined with Environmental & Outdoor; based on a large uptick in submissions numbers and quality, Festival programmers created two robust standalone categories, each with features and shorts.
The final new touch this year: another juried competition, for the Spotlight program. Sevinç says: “We’ll be giving a trophy to an accomplished film with distribution that may very well be an Oscar contender. It’s an honor to be part of these films’ journeys, wherever they may lead.”
Passes and individual tickets to the Festival, which runs in-person October 12-15, are available now at BendFilm.org.