Despite Salem, Oregon being perpetually stuck in the quagmire of being the inferior artisan city to the more metropolitan Portland 40 miles north, exceptions sometimes manage to shine through. Amid budget cuts and the sheering of the dwindling high-end and artistic bright spots in Salem, the Salem Film Festival making it to five years is worthy of a celebration.
When I wrote here about the Third and Fourth annual event in 2008 and ’09, it was clear already then that the festival had approached a level close to a smaller-scale Sundance or Telluride. Some of the world’s most well-written, directed and produced movies were getting exclusive debuts there. Along with that were lectures and Q&A’s from some of the most legendary figures still living who’ve worked behind-the-scenes in the movies.
Usually, the festival was held in April each year without economic fail. When that came and went this year without a word, those more casual to the annual event may have assumed it was yet another economic fatality. Instead, the 5th Salem Film Festival was moved to October where the fall colors of the Willamette Valley seem more in accord with an indie film festival.
Sure, you may have noticed that cooler weather and film festivals of this sort go familiarly together.
As most fans of the Salem Film Festival guessed, the 5th year of the event was inevitably going to be bigger than ever before. And that assumption has become true with 46 movies of all genres either debuting or taking part in the annual festival–plus visitations by those involved with the films. Also, as it’s been, most of the films will be screened in Salem’s only true indie theater (Salem Cinema) run by Salem Cinema owner, festival director and lead programmer, Loretta Miles. Other films will be shown in the Grand Theater and High Street Cinema, located in an extended section of downtown Salem with 1920’s-era theaters.
The first thing that will either surprise you (or not) about this year’s 46 films is that most of them are dramas. Arguably, the indie film world is typically more awash in dramas, though there used to be equal amounts of comedy with the dramas at this festival. For 2010, only five comedies are being screened. Also this year, documentaries are a little more extensive with seventeen. Most of them have already been previewed at other film festivals to mostly good reviews.
It’s a drama, though, that kicked off the film festival on Friday, October 15 after an opening night dinner party at Prudence Uncorked located on 325 High St. downtown at 9:00 p.m. Most of the filmmakers coming to give Q&A’s and lectures at the event were available to talk to at this party that had a price tag of $40. But two hours earlier at 7:00 p.m. was the U.S. premiere of up and coming indie director Jeff Lipsky’s “Twelve Thirty” at Salem Cinema. This movie only had a premiere in Montreal earlier this year, so the exclusiveness for Salem was prestigious.
The likely reason for that is because Jeff Lipsky screened his prior films (“Once More with Feeling” and “Flannel Pajamas”) at the Salem Film Festival last year after both did well at Sundance. He was quoted in an interview recently as saying the festival reminded him of “a little bit of Telluride in the NW.” (See Resource 2) Add more prestige with the fact that Lipsky has become one of the most astute observers of the human condition within the world of indie film.
Label “Twelve Thirty” as a Romantic Drama that stars Jonathan Groff from “Glee” playing a young man who has romantic relationships with three young women in Middle America who turn out to be more complex than Groff’s character calculates.
It’s the kind of deep character study you’ll only find in the small film industry that unfortunately gets little marketing and distribution in America. That truism about independent film makes seeing all the films showcased at the Salem Film Festival an unusual mix of pain and joy. Almost all of the screened films will display the best in what filmmaking can do while also taking us to unexpected corners of humanity. The reality that barely a quarter of the United States will ever see them makes the festival all the more a mix of poignancy, celebration and value.
At that set level, the rest of the films playing at the festival more or less take us through the blurred lines of fiction and non-fiction.
On Saturday, October 16, the true onslaught of film begins with a long list of all the slated genres. Another notable Romance Drama is the NW debut of “Listen to Your Heart” that adds a Q&A with its writer and lead actor, Kent Moran. This movie has Cybil Shepherd as a domineering mother to a deaf girl who falls in love with a NYC songwriter. It’s worth investigating if you’ve wondered what’s happened to Shepherd’s film career in recent years.
For film historians, the true highlight on this second day is the screening of the recently restored 1924 prescient classic “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang. You may remember missing footage of this silent classic was discovered in Argentina back in 2008 that was assembled into the existing film and toured in limited venues. The restored print may be on DVD soon, but having it play on a big screen in Salem adds more impressive layers to this festival considering the film only played much bigger cities. It plays at the Salem Cinema at 7:45 p.m., again Monday at 4:00 p.m. and lastly at 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, at The Grand Theater.
If you’d rather check out some of the few comedies showcased this year, you may want to go for the quirky “Earth Day” about former eco-warriors who get murdered one by one by a mysterious individual. It’s hard to classify and placed somewhere in the new territory of Comedy Horror. This plays at the High Street version of Salem Cinema (its original location) on Saturday the 16th.
Or, go with the highly-reviewed “Sleather” playing at Salem Cinema on Saturday and Sunday. The plot revolves around three quixotic friends trying to escape their ordinary lives and go in search of fame and fortune.
You should also take in the foreign films as a rite of passage of any film festival. Salem Cinema already plays the best foreign films in the world year-round. However, while the number of foreign films at this year’s festival numbers only six, the quality is excellent. “Metropolis” already encompasses part of it, though one of the best new foreign films includes the Oregon premiere of “Salt of This Sea” that’s spoken in Arabic with English subtitles. In this intense drama, a Palestinian woman born in New York attempts to travel back to Palestine to claim money left by her grandfather. It plays at Salem Cinema on Saturday and Monday.
Arguably best of all at this year’s festival is the collection of short films that are being showcased before many of the features. Prior to the festival starting, a contest was done that called for filmmakers from all over the NW to submit their short films. The ones showcased this year will be all the winners with plots ten times richer than any other feature film made by Hollywood. And even though many of them will be showcased individually, the festival also has a short film package that plays throughout the week.
One in particular that’s notable will be the NW Emerging Artist Shorts Competition Youth & Amateur Competition on Saturday the 16th at The Grand Theater. Here, you can see short films made by NW amateurs of all ages. Hollywood has good reason to mine from them, even though it should be done with a good offer in hand.
As mentioned, documentaries seem to stand tall this year. Some of the titles either debuting or continuing their run at the festival include docus on the late Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould, the late pop singer Harry Nilsson, an examination of The Sacred Harp and a spiritual look into the Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet. You’ll also find a slight theme on the environment this year with “Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators”, plus a movie called “Greenlit” that tells the realities of a business going green.
One documentary that stands alone in creative brazenness is “Double Take” directed by Belgian director Johan Grimonprez. It’s an examination of the paranoia surrounding the 1950’s Cold War era using masterfully-edited mixed media, including footage of Alfred Hitchcock while he was filming “The Birds.”
It’s hard not to imagine the Salem Film Festival being taken as seriously as Telluride in another five years based on the rate of growth. Of course, it’s always on the table that the economy could unfortunately make its fates known with this festival in time. In the meantime, executives in Hollywood would do wise to get away from their office suites, absorb a smaller town atmosphere and revel in filmmaking ideas that should be given a gallant effort toward being placed on every theater screen.