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2005 BendFilm Festival Wrap Up Report

I'm sitting sipping a latte listening to film critic Shawn Levy read from his latest book The Last Playboy : The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa when it strikes me. I'm actually at a film fest, chilling out and listening to a book reading. Now to understand why this is so strange you'd have to flash back to my time at Sundance... Over the five days I spent at the 2005 Sundance Film Fest, I averaged at least 5 films a day. My fullest day had me watching films from 8:00am to just before 2:00am - a total of 8 films straight. The manic rushing around, packing in all that you can is as much a part of Sundance as anything else, a festival where you measure everything against the film you could have seen in the time your doing something else (even sleeping).

In stark contrast, BendFilm encourages a much more leisurely approach, giving you more time to grab a cup of joe, listen to a talk, digest the films that you've seen and chat with others. I think I spent as much time talking about films like The Puffy Chair and Shakespeare Behind Bars as I did actually seeing them. Perhaps this is why films like Police Beat and The Real Dirt on Farmer John did considerably better with BendFilm audiences than at their Sundance (or Slamdance) premieres. As with most major fests, most films were followed by a Q&A with the films director, writer or producer. But in Bend that's just the beginning. Since Bend is such a relatively small town, it was commonplace to run into the filmmakers of the films at the fest. This dynamic gives pretty unprecedented opportunity to be able to spend time meeting and chatting with the majority of the filmmakers at the fest. I've been to a number of film fests, and I can tell you that in terms of access to filmmakers nothing comes even remotely close to BendFilm.

Another unique aspect of BendFilm is the fact that there are cash awards given to several of the top films, and the big award of $10,000 is open to all films in competition. To give you an idea of the significance of this, I was sitting next to one of the directors at the awards ceremony who remarked to me "that prize is the budget for another whole film". Also unique is the fact that short films are in equal contention for this big "Best of Show" prize as full length narratives or documentaries. At BendFilm shorts are anything but a side attraction. Many of the shorts I saw in the fest were followed by Q&A's by the filmmaker, something which I quite enjoyed. This level of attention to short film makers is pretty extraordinary, and it attracted some truly talented short filmmakers. Of the shorts at the fest, the ones I enjoyed the best were: Estes Avenue from Paul Cotter (remember that name, it's sure to show up in features or TV soon!), Green Bush (which won the award for Best Short Live action), At The Quinte Hotel think Charles Bukowski only Canadian, Down Dog - a sharp jab at Yoga from Richard Roll (another one to keep your eye on) and Victoria Para Chino which won the student award, a $3000 prize.

In addition to the competition shorts, BendFilm featured an entire mini-fest geared towards kids: Indiekid Films (The Best of Lil' Longbaugh). I was shocked to see that the Saturday morning screening for Indiekids was completely sold out (people were literally standing in the back). Indiekids featured 14 short films from around the world, some of them geared towards kids and some of them made by kids. My absolute favorite was a short called No Problem. If there's any film that shows the amazing possibility for independent films made and geared towards kids it's No Problem. Animator John Bergin sets up and animates a scenario with some sort of problem (like a solar powered house not being able to get energy because the clouds in the sky) and then his five year old daughter draws her way out (in this case she draws lots of suns) - it's just phenomenal. Indiekids was very well received at BendFilm, and I'd be surprised if other fests don't adopt indie kids programming.

As strong as the programming for the shorts and indiekids were, the features were even stronger. I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite film at the fest because there were so many I liked for so many different reasons. In the documentary category I absolutely loved Shakespeare Behind Bars which took home the coveted "Best of Show" award. Shakespeare Behind Bars follows the lives of several inmates who try to come to terms with their crimes and their lives via Shakespeare's Tempest. It raises some serious debate over the role of prison as a place of healing and rehabilitation vs a place of punishment. Last years "Best of Show" winner Farmingville went on to get distribution and find an audience, I'm hoping the same will be true for Shakespeare Behind Bars. The Beauty Academy of Kabul was an absolute breath of fresh air after the recent flood of political documentaries. Rather than look at the political issues surrounding Afghanistan, director Liz Merminutes takes a deeply humanistic look at the women who've lived through it all. The film is a fascinating look into the lives of these women and it's as touching as it is insightful. One documentary which I missed (and am still kicking myself for it) was The Real Dirt on Farmer John which won both the Best Documentary Award and the Audience Award. Other stand outs were Favela Rising which looked at the raise of AfroRegge as an alternative to the drug trade in Rio, I know I'm Not Alone - Muchale Franti's uses his guitar to get access to areas in Iraq that other film makers could never go and he ends up capturing it all on film and The Devil's Miner - a magnificently shot doc which won the best cinematography award.

On the narrative front, my absolute favorite was The Puffy Chair by Mark Duplass (who also stars in the film). The Puffy Chair is to Gen X/Y love as Nirvana's Nevermind was to our angst. Duplass captures an aspect of relationships in a way no other filmmaker has been able to express, it's profound and extremely well done. I can't tell you how many people commented throughout the weekend that lines in The Puffy Chair felt lifted from their lives and relationships. The Puffy Chair has been building steam on the festival circuit: it debuted at Sundance, won the audience award at SXSW and now took both best screenplay and best lead actor prize at BendFilm. Mark Duplass showed some real promise with his shorts "This is John" and "Scrapple", and that promise has been fulfilled with The Puffy Chair. If you're between the ages of twenty and thiry five you absolutely must see this film - you'll never forget it. In addition to The Puffy Chair I also had the chance to see Police Beat again. I saw, and fell in love with Police Beat at Sundance, so it was great to have an opportunity to see it again. What struck me about Police Beat upon seeing it again was how simply magnificent a portrait of Seattle the film is. Director Devor Robinson manages to craft an absolute love note to the city while at the same time showing the offbeat crimes which Charles Mudede chronicled in his column for The Stranger. A real treat with the film was the Q&A afterwards with Charles Mudede who is as much an interesting character as "Z" (the lead in the film). Hopefully Police Beat will find a distributor and get seen by a wider audience, it won awards for Best Feature and Best Direction which is definitely a good start. A completely unexpected delight at the fest was the film East of Sunset. I was completely skeptical of an indie love story shot in Los Angeles but was extremely surprised at how sharp and well crafted the film was. A great deal of credit for the success of East of Sunset goes to first time screenwriter Heather Miller, she manages to trim away everything that isn't essential to the telling of the film and her minimalistic approach coupled with Brian McNelis results in a film that is definitely worth seeking out.

The only film which I saw at the BendFilm fest that I didn't like was the mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America. First off, I have to say that I'm not really fond of the mockumentary genre, it's an impossibly difficult genre that very few have succeeded with. While I admire Kevin Willmott's attempt at tackling an entire re-writing of American history, the complexity of the genre coupled with the fact that he bit off a little more than he could chew results in a film that becomes painfully unfunny and ultimately unenjoyable.

Talking about just the films at the BendFilm fest is like only talking about the ports of call on a cruise vacation. The city of Bend and it's magnificent surroundings are as much a part of the BendFilm experience as the films themselves. Bend throws open its doors from the opening night to the last film and it's hard to think of a place more welcoming and enjoyable to see a fest. I had the opportunity to stay out at the Mt. Bachelor Village Resort overlooking the Deschutes river. I can't tell you how hard it was to tear myself away from the porch of the condo to go see films. I missed more than one film that I was looking forward to seeing because I simply lost track of time chilling out and enjoying the natural beauty of Bend. Another non-film point is the total proliferation of local wines. Bend is a wine lovers paradise, and I don't think I've ever consumed so much awesome pinot noir in one weekend in my life. (Ken Wright Wahle Vineyard Pinot and King Estates Pinot are now personal favs).

It's hard not to rave and rave and rave about the BendFilm fest. Never in a million years would I have expected a little fest in a central Oregon town to be this fantastic, but it simply is. Combining unparalleled hospitality, access to film makers, selection of unique and interesting films and breath taking surroundings BendFilm is now a fest I simply will not miss, it's just that good.

- Geoffrey Kleinman


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