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Serious Oscar Contenders Dazzle at 2022 BendFilm Festival

David Siev’s “Bad Axe.”

It was a decade ago that I interviewed filmmaker Todd Looby about his splendid directorial efforts, “Lefty” and “Be Good,” naturalistic marvels that would fit perfectly among the selections at the BendFilm Festival, for which he now serves as Executive Director. Now in its nineteenth year, the festival welcomes filmmakers and cinephiles alike to visit the stunningly picturesque town of Bend, Oregon, and bask in multiple days of magnificent screenings followed by insightful post-film discussions. You can also swing by the last remaining Blockbuster, where I picked up a bag full of goodies, including Lara Gallagher’s Oregon-set gem, “Clementine.” I was startled by just how moved I became while entering a still thriving video rental store and watching the staff exuberantly recommend various obscure and invaluable titles to customers. 

Though the festival’s in-person events wrapped this past weekend, many of its films are still available to screen virtually through Sunday, October 23rd. Looby invited me to serve on the Documentary Feature Jury, and though the category was uniformly strong this year, the one selection that is guaranteed a place on my top ten list for 2022 is David Siev’s “Bad Axe,” an extraordinarily moving portrait of an Asian-American family combating the pandemic and bigotry while attempting to keep their restaurant afloat in rural Michigan. Like the other masterful documentaries produced by Diane Quon, “Minding the Gap” by Bing Liu and “Finding Yingying” by another of this year’s BendFilm jurors, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, “Bad Axe” is a self-interrogating picture in which the director turns the camera on himself as well as his family members in ways that are richly provocative and unflinchingly honest. The stories shared by Siev’s father, Chun, of surviving the Cambodian genocide are occasionally illustrated in the film through excerpts from the director’s shattering debut, the 2018 short “Year Zero,” which would made an excellent special feature on the eventual “Bad Axe” DVD. I had the honor of presenting Siev onstage with an award I got to name myself, the Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Personal Filmmaking. 

The two other non-fiction titles that emerged as clear favorites among all the feature jurors were Reed Harkness’ “Sam Now,” which earned accolades for Best Documentary Feature and Best Editing, and Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s “Sweetheart Deal,” which took home the Best Director prize. Though I was initially put off by the slickness of Harkness’ picture, which accompanies the filmmaker’s search for the mother of his half-brother, Sam, with somewhat repetitive footage of the short films they’ve made since they were kids, the movie comes alive once the mystery appears to have been solved. What follows is a remarkably complex exploration of fractured family dynamics that calls to mind Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” in its nonjudgmental gaze and naked vulnerability. During her acceptance speech, Levine movingly paid tribute to her film’s co-director, who passed away in 2019. What they have crafted is one of the most astonishing studies of a real-life predator ever committed to film, enabling the audience to share in the victims’ sense of violation once they realized they have been groomed. The stigma that seems to prevent uncompromising pictures about female trauma—such as another of the year’s very best films, Jamie Dack’s Sundance prize-winner, “Palm Trees and Power Lines”—from acquiring distribution may pose a threat to this picture, and confining it purely to a limited festival run would be a major loss.

Levar Burton in Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb’s “Butterfly in the Sky.”

Another film sorely deserving of distribution is Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb’s “Butterfly in the Sky,” an utterly euphoric tribute to the glorious long-running television show, “Reading Rainbow.” It joins Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” and Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in honoring the trifecta of children’s educational programming that shaped my understanding of the world in countless profound ways. Like Jim Henson and Fred Rogers, Levar Burton formed a nurturing relationship with his viewers, exuding the sort of warmth that can only emanate from one’s own soul. Oscar-winner Ross Kaufman’s “Of Medicine and Miracles” also moved me to tears with its harrowing and ultimately uplifting account of the controversial yet groundbreaking procedure undergone by a young girl battling leukemia. 

Prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Sam French and Clementine Malpas shot the urgent and infuriating “With This Breath I Fly,” a film about two Afghan women brutally impacted by their country’s abhorrent “justice system” that somehow receives the full support of the European Union. Atin Mehra’s “Being Michelle” also centers on a wrongfully incarcerated woman, and finds inventive ways to have us view the story from her perspective as a deaf person with autism. As for this year’s opening night selection, “The Pez Outlaw” reaffirms Bryan Storkel’s status as a filmmaker whose eye for endlessly entertaining eccentrics is in a league with Errol Morris. Rather than simply milk the oddball plight of his subject, a smuggler of European Pez dispensers, for laughs, he and his co-director/wife Amy Bandlien Storkel succeed in illuminating the humanity of their unconventional subject.

One of the year’s great debut performances is delivered by Malek Rahbani, who received a Special Jury Prize in the Narrative competition for his portrayal of the titular Syrian refugee in Waheed AlQawasmi’s “Jacir.” Lorraine Bracco disappears into the role of Jacir’s racist neighbor with whom he gradually forms an unexpected bond. Rahbani told me that he was inspired in part by Tom Hanks’ work in “The Terminal,” one of the under-loved films of his cinematic hero, Steven Spielberg. When all the feature jurors gathered to deliberate in order to decide which film should receive the festival’s top prize, one selection was on practically everyone’s lips: Dina Amer’s spellbinding and visually audacious debut feature, “You Resemble Me.” As its young heroine attempts to care for her little sister while escaping their hellish home life on the outskirts of Paris, her face literally morphs before our eyes, reflecting the many conflicting selves that reside in us all. 

Former Sundance director John Cooper interviews Tamara Jenkins following a screening of “Private Life” at the 2022 BendFilm Festival. Photo by Matt Fagerholm.

Two of the finest recent films I’ve seen that were shot in Oregon feature unforgettable performances by Jessica Barr, who wrote and starred in her cousin Jessie Barr’s superb debut feature, “Sophie Jones” and Sarah Sherman’s equally haunting short, “September.” Barr served as a co-producer on one of the most wrenching shorts screening at this year’s BendFilm Festival, Emma Duvall’s “Julia,” which is based on the experiences of the director’s mother, who grew up in an abusive orphanage in South Korea. Duvall’s film was the recipient of last year’s $10,000 Underrepresented Voices grant from the festival, one of numerous ways BendFilm has sought to amplify vital cinematic storytellers. “As a filmmaker myself, I have targeted festivals that are in the region where I’m from,” Barr told me. “More and more, festivals like Sundance and Tribeca are just so unreachable and competitive. I always encourage filmmakers in Oregon and in any space to target the regional festivals and begin a relationship there. I feel like almost everything I’ve produced thus far is healing to the people involved, and I’m really only interested in helping people when their project is personal because it can be so therapeutic. It is a gift, and I think that the truer you are in your work, the more people it will touch.” 

This was the first in-person festival I’ve attended since prior to the pandemic, and it was a tremendous joy to converse with various artists whose work has left an indelible mark on my life. While seated next to powerhouse producer Liz Cardenas during the awards ceremony, I told her about the singular experience I had years ago at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, when her film, David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” played to a packed house that remained completely silent as Rooney Mara ate a pie in a single fixed shot over the course of five wordless minutes. I’ve also been a longtime admirer of my fellow juror, Tallie Medel, for years prior to their key role in one of 2022’s most beloved films, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Medel performs in the uproarious comedy trio Cocoon Central Dance Team alongside Eleanore Pienta (star of the brilliant “See You Next Tuesday”) and Sunita Mani (who sports the iconic hot dog hands in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”). Kwan and Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels) produced the trio’s wonderful forty-minute showcase, “Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone,” which is currently streaming on Mubi, and should be sought out by every Daniels fan.  

Honored with the title of Indie Woman of the Year was Tamara Jenkins, the phenomenal director of “Slums of Beverly Hills” and “The Savages,” who joined her husband, Alexander Payne’s frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, for a fascinating hour-and-a-half-long panel moderated by BendFilm’s tireless Head of Festival Programming, Selin Sevinc. I told the couple how the endings of “Sideways,” for which Taylor won an Oscar, and Jenkins’ latest triumph, 2018’s “Private Life,” are two of the best I’ve ever seen in how they refuse to tie up all the loose ends, leaving us with plenty to think about long after the credits roll. Jenkins shared a hilarious quote that speaks to how one can tell whether or not a film is working: you can “feel it in your ass,” since your sphincter will noticeably tighten whenever you sense that something is askew. I then had the great privilege of seeing “Private Life”—a film the vast majority of viewers have been able to see solely on Netflix—at Bend’s Tower Theatre with an engaged audience, and I can honestly say that every moment of that film feels absolutely right, all the way down to that sublime final shot, a masterwork of nuance that would make Mike Nichols proud. Thank you, BendFilm Festival, for reminding me why movies are a communal experience to be savored with as many people as possible.

Best in Show: “You Resemble Me,” Dina Amer
Best Director: Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller for “Sweetheart Deal”
Best Narrative Feature: “The Game,” Ana Lazarevic
Best Documentary Feature: “Sam Now,” Reed Harkness
Best Indigenous Feature: “Uýra: The Rising Forest,” Juliana Curi
Best Outdoor/Environmental Feature: “Au Revoir,” Justin Loiselle and Jonathan Ferguson
Best Cinematography: Bae Jin Baek for “Unidentified”
Best Editing: Jason Reid and Darren Lund for “Sam Now”
Special Jury Award for Excellence in Personal Filmmaking: “Bad Axe,” David Siev
Special Jury Award for Narrative Features: Malek Rahbani for his performance in “Jacir”
Best Narrative Short: “Enjoy,” Saul Abraham
Best Documentary Short: “Meantime,” Michael T. Workman
Best Animated Short: “Ice Merchants,” João Gonzalez
Best Northwest Short: “No Spectators Allowed,” Kanani Koster
Best Indigenous Short: “Daughter of the Sea,” Alexis C. Garcia
Best Outdoor/Environmental Short: “Monumental Divide,” Brian Olliver
Best Student Short: “El Carrito,” Zahida Pirani
Special Jury Award for Social Impact: “One Buck Won’t Hurt,” Christopher Stoudt
Special Jury Award for Animated Short: “The Seine’s Tears,” Yanis Belaid, Eliott Benard, Nicolas Mayeur, Etienne Moulin, Hadrien Pinot, Lisa Vicente, Philippine Singer, Alice Letailleur
Special Jury Award for Personal Vision: “Babysitting,” Patrick Noth

To view the complete virtual festival lineup, which is available for streaming through Sunday, October 23rd, click here.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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