VASHON ISLAND FILM FESTIVAL: DISPATCH 1
There are no bridges or tunnels to get to Vashon Island, only ferries and a water taxi. While it’s not quite the journey from my house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle that it is to get out to the San Juans, it’s enough of a journey that it feels like you actually went somewhere to get away. If you’re not driving a vehicle over, you can use your Orca Pass to ride the King County passenger-only water taxi over from Pier 50, which lives just under half a mile from the historic music-venue-turned-affordable-apartments, OK Hotel, where Nirvana famously first performed Smells Like Teen Spirit. The water taxi zips across Puget Sound speedily; as the boat churns away from the pier towards Vashon Island, the familiar downtown Seattle skyline begins to fade. Oh look, there’s the Space Needle. My daywalker workplace the Museum of Pop Culture, is next to the Needle, but today I am quickly moving far away from my regular workday as Seattle disappears into the early morning haze.
We get to Vashon in a scant 22 minutes, and I head off the water taxi hauling two suitcases. Yes, I am just here for the weekend, but island weather can be unpredictable and in the summer it can be very warm by day and then quite chilly at night. A girl needs options. My favorite thing about the overall vibe of the Puget Sound islands on which I’ve spent much time is the chill vibe and slower pace of island living. From the shores of Vashon Island, looking back towards Seattle, all the hustle and bustle of my day job, Capitol Hill nightlife and the crunchiness of urban living seem very far removed and distant.
My PR friend drops me off at the farmhouse I’ll be sharing with two fellow press folks for the weekend, Renee Raketty (Tacoma Weekly) and Sabina Dana Plasse (Film Threat). I love staying at a house with other industry folks at a little fest like this one, it’s so much more personal and you have down time to sit on the back porch and just talk and talk about movies, art and the industry. It’s lovely and peaceful here, very conducive to serendipitous spontaneous conversations.
The Vashon Theatre lives inside a nondescript beige building that belies the beauty of this little gem of a theater on the inside. If you’ve ever been to Sundance, you’ll know immediately what I mean when I say the theater gives off a swell vintage vibe reminiscent of Park City’s Egyptian Theater, only with very comfy seats. After some very tasty and authentic Mexican food across at Zamorana, my first screening of Friday was Juniper, which I had previously seen on a fest screener a while back but wanted to revisit on the bigger screen with an audience.
Juniper is the first feature-length film by director Katherine Dudas,co-written by Dudas and three of the film’s stars, Olivia Blue, Madison Lawlor, and Decker Sadowski. It was produced by Dudas, Blue, Lawlor, Sadowski and Jacob Nichols, who also stars in the film. The film was a pandemic project supported by Seed & Spark, supported by over 1,000 people with a budget of $75,000, and premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Santa Barbara Film Festival.
The film explores deep friendship and love through a lens of grief, and is bolstered by some phenomenal performances of surprising depth. As someone who is currently still navigating my own very real deep grief, the authenticity of this cast of young actors tapping into complex layers of friendship and loss was fascinating to watch unfold.
During the lively Q&A after the screening to a small but very enthusiastic audience with some great questions, Dudas and her cast talked about being strongly influenced by Lynn Shelton, an acknowledgement I was glad to hear as my first impression of the film when I watched it on screener earlier this year was that the filmmakers had seen and taken lessons from Shelton’s body of work, especially 2011’s Your Sister’s Sister. And I can’t give much higher praise to an indie film than to say it evokes and pays homage to Shelton’s work in a most meaningful and beautiful way.
Dudas took a Sheltonesque improvisational approach to her direction here, outlining the bones of the story with her co-writers and working with her small cast to flesh out this beautiful gem of an indie film about love and loss. In particular, Lawlor and Sadowski find a depth to their respective characters that tap into grief with a maturity beyond their youth. This ensemble of 20-something friends-turned-filmmakers found a chemistry and a level of mutual trust that allowed them to create a feature debut of impressive beauty and depth, and I look forward to seeing much more from all of them. Highly recommended.
Right after that one, I caught 1-800-Hot-Nite, a coming-of-age film about Tommy (Dallas Dupree Young), Steve (Mylen Bradford) and O’Neill (Gerrison Machado), three teen boys from unstable home lives, having a night of youthful urban adventures that takes a serious turn when Tommy’s dad and stepmom get busted in a drug raid. Tommy, whose burgeoning sexual curiosity has led him to repeatedly calling a phone sex line using a credit card stolen from his stepmom, finds unexpected solace and support on the other end of the pay phone.
I’ve previously seen Young on The Good Place as Young Uzo and in Ready Player One, but with this film he shows he can carry the weight of a film with a heavy theme on his young shoulders. He turns in a nuanced and authentic performance as the troubled Tommy, by turns evoking youthful hope, curiosity, fear, sorrow, and the tired resignation and resilience of a child with a hard home life.
Written and directed by Nick Richey and exec produced by VIFF head Mark Sayre, 1-800-Hot-Nite is based on Richey’s own life experiences growing up in Vancouver, Washington, which lends an air of authenticity to both the storyline and the performances Richey gets out of his young cast. Following the screening to an impressively packed house, Richey, Sayre and Richey’s wife Ali Richey, who plays Ava, the phone sex girl, engaged in a lengthy casual Q&A with the audience, sharing tales of the travails of filming with a child cast at night and the origins of the story. Really solid and enjoyable film, if you have an opportunity to see it, it’s worth checking out.
Our evening wound down with the fest’s opening night party, which had some amazing small bites catering and a delish non-boozy peach tea punch alongside Blackberry Grimbles made with fresh-picked blackberries. I made two new friends at the party, chatted up the delightfully charming cast of Juniper, and soaked in the fest vibe. All in all, a lovely first day of VIFF, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend on the island.
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– Kim Voynar (@KVoynar)
Vashon Island, WA (July 25, 2022)—The Vashon Film Institute (VFI), a new non-profit organization dedicated to fostering independent filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest, has announced the feature slate for its inaugural Vashon Island Film Festival (VIFF), unspooling August 12-14, 2022. VIFF will screen ten features and ten shorts that have recently distinguished themselves on the festival circuit and present a selection of other film-centric events for patrons to experience, including an Opening Night Gala, Saturday Night Soiree, and two seminars delivered by notable film industry guests.
Founded by local—and international—film producer and island resident Mark Mathias Sayre, “The Vashon Film Institute was originally founded to host a summer film intensive for youth, including scholarships for students who might not otherwise afford to attend,” he explains. “We’d originally hoped to create a community event that also supported the youth program, and this is how the Vashon Island Film Festival was born. However, our goal posts have shifted slightly for our inaugural year: 100% of the net profits will go to the family-operated Vashon Theatre, a cultural landmark built in 1947 which, like many other theatres in a post-pandemic world, has struggled to keep their doors open. We still plan to institute the youth program in 2023, but plan to finance that primarily through grants and donations.”
VIFF will screen an array of esteemed features, eight narratives and two documentaries, curated by Sayre and the VFI programming team. “Programing the festival ourselves offered us the advantage of quality control; we sought out a handful of varied and exceptional films that have resonated with audiences on the festival circuit. As such, we have some of the best performing films on the circuit this year, including the features that won SXSW and Tribeca, so in many ways this is a festival showcasing 2022’s crème de la crème.”
“We’ve got coming-of-age stories, a civil war epic, a 1950’s creature feature throwback, pandemic comedies, and a character study about grief, to name a few,” Sayre continues. “I think there’s something for everyone in this year’s program.”
All screenings are slated to take place in person. The narrative features include:
Nick Richey (Low, Low)’s 1-800-HOT-NITE. follows 13-year-old Tommy (Dallas Dupree Young) after he loses his father to a drug raid and embarks upon an urban odyssey guided by a phone sex operator (Ali Richey) and with the help of his two best friends, O’Neill (Gerrison Machado) and Steve (Mylen Bradford). The film world-premiered at Santa Barbara and most recently captured the 2022 Dances with Films Audience Award for Fusion Features, and Filmocracy’s award for Best Narrative Feature.
Crabs! by Pierce Berilzheimer brings together Dylan Riley Snyder, Allie Jennings, and Jessica Morris, among others, in an astonishingly scary horror film featuring the invasion of a sleepy coastal town by murderous crab monsters during prom night. The film’s originality has fueled very positive reviews: “a film lover’s dream…a horror movie version of Power Rangers” (Nerdly); “literally blows up the screen…improbable but successful cross of Goonies vs. giant monsters” (Mulderville); and “outlandish, offbeat, and almost exhausting” (Heyuguys).
Brett Smith’s Freedom Path tells us the escape and the rescue of a Union soldier (Gerran Howell) helped by a brave Black man, (RJ Cyler) who takes him to his community of free slaves running a portion of the Underground Railroad, and tries to hide from a ruthless slave catcher (Ewen Bremner). A deeply moving and emotional film warmly praised by other festival audiences, with many describing it as a “must-watch” or even perceiving awards potential.
Winner of the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Good Girl Jane by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz features the award-winning actress Rain Spencer (Best Performance, Tribeca) as a lonely young girl who falls in love with a drug dealer in her desperate quest for intimacy, entangling her in his fellow LA teens’ meth ring. A “gritty character study” (We Got This Covered) beautifully directed by Mintz who manages to “chart her own singular path” (The Playlist). Richard Propes said, “The film should make Hollywood knock on Spencer’s door and pave the way for a brilliant acting career.”
Inspired by writer/director/star James Morosini’s true life experiences, I Love My Dad follows Chuck (Patton Oswalt) who desperately wants to reconnect with his estranged, depressive son, Franklin (Morosini). Blocked on social media, Chuck impersonates a waitress (Claudia Sulewski) online and starts checking in with Franklin, who falls in love with this imaginary girl and yearns to meet her in person. The SXSW 2022 Grand Jury and Audience Award winner showcases “terrific performances” (Austin Chronicle) as “[Morosini] takes an embarrassing thing that happened to him and turns it into a squirm-inducing (albeit surprisingly accepting) father-son comedy” (Variety).
In Katherine Dudas’ Juniper Mack (Madison Lawlor) attempts to connect spiritually with her recently deceased sister by escaping to her family’s rustic cabin. But Mack’s type-A childhood bestie, Alex (Decker Sadowski), crashes her private grief retreat with her own offbeat friend, Dylan (Olivia Blue). Alex attempts to bond with an increasingly resentful Mack, and tensions mount as Dylan’s true feelings for Alex begin to show. Another Santa Barbara debut, Juniper is “a solid entry into the mumblecore genre…thoroughly a female-centered [and created] film” (Film Threat).
Set against the isolation of the first COVID lockdown, Traveling Light tells the story of Caddy (Tony Todd), an Uber driver in search of his son who has been missing on the streets. He crosses paths with Harry (Danny Huston), a cult leader holding a bizarre ceremony on Mulholland Drive where Todd (Stephen Dorff) and Mary (Olivia d’Abo) are serving as acolytes. Directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved), and executive produced by Oscar® nominee and Seattle native S. Leigh Savidge (Straight Outta Compton), this unique film is an equally funny and frightening satire of bourgeoisie life and the irreverent madness of the pandemic.
After learning that their best friend Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying, filmmakers Parker Seaman and Devin Das decide to document their journey to see Wes one last time, all in the name of Hollywood success. A mockumentary film about filmmaking set during the pandemic, whose “laugh-out-loud bluntness” (Hammer to Nail) has audiences in stitches: “Seaman and Das have made a feel-good buddy comedy that never tries to make itself self-important, and ends up having you believe in the power of friendship…Audiences are in for a short but hilarious and very gratifying road trip.”
The documentary features include:
The beautifully directed doc (Dru Holley) Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts explores the often-contradictory role played by Black soldiers throughout American history, with particular emphasis on the settling of the American West and colonialism abroad. Fresh off the heels of its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, Charles Mudede hails the documentary as “expertly edited and researched” (The Stranger), further confirmed by Josiah Teal: “one cannot help but acknowledge its sheer historical value.” (Film Threat).
When a wild tiger kills men who enter his territory in Warren Pereira’s Tiger 24: The Making of a Man-Eater, he is declared a man-eater and locked up in a zoo. This galvanizes massive social uproar and activists take their cause to the streets, online, and all the way to the Indian Supreme Court. Living between nature and true crime documentary, the film “…is a compelling and dramatic story for animal lovers and fans of crime procedurals” (Film Threat). “…Tiger 24 contains intimate, unguarded footage of large predators that would make David Attenborough green with envy” (Oregon Arts Watch).
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At VIFF’s Opening Night Gala, badge holders can mingle with filmmakers, and its Saturday Night Soiree features live music, street food, and a beer/wine garden.
Finally, VIFF presents two seminars/lectures by industry professionals. “As we meet our goals at VIFF, we hope to expand the ancillary events offered during future festivals,” says Sayre. “In addition to celebrating independent cinema, we hope VIFF can also educate and empower. The best-case scenario is that our program helps motivate the creation of more art.”
The seminars comprise:
From Script to Screen: The Evolution of an Edit
Born and bred on Vashon Island, director Anthony O’Brien explores the significant metamorphosis a film undergoes before it is presented to audiences. Drawing from real life experience during the filming of his epic Western The Timber, O’Brien deconstructs what can go right and what can go wrong during each stage of film production, and how to navigate the middle ground between.
An Introduction to the Motion Picture Industry
Presented by VFI President and veteran film producer Mark Mathias Sayre, “An Introduction to the Motion Picture Industry” is a crash course in the business of filmmaking designed for any layperson who has ever wondered: “What does a film producer actually do?” Covering development through distribution, film fans and future filmmakers are offered an insider’s look behind the magic of the movies.
Festival registration is now open to the public with three tiers of badges available for purchase through VIFF’s website: a three-film, a six-film, and a ten-film package for the most dutiful cinephiles. Patrons can purchase single day-of screening tickets if there aren’t enough badge holders to fill the theater to capacity.
In conclusion, Sayre says, “Our motto is that we’re ‘putting the independent back in film festival.’ Whether good or bad, a lot of festivals have moved away from showcasing independent films, instead preferring content produced and/or distributed by major studios or streamers. Our goal is to focus on programming a high-quality line-up of truly independently-produced films. We also think our visiting guests and patrons will find something residents already know: that the island is one-of-a-kind. Vashon is one of the most beautiful settings in the country, if not the world.
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About Vashon Island Institute
Founded by veteran independent film producer Mark Mathias Sayre, the Vashon Film Institute is dedicated to fostering independent filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest, including the launch of two unique programs: the Vashon Island Film Festival and Vashon Scholars, a multi-week summer film intensive education program it plans to host for youth on the island starting in 2023. Its Board of Directors presently includes three individuals with island roots: Maura Little, Isaac Mann, and Peter Serko.