Fade to black.
Show’s over ... or not.
It was very nearly a wrap (at least temporarily) for the beloved cultural calendar staple that is the Port Townsend Film …
Fade to black.
Show’s over ... or not.
It was very nearly a wrap (at least temporarily) for the beloved cultural calendar staple that is the Port Townsend Film Festival this year, a reluctant move on the part of event officials when faced with mandatory restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A bunch of people sitting close together in an enclosed space was the opposite of recommended behavior, and there was just no way around it.
Or so it seemed.
“We were all heartbroken to have to cancel [as] we’re all party-throwers at heart,” said KC Upshaw, the festival’s development and promotion director. “But we understood our commitment to the health and safety of our community. So we felt grateful to be one of the few local festivals for which a digital format was actually feasible. We felt we had an obligation to carry our mission out online this year.”
And so they have, with the 21st annual Port Townsend Film Festival set to begin Thursday, Sept. 24, altered perhaps but having lost nothing in the transition.
A truly diverse array of offerings — feature films and docs, shorts and specials — was revealed when officials debuted the full program, which truly ambitious audiences might actually get through entirely this time as nearly all the content will be accessible 24/7 throughout the event’s entire run.
It is, festival officials said, the event’s primary mission to support independent film — no matter how it’s put in front of an audience. And the streaming medium has, in fact, resulted in a some unexpected benefits, too.
“Friends, family, and filmmakers worldwide can now view our curated content in their own homes,” Upshaw said. “What once was prohibited to those except who could attend in-person in our small remote town one weekend a year is now accessible to a much broader audience.
“Another benefit is the increased opportunity to conduct and share interviews with the filmmakers,” she added.
“We loved hosting filmmakers in our theaters in years past, but not all could attend the festival in-person. In this year’s virtual festival, we have filmmaker interviews with nearly every feature filmmaker.”
In the early days, longtime executive director Janette Force recalled, the event’s emphasis began sliding toward celebrity appearances too much. Of late, however, a balance has been struck in the festival’s programing between the glitz of Hollywood, the excitement of indie cinema, and true social engagement.
“It was very fun to have movie stars, believe me,” Force said. “But they come with their own complexities as well. You have to have security. You have to have some very, very special treatment. And over the years it became clear that our mission — which is sparking community by connecting filmmakers with audiences — was probably getting lost in that urge to take care of the movie stars.”
A particularly brightly shining example of the festival’s ideal synergy, Force said, came in 2015, during which celebrity guests Chris and Marianne Leone Cooper managed to meld love of movies with a related, but very personal, passion.
“Chris is just such a fabulous actor and we showed a number of his films and then Marianne said you know what I’d like you to do is screen ‘My Left Foot,” a beautiful British film about cerebral palsy and a young man who they discovered could read and write because he was writing with one of his toes on his left foot,” Force recalled. “Chris and Marianne had a son named Jesse who had cerebral palsy and, like the character in ‘My Left Foot,’ Jesse was a non-verbal quadriplegic, but he was brilliant. Chris and Marianne dedicated a huge amount of effort to not only help him get a computer that he could operate using his eyes, they mainstreamed him in the classroom with regular students.”
They also enrolled Jesse at a camp, Force said, which might not seem like a movie-worthy plot twist, but it was.
“They sent him to camp up in Vermont and that camp served disabled kids, but their motto is to include everybody,” Force said.
“So they also have a branch of their ... program in Los Angeles where they make movies. So the same year that Chris and Marianne were our guests we had a fabulous film called ‘Becoming Bulletproof.’ It turns out [it was made at] the camp that their son Jesse went to. So we were able to reunite them with the camp directors and we brought a couple of disabled actors to the festival and it was just this beautiful synergy because Chris and Marianne were absolutely committed to connecting with families here in the community with disabled children. We rented the Silverwater [Cafe] and had all of the families and their children come and Chris and Marianne went to every single table, spent time with the families, talked about the challenges and absolutely magical rewards of having disabled kids.”
In a similar vein, several of this year’s offerings — “A Most Beautiful Thing,” “Her Effortless Brilliance: A Celebration of Lynn Shelton Through Film and Music,” and perhaps especially “The Feeling Through Experience” — blend cinematic achievements with real-world work.
“It’s been a beautiful process of continually finding more and more ways to work with social service agencies, Dove House, accessible communities groups, the deaf community — more and more ways that we can bring filmmaker and audiences together and that is beyond satisfying,” Force said.
In a time of “content overload,” Upshaw said, and faced with many viewing options about which the average viewer likely knows little, the role of film festivals as curators of new, notable and important work is more crucial than ever.
“We see our role as providing a curated, quality collection of important films that our team selected just for our community,” she said. “Our role has been and continues to be to connect filmmakers with audiences; just because we can’t all gather in theaters at the moment doesn’t mean that these creators don’t have vital content to share, so our obligation still remains to provide an audience for them.
“We’re fortunate to have 20 years of experience to have gained the trust of our patrons, and we’re confident you’ll all enjoy the selections for this year’s festival,” she added.