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There’s something about getting away to the islands of the Pacific Northwest that always feels special, and a late summer island getaway weekend combined with a film festival is even better. Last year I took the walk-on water taxi over to Vashon Island for the Vashon Island Film Festival (VIFF); it’s a great option if you have a car parked at the park-and-ride or a friend willing to do a ferry run to scoop you up. This year, though, I needed a car to get around so I drove over to West Seattle to catch the ferry over. We lucked out and were loaded onto the ferry in a front-lower deck spot, where we could enjoy watching the crossing from our car rather than schlepping up to the ferry passenger deck. 

Once we make it to the island it’s just a short drive to this year’s accommodations, a super cute little rustic studio just right for me and my daughter who came with me this year. Island weather can be temperamental, but this year’s fest looks to be warm and sunny every day, and it’s also been more humid than it was last year. Here on Vashon Island, I leave behind all the hustle and bustle of my day job and my Seattle neighborhood, which is becoming overrun with unhoused neighbors, untreated mental health issues, increased open drug use and violence.

Here, I sit outside on the porch at night, admiring the stars and sipping a cup of mint tea, and there are no gunshots happening and all is peaceful and quiet save for the hooting of an owl somewhere in the nearby trees. In the morning as I sip my coffee, the neighbor’s chickens are clucking away, birds are chirping and squirrels are playing chase through the tree branches overhead. Walking along the main drag in town with its charming little shops and restaurants,  I observe and absorb the relative calm and tranquility of this place, and for the first time in a decade I seriously consider whether I might want to move to Vashon within the next couple years. 

Evening on Vashon Island
(Photo credit Kim Voynar)

This is the second year of VIFF, founded by local—and international—film producer and island resident Mark Mathias Sayre, and it’s evident that Sayre is committed to making this festival a must-attend event for both islanders and Seattle/Tacoma locals. The first thing I noticed on Friday when I arrived at the Vashon Theatre is how much the outdoor space adjacent to the theater (The Backlot) has changed since last year. The fest venue itself is still a nondescript beige building with a little gem of a theater tucked inside, but the outside area, which last year felt like a temporary pop up this year has been transformed into a full-blown, really nice outdoor community gathering space with a permanent stage, lots of nice seating and little conversation areas, overhead shading, and a super nice camera and jib setup for recording or streaming performances. It’s really an impressive change from last year, and I hear from the locals that the theater has been doing lots of cool concerts and outdoor screenings in this space. Love it.

My first film of this year’s fest was Even Hell Has Its Heroes, a documentary about Dylan Carlson and his legendary experimental drone metal band Earth, directed by renowned Seattle transgender artist Clyde Petersen, whose work as an artist has intersected installation, film, music and animation (Petersen previously made Torrey Pines, an experimental stop-motion animation feature based on a true story about Petersen being kidnapped by his mentally ill mother at the age of 12 and taken on a whirlwind hallucination-filled cross-country adventure).

This time around Petersen explores true stories in a different way, following the trajectory of Carlson’s long career as the founder of Earth and exploring the drug use issues that inhibited Carlson throughout his life and career, his personal friendship with Kurt Cobain and, briefly, on the conspiracy rumors surrounding Carlson’s and Cobain’s death. Pedersen’s sensibility as an experimental artist comes through strongly here; the film is artfully conceived and rendered, shot in Super 8mm, a tapestry of stories from Carlson and his bandmates and friends that, taken as a whole, paint a complex portrait of a man and a time in music history. 

I especially appreciated Petersen’s layered approach to the story-telling, which underlays audio of interviews as voiceover for the visual storytelling, then underscores all that with a constant layer of mostly new music recorded by Earth for the film; I genuinely do not enjoy the “talking heads” style of documentary storytelling, so once I realized what this artist/director was going for here I was all in for the ride.

If the film does start to feel a bit long (not unlike the droning layers of an Earth song), it also feels that the length and pacing were deliberate choices by the director. It feels not just that Petersen didn’t want to cut any of the many stories woven together here to create a tapestry, but more that the languid, unhurried quality of the storytelling is intended to mirror Earth’s approach to music, which is unhurried, slow, droning, a soothing, white-noise layer of droning guitar and deliberate drumming, the spaces between the music somehow as interesting as the music itself.  

The VFF scene
(Photo credit Kim Voynar)

The end result is a film that – like Earth, the slowest metal band ever, moves at its own deliberate pace and carries you along for the trip. Petersen’s intention as an artist and director here I felt was summed up really well in a vignette with longtime Earth drummer Adrienne Davies, who talks about drumming for Earth and the languid, droning quality of the music, about how she had to slow down the pacing, soften the beats and not use right angles in striking the drums to achieve the right sound.

Speaking of sound, Earth recorded over 100 minutes of new music for the film, which has also been released as a soundtrack album, Even Hell Has Its Heroes (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). The soundtrack is layered underneath the vignettes, providing a slow, low droning that immerses the viewer almost subconsciously into Earth’s music while underscoring the storytelling. Overall I very much enjoyed this film, I learned a lot about a band about which I knew only a little, and the artful approach to doc storytelling was very much appreciated. 

My second feature of the day was Deadland, a tense thriller set on the border of Texas and Mexico with a supernatural twist. The film centers around Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina), a border guard with a pregnant wife, whose mundane, routine life takes a sudden, unexpected series of turns when he retrieves a drowned young man from the river who comes back to life,  and on the same day chaos  appears at his home, in the form of an old man babbling nonsense and claiming to be his long-lost father. Deadland, which premiered earlier this year at SXSW,  is the feature debut of Austin director Lance Larson. Overall I found it to be intriguingly told, and the supernatural element woven into the fabric of the story set it apart from other narrative films set on the border. It’s a solid feature debut and worth seeking out.

Our evening wound down with the fest’s VIP party, which, as last year, featured an amazing spread of small bites, thoughtful cocktails and a mocktail, followed by the Friday night fest party at the Backlot, which featured two punk rock bands, a sizable turnout, and lots of locals skanking and moshing to the music. All in all, a fabulous first day of the fest for me, and I’m looking forward to another day of films, delish food, and that sweet island air. 

Learn more about the fest and ticketing options here

– Kim Voynar (@KVoynar)


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