Thomas Phillipson sums up 15 years at the NW Filmmakers’ Fest

The man behind this week's 42nd annual Northwest Filmmaker's Festival says goodbye to Portland and talks about the festival

A Portland tradition since 1973, the Northwest Film Center’s Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival showcases regional work by filmmakers from Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, Idaho and Montana (those last three are technically part of the Northwest). As Regional Services Manager, Thomas Phillipson has been helming the fest since 2000, so he’s seen a lot of on-screen flannel. ArtsWatch writer Lily Hudson spent time with Phillipson to talk about the 42nd year of the festival (which opens Thursday, November 9 and runs through November 18), the newfound diversity of regional film and the despotic rule of the celebrity judge.


ArtsWatch: You’ve been with the NW Film Center a long time. This year’s 42nd Fest marks 15 years and 15 NWFests. What’s been the arc of regional film in your time with NWFC? How has it grown and changed?

Thomas Phillipson: It’s tough to place the development of the Northwest filmmaking community in an arc—it just keeps bubbling and changing all the time. Of course technology has democratized filmmaking, and the Film Center’s glib mission of “putting cameras in the hands of the people” gets quite a lot easier when you move from a 16mm Bolex camera to today’s whiz-bang equipment. You no longer need an army to make your film… or video… or digital media. That means that there can be fewer filters between the auteur and the audience. I’ve been pleased to watch and have tried to especially promote projects that feel like natural expressions of the people who made them, and each year I feel like I have more of these types of films to choose from.

Forty-two years ago, the Film Center was pretty much the only screen in town where you could find super-indy Northwest filmmakers’ work, but that’s just not the case any more. In the new world order of an explosion of content, the Film Center’s curatorial function is all the more important.

While it sounds elitist (because it is) the Film Center’s high curatorial bar lets filmmakers and their audiences know that what they see on our screens is carefully chosen. We strengthen the Film Center’s brand not for the sake of the Film Center, but to be in an optimal position to advocate for the filmmakers whose work is screened here.

Phillipson introduces a film at a previous year's NWFest. Photo by RL Potograpiya.

Phillipson introduces a film at a previous year’s NWFest. Photo by RL Potograpiya.

Does the Pacific Northwest film scene have a ‘personality’ or a way of looking at the world? Is there a perspective that characterizes films coming out of this region? Or themes that come up again and again?

I hesitate to suggest that there is a defining characteristic common to filmmakers living in the Northwest, because that might unfairly suggest that this work is somehow provincial and quaint, when it’s viable on any global standard that I would care about. I’ve looked and looked through the years for something to talk about that is quintessential in Northwest filmmaking, but the work is so varied that any summing up feels forced and exclusive.

Can you tell us a little about the features this year?

I am pleased with the diversity of our feature-length films this year, which might point to that arc you were asking about before. Northwest filmmakers are great at exploring their community, but I see more and more excellent features investigating the world outside the Northwest. We have several features shot overseas (CHRISTIANA: 40 YEARS OF OCCUPATION, DRAWING THE TIGER, MAKE MINE COUNTRY, WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS), as well as other important issue documentaries (ARRESTING POWER: RESISTING POLICE VIOLENCE IN PORTLAND, HADWIN’S JUDGEMENT, THE WAY WE TALK) and some well-told narrative pieces (BIRDS OF NEPTUNE, THE CURIO, DEATH ON A ROCK, SLACKJAW, THE TREE INSIDE) that are finding audiences all over the world. In the same day we are showing the latest work produced by our friends at NW Documentary, VOYAGERS WITHOUT TRACE, and an entirely hand-animated (in cut paper) WWII epic AND WE WERE YOUNG. I’m also quite looking forward to our screening of THE SANDWICH NAZI, a documentary portrait of a colorful, somewhat outrageous deli owner in Vancouver that is an extrapolation of a favorite short of the same name we screened a few NW Fests back.

The ‘shorts’ sections are broken into three themes: Fantasies and Diversions, Tracing Space and Intimate Portraits. How do you define these three themes?

Each year, the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival brings in a new guest judge who watches, selects and offers awards to a few gifted filmmakers (Roughly 10% of the films entered are selected). This year our judge was Steve Anker, who teaches at CalArts and has a long career in programming innovative and challenging work. Steve not only selected the short films this year, but also placed them into their three shorts programs guided by themes he saw in the work, hence the program titles.

Most years, the judges watch the films, tell me which ones they would like to include, and then I am left to place them into programs. I always like to make each shorts program as diverse as possible so any given audience will see a breadth of work being produced in the region. Then there’s the old mix-tape game of controlling the flow of mood throughout the program and also setting each film up to thrive in its position in the lineup. It’s always a delicious challenge for me and I missed not having the opportunity this year, but on the other hand, it’s great when a judge like Steve really digs into the project and goes one step further to solidify a point of view in the programming.

The advantage of the single judge system the NW Fest has stuck to all these years is that we end up with more adventurous programming than anything juried by a committee. The choices in the end are pointedly subjective; there’s no pretense that these are the only films that might have been selected for the festival this year, rather they are one highly regarded professional’s selections. So I’ll dodge your question because part of the fun of watching this year’s shorts programs is to think about how the individual films fit into Steve’s overarching, slightly enigmatic titles.

This is your last year working with the Film Center—any parting words? Hopes or dreams for the future of the NW Filmmakers’ Festival?

Yes, I am pulling up my deeply buried anchor and all the attached barnacles and setting sail for Germany without a clear idea of what comes next for me. There is a large part of me that is a little worried that I am leaving what could be the most rewarding work I will ever do. For me, the job has been first and foremost about getting to know and serve the filmmakers of this region. I have made so many dear, lifelong friends. As the old cliché goes, they have given me much, much more than I have given them. My dreams for the festival no longer have any currency but I look forward to my able and inspired replacement, the very talented filmmaker, Ben Popp, taking the Festival into new exciting directions.

There have been times over the last 15 years when I very selfishly thought of this Festival as my baby, but of course, it’s the Filmmakers’ Festival and its freshness and success relies on them much more than it ever did on me. It’s in great hands.

Thomas Phillipson will be at every screening for the 42nd Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. All screenings are at Whitsell Auditorium located in the Portland Art Museum. Except for one film, which screens at the Skype Lounge. For more information, check the web site.

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