October 17, 2021

BendFilm 2021: Keeping Film Front & Center

 

A little over a 3 hour drive southeast of Portland, nestled near the Cascade Mountains alongside the Deschutes river, sits the city of Bend. Famous for its Ski Resorts and multi-use trails, this quaint city is the location of one of the best Film Festivals Oregon has to offer. For the past 18 years, filmmakers and film enthusiasts from the Pacific Northwest and beyond have gathered in this mountain town every fall to celebrate independent cinema at BendFilm. More recently BendFilm has expanded their programming year-round with the acquisition of microcinema Tin Pan Theater in 2019.

This year’s festival takes place both in-person on October 9th-11th and a virtually October 7th-17th.  Tickets for screenings can be purchased on their website. I sat down with Executive Director of BendFilm Todd Looby and Festival Programmer Selin Sevinc to discuss this years festival.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lucas Longacre
Thank you Todd and Selin for joining me today. What can you tell me about this year’s BendFilm Fest?

Todd Looby – Executive Director, BendFilm

Todd Looby
We’re incredibly excited about this year’s festival. I was just shocked at both the amount of films and the amount of good films that were even available this year. I think Selin really put together our best program that we’ve ever had here. It’s a really high bar to reach because our program the last five, six years has been amazing and this one I think, just really took it to another level. A lot of these filmmakers were at least editing in 2020 and I know a heck of a lot we’re shooting during that, and to have this quality is crazy. I no longer make too many films but it’s hard enough in regular times let alone in a once a century pandemic.

Lucas Longacre
I was in pre-production on a short film right when COVID hit so like I essentially was like, “there’s no way I’m gonna be able to execute this” and still haven’t been able to because of the restrictions.

Todd Looby
Right? We were all looking so very forward to having a full Festival this year, kind of bigger than we ever had, so many people just coming out and being excited to be back and then Central Oregon’s [Covid] numbers just started increasing and staying high. Our hospitals are full here so we had to make a tough choice to really scale back in person. We had a lot of filmmakers who didn’t feel comfortable anymore traveling and we had a lot of audience members that, frankly, would rather not come out.

Lucas Longacre
I’m in Idaho and we’re sending a lot of our people to Oregon & Washington because the hospitals are at capacity so I totally understand. I’m excited that you’re doing at least two days though right? There’s two days of live shows?

Todd Looby
Yeah, and Selin can go into those. That’s an incredibly exciting lineup and I think we’ve structured it in a way that is very safe.

Lucas Longacre
What films are you excited about for this year?

Selin Sevinc – Head of Festival Programming, BendFilm

Selin Sevinc
For the in-theater portion of the festival, we have some National Geographic docs that we’re very excited about: The Rescue by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi, Becoming Costeau is Garbus’ latest Doc. We’re very excited about Torn, and The First Wave. Those four films that we will show in person and virtually. And of course, the competition is like a big part of what we do, and bringing new filmmakers or filmmakers who are making their first features, finding a place in a home at a festival. And the short programs this year has been a big focus of ours, because we became an academy qualifying Film Festival for Narrative Shorts, Animated Shorts and Indigenous shorts this year. So what this means is, this is a way in which short filmmakers can be qualified to be nominated for the Academy. Because, as you know, thousands and thousands of shorts get made every year. And the academy relies on a select number of film festivals to make a great program. And then out of those programs, the best shorts that gets selected can get funneled into the Oscars run, basically.

Lucas Longacre
So if you get if you win an award at the Bendfilm, for one of your shorts, you then are in contention to be in the Oscars category?

Selin Sevinc
Yes, exactly. And get in front of the eyes of members of the Academy. So that’s been really exciting. Every year, we’re very excited about the shorts program. But this year, we know that three shorts will potentially go in that path to the Academy Awards, which is very exciting. And yeah, we’ve done some interesting things with the shorts program this year, where we kind of created blocks where we mixed narratives and docs and outdoor shorts, animated shorts, indigenous short, sometimes together under matching titles and in content. Because we were thinking, you know, sometimes audiences can be biased towards, like documentaries, or animated or think “outdoor isn’t for me” and things like that. But when you see film shorts across all categories, you realize there are common themes that everyone can take something from, even though that may not be their first choice.

Lucas Longacre
Yeah, I always feel as an attendee, I get pulled. I’m overwhelmed. I really want to watch the documentary stuff. But then there’s the animation stuff coming out right now. And you feel like you have to do the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ often. So the idea of curating it where you can get a little taste of everything in there under theme, I personally wish more festivals would do that.

Selin Sevinc
Also you kind of make the choices that you’ve always made in the past, and then there’s not much room to be surprised and to expand your horizon; how can I expose myself to different things? So yeah, that was that was really fun to put Docs and Narratives together, next to each other, to give audiences a little different tastes of things. And we have some great environmental films, environmentally focused films that are very positive and upbeat and encouraging. Not dark, doomsday scenarios. And most of those films actually have teenagers at their center. So youth doing great things, courageous things. Like going beyond what they can do in their high school, and really going after some goals and missions that are really important for all of us. So for me, personally, I found that really encouraging and motivating. We have American Gadfly, which is like an example of that. And Youth V Gov, among others. And political films that are also not dark and down and pessimistic, but have a lot of heart.

Lucas Longacre
I feel like a lot of us in year two of the pandemic, we’re kind of wanting to have more inspiration and more hope at this point.

Selin Sevinc
Exactly.

Lucas Longacre
Well, have you seen any trends in submissions? I know year to year, there’s usually movements happening that people are not really aware of. Have there been any trends this year that you found?

Selin Sevinc
Well, that’s a good question. One of the very obvious trends has been lots of films with two characters in one location. So like, really simple, but very creative. I think what this pandemic maybe did is really forced major creativity out of these people because you have limited resources, limited number of people you can be with in close proximity. So in addition to the usual, “I don’t have money, I don’t have crew”, there’s the added challenge of COVID. But filmmakers have really come through that I feel like with really creative ways, really engaging stories, maybe they paid even more attention to how to make an engaging storyline with as few people as possible, with as little going on as possible. So there were quite a few films like that about like isolation, being kind of stuck with one other person, and some of them are quite surreal. Some of them are quite funny. Some of them are really thrilling. You know, contrary to what you might think.

Lucas Longacre
I assume the best films about COVID would not be about COVID, that are coming out right now.

Selin Sevinc
Yeah.

Lucas Longacre
It’ll be about the feeling of it that you know what the experience we’re having, but do it in a way that’s artistically expressed. That’s why I love filmmaking.

Alright, so if I was an attendee and I was going to have to make my choices on what to watch, what would you recommend as a programmer for somebody who’s first coming to BendFilm?

Selin Sevinc
I would definitely recommend the shorts program, just because there is just such a wide variety of things to find, so many little gems. But outside of that, I mean, I love everything right? I put everything very carefully.

Lucas Longacre
Which one of your children do you want us to choose?

Selin Sevinc
I kind of feel like I’m a member of these people’s crew or production team or something, I feel so invested in their success. So for narrative features, I really loved… I mean, them all honestly, but Neolovismo is a really special film with two people.

Neolovismo – Directed by Fawzia Mirza

And it’s about a relationship dynamic. That was really fun, really creative, very unique film. Cinema of Sleep is a black and white film that is set in a hotel. It is very David Lynch-esque. It kind of seamlessly transitions from genre to genre. Sometimes it’s a thriller, sometimes it’s kind of surreal, sometimes it’s like a like a social impact drama. In part it’s like political I guess on some levels; it’s also very dramatic.

I like films in general that have all sorts of things coming together, weaved together, and take you through experiences of humor and drama and tragedy sometimes all at once.

Todd Looby
Jumping in on Cinema of Sleep, it’s just one of the the most interesting and affecting portrayals of the immigrant experience, I think that I’ve seen in a film, in a narrative. But this brings it to a whole different level. I think by being, like Selin said, very Lynchian kind of the psychological experience of the immigrant.

Lucas Longacre
I’ll say for me, I love it when you go beyond genres. I mean, doing a good genre film I’ll always love, but when you can weave them together, I feel like it’s such a more powerful experience for the the audience.

Selin Sevinc
Locations, production design, it’s all so neat and so perfect. And there’s a really touching story underneath it that’s so unexpected. You know, for a such a slick film, it’s got an emotional element to it, that’s really understated and subtle. I really love that one for documentaries. Some of my… I can’t say favorites. I can’t really do that, because I really love all of them. But Youth V Gov is a really special film about youth taking charge for climate change.

Youth V Gov – Produced/Directed by Christi Cooper

Alaskan Nets is a documentary, it’s in our documentary lineup this year. And it’s so special that it felt like this can’t possibly be a documentary. If you wanted to write a dramatic story with lots of thrill and drama and everything packed in it, you couldn’t have written a better script for it. And yet it’s a documentary, and it’s based on people’s real lives. So I thought that was just amazing.

And we have also, like really cool Docs, like the Oxy Kingpins, Chasing Childhood that kind of introduces you to realms that you haven’t maybe been thinking about. So the Oxy Kingpins is about how the opioid epidemic and who are really, truly responsible. It’s like a search into who’s really responsible, who started this, who are the players? And it’s not just like, informational, but it’s just so eye opening. And quite humorous, because you see drug dealers who have served their time, who are now talking about what really went on and how it really starts, from their perspective. It’s just brilliant.

Lucas Longacre
The more that stories are told the better. I feel like so much of our country wants to move beyond that and just like not talk about it, so the more we can get those documentaries out there and people exposed to it. I think the better.

Selin Sevinc
On the other hand, there’s a film like Chasing Childhood talking about independence in childhood, and how we may be raising a generation and we’re experimented with a generation growing up, what are we letting them do, what are we not letting them do, how that’s a social experiment that we are yet to see the results of? So that was really cool.

Chasing Childhood – Directed by Eden Wurmfeld, Margaret Munzer Loeb

I mean, Buried is a brilliant film, especially for Bend, about the devastating avalanche in 1982. That’s thrilling. It’s a documentary but it really reads like a thriller. It’s got so much drama. So much true human emotion, that it dives into.

Buried – Directed by Jared Drake & Steven Siig

Todd Looby
When you when we were fully in person, we were going to open with American Gadfly too. Why’d you pick that one?

Selin Sevinc
Well, because it’s a it’s such a perfect film of our time. American gadfly. It’s about a group of teenagers taking over the Twitter account of a politician I don’t remember the politicians name now. And basically trying to get into the elections, not to be elected to be the next president, but to get into the debate and put their points of view forward.

Lucas Longacre
They’re using the mask of an actual politician to have their voices actually be heard instead of sidelined?

Selin Sevinc
A retired politician.

Lucas Longacre
Oh cool. okay.

Selin Sevinc
They take over his Twitter account, not like hacking, but talking as the man. And creating this Twitter campaign to talk about the issues that they don’t feel like there was a space in the debate for. People aren’t even talking about these issues. It’s their journey and how they’re, clever and funny and innocent and sweet they are about it. We kind of wanted to open with a film that has a lot of humor and hope. So we thought that would be a perfect film, to open the festival with, but we couldn’t do it, unfortunately.

Lucas Longacre
It’s weird year for everybody. Well, so let me ask you as a filmmaker, I’m always curious, what would I expect as a filmmaker for a film being shown at BendFilm?

Selin Sevinc
Like on a normal year?

Lucas Longacre
Yes let’s pretend it’s non COVID19.

Todd Looby
I can’t discount the virtual experience in any capacity. I look at what people are watching every day, it comes through in a daily email and people are still watching stuff from the 2020 program. Not films per se, but conversations.These Q and A’s are living for a long time. Just last year in the virtual, we were getting up and going, we had plenty of views in almost every state, and in like 30 countries. It’s really an interesting phenomenon. As a filmmaker, I traveled the circuit and film festivals were an incredibly valuable way of building careers in general, and getting that reassurance and justification of all your struggles, kind of comes out of Film Fests, where you do meet, talk, have fun with fellow filmmakers who are in the same kind of situation as you. And then you hear audience members say things you would never have imagined. So all that stuff is great about in person, but virtual offers that as well.

The only thing that I would lament is that we can’t show people in Bend. When I first landed at the airport here, coming out to interview for this job, that’s all I could think about, is like wow, if I came from Chicago, New York LA, I would just be blown away the minute I got off the airplane. Everything that would happen downtown, the unique venues we have, and the restaurants and the hotels. I mean it’s really cool. And you know, the biggest thing is the audience. And you know, that’s the only thing that is lacking but with this format, you still have that audience, and the audience gets broader i think, now that we have contact information on all the virtual films. We will see audience members reaching out to these filmmakers; there’s a really solid bond that develops with audience members because we’re going to have virtual q&a and those are going to live on the site forever and people are going to continue to watch it all year round. Even after that movie gets distribution and more news comes out about the movie, people are going to revisit that stuff for sure. The academy qualifying thing is huge. For filmmakers, to have a short film, and you’re competing against maybe like one 10 to 15 films to get in here. And then you know, let’s say if there’s three shorts up for an Academy Award, you’re probably then competing against one in the 20 that do it, that’s pretty good odds to be considered by the academy.

Lucas Longacre
I just don’t think most filmmakers are aware, that if you go to the right festivals and you participate, you make the effort, how that brass ring is not that far away.

Todd Looby
David Lynch’s and Oliver stones biographies came out this year. No filmmaker story that we show is any different than those guys. It’s fascinating how these guys came from nowhere, just passionate artists that had some talent, got to the top of the game at some point, I find that stuff fascinating.

Lucas Longacre
It’s why I love the film festival circuit though, because maybe this film you watch, this director’s directorial debut, in a few years they’re going to be doing the next Marvel movie. It’s not really that far fetched if you pay attention.

Todd Looby
And that was Anna Boden. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, were first features presenters last year. The first billion dollar grossing female director.

Selin Sevinc
Even though we’re virtual this year, just yesterday I got an email from a short filmmaker who just found out that her film is going before a feature film, and she just found out about the feature that she’s going before. And she was like, “I can’t believe this. This is the same theme as my next project subject matter. And I can’t thank you enough about being before this movie. How did you know? It’s a perfect match.” And I was so excited about their pairing. I really fought hard to have that because it was perfect for the shorts, and perfect for the feature. Oh, the director is lovely. My So Called Selfish Life director. And I was like, I can put you guys in touch, you know. So even if it is virtual, there are ways to bring filmmakers together, to collaborate for their next project. As well as q&a panels, conversations that we have with the filmmakers, I think they really appreciate connecting with other people that they’re programmed with, and then have something to discuss and something to contribute to each other’s projects. I think that’s the main thing about being taking part in a festival.

Lucas Longacre
I do think that the pandemic forced all these innovations in streaming and even after the pandemics over, we’re still gonna have the virtual aspect, which I find incredibly interesting as a film lover.

So the final question before we wrap up, this is your 18th year right of, of the festival. So how has BendFilm changed over the last almost two decades now?

Todd Looby
That’s a big question. I’ve been here for eight years now. And I would say, 2004 started out real hot. I keep hearing stories from people that were around 18 years ago and they’re like, Born In The Brothels was the craziest thing. This was our first year of the Film Fest. And it was amazing to see that this movie was in the fest and then in the Oscars. So it started out real hot and then, Bend as a town really suffered during the recession in 2008. The festival was definitely chugging back by the time I came on, in really good shape, but it was still very under appreciated. The biggest change now is that we’re we own and operate a daily cinema: Tin Pan theater micros, which is just one of the most unique theaters in the country. It’s unique, because it’s 28 seats.

Tin Pan Theater

There’s crazier theaters. I’m from Chicago and I love the music box, but I’ll talk about this theater in the same level as a music box, cuz it’s so cool. And I think Selin’s predecessor, who was also on the jury, Eric Jambor, who founded sidewalk and worked at Indie Memphis for a while, he did an amazing job of building up the distributor connections so that you could get these awesome, submitted films, but also the spotlights. And I think, with the Tin Pan, we’ve developed good relationships with distributors, so that people can see both the the latest up and coming film as well as a few films that are going to be Oscar contenders. So that’s been a big thing for the festival. And yeah, going back to those virtual numbers last year, to see that we were somehow in the radars of people in 37 countries. It’s pretty crazy. We get people typically from all over the country and a few Canadians or Europeans for the festival every year that come here. But that’s a crazy number. So yeah,I just see its reach just increasing, getting wider and at the same time, it’s not at the sacrifice of how community focused the fest is. It’s run by mainly people in Bend, and it’s attended by mainly people in Bend. Yeah, we have kind of this worldwide reach.

Lucas Longacre
When asked, “what’s your favorite festival in Oregon?” Bend is right at the top. It’s just one of the best experiences I’ve had at festivals and, as a filmmaker, I’m hypersensitive to what it’s like to be a filmmaker at these festivals, but also just as a film fan and attendee I mean, I feel like you do it right

Watch the full conversation here:

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