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This weekend, the annual McMinnville Short Film Festival returns from February 23 - 25th, providing a platform for international and local filmmakers from across the Pacific Northwest to share their work in genres ranging from animation, comedy, experimental, horror and documentary film.

Heather Older, executive director of the McMinnville Short Film Festival, said a favorite part of the weekend festival is the opportunity for filmmakers and film lovers to engage in meaningful conversations on a range of narrative topics, including centering and uplifting Native American communities.

“Elevating Indigenous voices in Oregon is a top priority of mine,” Older said.

A decade ago, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde became a sponsor for the festival, which Older said organically led to the creation and sponsorship of the Shawash Ilihi Award in 2020 to show support for cultural art and films by Native American filmmakers, or films that foster the understanding of culture and contemporary issues Indigenous people face.

In Chinook wawa, Shawash Ilihi means “Grand Ronde Native land,” according to Jordan Mercier, cultural education coordinator at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center.

“In 2020 we began awarding the Shawash Ilihi Award to the winner in Native American film category,” Older said. “We are very proud and grateful for our continuing partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.”

Ohskennon:ten Owi:ra (Little Deer), directed by Jonathan Elliott, explores the resilience of Indigenous youth, the power of friendship and the intergenerational impacts the residential school system has had on Indigenous people and communities.(Photo courtesy of McMinnville Short Film Festival)

This year, there are six films up for the Shawash Ilihi Award. They range from a stunning stop motion animation of a Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw elder, to a daring escape from the Mohawk Institute Residential School, to a film on the Bear Dance that was produced by Native youth. The full list includes Athegus, directed by Glen Reid, Maziar Ghaderi, Canada; Horse Spirit - A Reflection, directed by Zach Putnam, USA; Indigenous Resistance: Now and Then, directed by Waats’asdiyei Joe Yates, USA; The Bear Dance, directed by Juanita Plentyholes, USA; Tiny, directed by Ritchie Hemphill, Ryan Hache, Canada; and Ohskennon:ten Owi:ra (Little Deer), directed by Jonathan Elliott, Canada.

Past winners include: Grey Horse, the 2023 winner, directed by Emil Lozada; The People's Newspaper, winner in 2022, directed by Eléonore Léo Hamelin; Can The Blueback Survive?, by the Northwest Treaty Tribes, which won in 2021; and the inaugural winner: Even In The Silence, directed by Jonathan Elliott.

In addition to the Shawash Ilihi Award, Older said the festival is launching a new program in partnership with Oregon Film this spring that will be awarding a $10,000 film grant to an Oregon based Indigenous filmmaker..

From UFO video contest to international film festival


Thirteen years ago, Dan and Nancy Morrow, owners of the local video store Movietime Video, volunteered to sponsor the UFO Video Contest. The response was overwhelmingly positive and led to the creation of the annual McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Today, filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world travel to the rural community of McMinnville, Oregon for a jam-packed weekend of celebrating and uplifting the art of independent film and visual storytelling.

“The goal is for people to have access to independent film and emerging storytellers,” said Older. “We want to raise visibility to underrepresented voices.”

The festival celebrates the art of independent film with the intention of introducing emerging creative voices from as far as Africa, Canada, Estonia, Turkey and more, Older said.

The annual McMinnville Short Film Festival returns from February 23 - 25th, providing a platform for international and local filmmakers from across the Pacific Northwest to share their work in genres ranging from animation, comedy, experimental, horror and documentary film. (Photo courtesy of McMinnville Short Film Festival)

The McMinnville Short Film Festival has grown from a few local films to a multi-day, internationally recognized film festival, recently featured in MovieMaker Magazine as one of “20 Great Film Festivals in Vacation Destinations.”

“Success for us is when people come out of the theater and feel moved by what they just watched – whether it's an inspiring film in the Native American category, a thought provoking documentary, a narrative story about a cultural experience different from their own, or a hearty laugh from a relatable, original comedy,” Older said.

‘There are more than just words to a story’

Ritchie Hemphill, director of “Tiny,” is both a filmmaker and recording artist who grew up on Tsulquate reserve in Canada and was raised by his community, the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw people.

Hemphill’s film is a contemplative stop motion film that tells the story of his mother, ‘Nakwaxda’xw elder Colleen Hemphill, as she reflects on her childhood, living harmoniously with her community and nature while growing up on a float-house in Pacific Northwest and its waters.

In 2015, Hemphill co-founded the award-winning stop motion animation studio Bronfree Films with his film partner Ryan Haché. Since then, Hemphill said, he has made it his goal to create art that is healing for himself and for his people.

Ritchie Hemphill grew up on Tsulquate reserve and was raised by his community, the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw people. He is currently living on Coast Salish territory on Vancouver Island, Canada. Ritchie is both a filmmaker and a recording musician, working to create art that is healing for himself and for his people. (Photo courtesy of McMinnville Short Film Festival)

The film aims to celebrate the life and identity of his mother, Colleen, by sharing the gift of her presence and stories with audiences. Hemphill made the film largely with computers. He said he worked on the film in the city, and didn’t get enough nature time, which gave him an opportunity to truly question his values and the things he prioritizes.

“I feel her story is an important reference for me personally because so many precious aspects of the way of life that she and her family led are now things we often have to imagine, if we even get a chance to imagine them,” Hemphill said. “Things like living much more harmoniously with the land, being dependent on family and friends in a deeper way, and having space geographically and in time to have an expansive, wandering, unbounded outlook and spirituality.”

Colleen Hemphill said in an email that she is honored that her son was interested in telling her story.

“My son Ritchie worked with and brought out all the subtle nuances and made the stories work in spite of the actual spoken words,” Colleen said. “There are more than just words to a story, — especially for a ‘quiet girl’.”

Movie poster for Tiny, a stop motion animated short film directed by Ritchie Hemphill and animated by Ryan Haché. (Photo courtesy of McMinnville Short Film Festival)

Initially, Ritchie Hemphill said, Bronfree started when he and his close friend Ryan Haché started making abstract short films that they would finish within a day. Each one was between one and five minutes long. Hemphill said they mainly focused on capturing and sharing raw expression and emotion, over production and editing.

“We never dreamt back then that we would eventually make films that people could enjoy seeing, but seven or so years on, we now create films with elements of more traditional story craft,” he said. “However, the main reason we still make every single film we do is so we can explore the emotions that will arise from the world and texture that emerges throughout the process of creation.”

There has been a lot of growth in the past thirteen years, as the McMinnville Short Film Festival has grown from an UFO video contest, to an international film festival. One thing that has remained the same, is the end goal to enlighten, educate and provide exposure to filmmakers, while simultaneously enriching the rural community of Yamhill County with a diverse, inclusive and cultural experience.

For more information on the McMinnville Short Film Festival, or to watch “Tiny” and the other films, visit https://mcminnvillefilmfest.org/

Lead image: In this still from the stop motion short film Tiny, directed by Ritchie Hemphill and animated by Ryan Haché, Colleen Hemphill’s animated character holds a fishing hook. (Photo courtesy of McMinnville Short Film Festival)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....