Experimental media in Portland is fractured. If that meant abstruse, mind-splattering and totally fucking bonkers, it'd be a good thing. But it's more literal. In the last three years, the local scene became decentralized as Matt McCormick's Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival went on indefinite hiatus. The fest, oft-abbreviated as PDX Fest, folded following an eight-year run that established Portland as a stronghold for convention-busting, non-narrative cinema. Without a unifying event tying them together, the city's video artists and avant-garde filmmakers scattered. They were left innovating into a void.
It's a void Grand Detour has labored to fill. Established in 2010, the art collective hoped to pick up the mantle, producing programs with local and international work in galleries and art spaces across town. Taking a looser do-it-yourself approach than its comrades at Cinema Project, Grand Detour is, in the words of founder Dustin Zemel, "the house shows of experimental media."
On Saturday, May 19, Grand Detour launches its inaugural Experimental Film Festival Portland (or EFF Portland, for short). Featuring 85 short films, 15 video installations and seven performance pieces, it's the biggest showcase of experimental media in Portland since PDX Fest went dark. For Zemel and partners Hannah Piper Burns and Ben Popp, the festival is the culmination of two years of networking, and the work has caught up to them. âWe bit off more than we can chew,â Burns says.
A festival of this size and scope was never Grand Detour's ultimate aim. "We didn't know what we were going to be at first," Zemel says. "Our main goal was just to facilitate experimental media. There was so much of it going on, but there was no real communication, in the city but also outside the city." Screening films from around the country—and some from as far away as Sweden and France—that wouldn't have made it to Portland otherwise, audiences grew to the point that putting on a festival seemed almost obligatory, Zemel says.
Sifting through more than 400 submissions, the group sorted the final selections into six themed programs presenting a fluid definition of experimental film: Eruption, culling together the festival's most "amped-up" films; Mycology, a psychedelic brain-melt; the Near Side and the Far Side, highlighting local and global artists, respectively; Magma Flow, a diverse Saturday matinee; and the Upper Crust, a two-part best-of chosen by the curators. Included among those is everything from Bryan Boyce's Walt Disney's Taxi Driver—a clever mash-up in which Travis Bickle's prophecy of a great rain washing the scum off the streets is brought to fruition by Tinkerbell—and Charlotte Taylor's The Edge of Summer, an installation using mirrors to create the illusion of a 3-D film shot in 16 mm. "There's a video with monster trucks in it," Zemel adds. "It's unlike any other monster-truck documentary you've ever seen. It's beautiful and poetic. But it's also…monster trucks!"
On the festival's final day, May 27, at the Hollywood Theatre, veteran Portland filmmaker Vanessa Renwick presents Charismatic Megafauna, a documentary on her life growing up in Chicago with a pet wolf dog. The screening is preceded that afternoon by a panel discussion on the history of experimental filmmaking in Portland, featuring McCormick. It's a means of paying homage to PDX Fest, Burns says, while also connecting EFF Portland to its legacy of support. "There are new experimental filmmakers being spawned every day," Burns says, "and we want to create a community where they can thrive.â
SEE IT: The first Experimental Film Festival Portland runs May 19 and 22-27. Check effportland.com for full schedule.