News Column

Tacoma Film Festival not your typical film festival

October 4, 2013


Oct. 04--Scrap metal collectors. Panhandlers. Stoners. Naked bicycle riders. Bible quiz contestants. Freeze-dried pets.

Cast your eyes down the program for the Tacoma Film Festival this week, and you'll notice quite a few odd film topics -- most with local connections.

But the 2013 Tacoma Film Festival isn't just a great place to see some wacky stories. The small festival is increasing in stature among filmmakers, and it's on a mission to help grow the Northwest film industry.

"We're trying to create a new audience for local film," says Laura Marshall, a local film graduate who's in her first year directing the annual festival that operates out of Tacoma's Grand Cinema. "We have some great Grand supporters, but a lot of young people are not in that community. We're hoping to bring that (group) over."

It's easy to see how some of the festival's films -- and venues -- might appeal to a younger demographic.

Playing Friday at Tacoma Community College (a new venue this year, and one with which Marshall collaborated on film selections) is "The Otherside," a documentary by Daniel Torek about Seattle's growing underground DIY hip-hop movement. At TCC on Friday night is "Bible Quiz," a coming-of-age story by Tacoma native Nicole Teeny that follows teens from Tacoma's Life Center church as they compete in a national Bible memorization competition.

There are documentaries on the legalization of marijuana ("Evergreen," Tuesday at the University of Washington Tacoma, also a new venue), a scrap metal collector ("Scrapper," Monday at the Grand), Seattle's panhandlers ("Cardboard," Sunday at Tacoma Art Museum) and America's largest commune ("American Commune," Sunday at the Grand).

There's "Beyond Naked," the story of four first-timers in the Fremont solstice naked bicycle ride (Sunday at the Grand), and "Furever," a compassionate look at people who preserve their pets through taxidermy, freeze-drying or mummification (Saturday at the Grand).

Then there are the usual Tacoma-made and animated shorts (always guaranteed to include some oddities), a new block of science-fiction shorts, and a festival package called Manhattan Shorts that is not suitable for those younger than 13.

Though this year's festival might seem as if it's leaning toward wacky to get attention, the subject matter is just a coincidence, Marshall says.

"We wanted to focus on more Northwest features and shorts," says Marshall, who used Internet Movie Database's Without a Box online submission method to get the 400 films submitted for this year's festival. While Marshall admits that short films "are stepping stones for filmmakers" because of their low cost, she also made it a criteria of all films over 60 minutes that they have a local connection or personnel. Twenty judges helped Marshall select the festival's 123 films -- about the same number as in recent years.

The result is a buffet of local films that go deeper into their subject matter. "Barzan," by Alex Stonehill and Bradley Hutchinson (Sunday at the Grand), goes to the heart of religious prejudice in following a suburban Seattle Iraqi family accused of terrorism. "Bible Quiz" takes a step back from religious pigeonholing and instead focuses on teen identity. "Her Aim is True" (Saturday and Tuesday at the Grand) tells the story of Jini Dellaccio, the self-taught '60s rock photographer from Gig Harbor. "Furever," which features a Tacoma pet owner as one of its subjects, explores how we cope with death.

"I had a really tough time coping with my pets' deaths growing up," says "Furever" director Amy Finkel, who grew up in Seattle. "As I aged, it didn't change, and I noticed others went through the same thing."

Drawn to stories she had heard about grieving pet owners who preserved their animals through taxidermy, Finkel first shot a solo short funded through, then expanded the project to an 80-minute feature that got picked up by PBS, won awards and made it big on the festival circuit.

"I had a sensitivity to it," Finkel says. "I knew it could be mocked and sensationalized ... so I went into the psychological aspect."

Finkel won't be at the Tacoma screening, but Gretta Graves -- a Tacoma local who appears in the film with her freeze-dried Pomeranian, Rudy -- will. She'll also bring Rudy.

"The reactions have been varied," says Graves, who preserved Rudy to cope with her grief, but now has three other dogs and keeps the Pomeranian mostly "as a memorial" and a conversation starter.

"During the film, people get angry and upset. Afterward, though, people ask to pet him, hold him. ... There's more understanding, less judgment."

"Beyond Naked" also goes beyond the sheer wackiness of the Fremont naked bike ride and explores social taboos. As director Dan McComb follows four ride newbies, he follows their reactions -- like the single mom who plans to tow her young son behind her, only to confront others' opposition. McComb's challenges included just how to film the "reveal" moments in a way that was "tasteful and not offensive."

"It's about what happens when we move out of our comfort zone," says McComb, a veteran Fremont rider. "By going beyond, we can make discoveries and achievements that we couldn't have dreamed about before."

For Teeny, a Tacoma School of the Arts graduate who grew up attending Life Center church and whose brother is in the film, "Bible Quiz" was a chance to give some perspective to an often caricatured Christian group.

"I'm telling the story from (the heroine) Mikayla's point of view," Teeny says. "It gives the audience an opportunity to explore it, to weigh both sides. It's ultimately more about her coming of age and her relationships. That gives the audience a free pass to put themselves in the film."

Not that the Tacoma Film Festival is all about local films -- there's a balance of national and international films, too, on subjects such as French delicatessens ("Go with Le Flo," Friday night at the Grand) and asylum seekers in Australia ("The Firebird," Friday at TCC).

But the Northwest influence is there, and organizers and filmmakers say that's a good thing.

"We wanted to help promote the Northwest film industry," Marshall explains. "It needs support and could potentially be bigger than Austin's."

Says Finkel: "For a small festival, Tacoma is getting a lot of big, hard-hitting films. I hope Tacomans know how lucky they are to have (it)."

2013 Tacoma Film Festival

When: Friday-Thursday

Where: The Grand Cinema (606 S. Fawcett Ave.), Tacoma Community College (Building #2, near South 12th Street entrance), University of Puget Sound Kilworth Chapel (3410 N. 18th St.), Tacoma Art Museum (1701 Pacific Ave.), University of Washington Tacoma Carwein Auditorium (Keystone building 102, 1900 Commerce St.), Museum of Glass (1801 Dock St.).

Tickets: $10 general admission; $8 Grand Cinema members, seniors; $6 students, Grand member seniors; $150 VIP pass; $50 weekend pass. Films at TCC and UPS cost $2 for college community; films at UWT are free to college community.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@


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