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March 30, 2006

Space orb, drive-in bingo,
furry judge to make film fest cameos
30th Annual Humboldt International Short Film Festival


Eight-year-olds and sailboats. Iranians and party drugs. Turks and love in the mountains. What do they have in common? They are the directors and subjects of films submitted to the 39th Humboldt International Short Film Festival, which runs in Arcata from April 3-8. (Schedule below.)

Only a handful of the more than 130 works submitted for competition will play in the Minor Theatre for the public. First they must clear a pair of daunting hurdles: The Humboldt State University student screening committee and the official trio of judges.

Yet festival organizers promise a bumper crop of quality cinematic works and workshops throughout the week (compliments of the judges), a special guest and, of course, during the final two days, the competition filmmakers.

"I was impressed by the quality of works we received," said Mary Cruse, the HSU faculty advisor to the festival. "The bar has risen this year," she said, mentioning in particular those shot and edited in digital format.

The submissions, which range from 5 minutes to more than 30 minutes, cover a range of styles: experimental, animation, found footage, documentary, narrative and non-narrative, according to Viva Soffian, a student festival co-director. Some that might survive for the final weekend of public viewing include:

Big Ass World of Science: This wacky, whimsical animation from Mike Wellins uses a stream of-consciousness approach to tackle some of science's biggest questions, such as "How Big is Too Big?" and "When is Never Enough?" A nude university, a giant bowling ball and a space shuttle that spits out toast from the payload bay into orbit provide the answers.

Second Sight: Highly experimental, this film is like a time-elapsed collage of fast-moving and morphing shapes, colors, patterns and sounds. Giant gray circles give way to cobwebs of blue, red and white. Hailstones of tiny yellow blobs turn into dancing stars, as chaotic jazz horns flutter. If Jackson Pollack were around, he might be making films like this one from Stephanie Maxwell and Peter Byrne.

The Orb: When a metal ball from space moves into their home, two roommates lose their jobs, their sanity and any hope for a normal dating life. It's tiny, but extremely loud and obnoxious, and makes an incessant whirring racket as it hovers around them non-stop. The orb in this black comedy from Matthew T. Burns is the complete opposite of the pleasure-inducing orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper. A hidden knob might turn it off, or alter the fate of Earth. Must not give away ending.

The fate of these and the other shorts rests in the hands -- or the thumbs, as in up or down -- of the judges, Melinda Stone, Matt McCormick and Vanessa Renwick, all notable West Coast filmmakers. Their selections of top animation, documentary, narrative and experimental shorts, the Best of Fest I and II, will play at the Minor Theatre on Saturday, April 8.

And in the hands of the student festival committee members. Their picks, the People's Choices I and II, will screen the same place and times on Friday, April 7.

The judges, along with special guest Chuck Hudina, a San Francisco experimental filmmaker who briefly taught at HSU, will show selections of their films at the Minor at 7 p.m., from April 3 to 6. In the afternoons on the same days, they will host free public workshops from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in room 117 of the HSU Theater Arts building.

Stone, a Eureka native and HSU grad who teaches film at the University of San Francisco, looks forward to returning home.

"Humboldt's fest has always been known as a haven for more experimental work," she said. "This is a good thing, as so many festivals these days seem to overwhelmed by cookie-cutter approaches to narrative filmmaking."

She likes to push the viewer film experiences beyond traditional boundaries, regularly wowing film audiences in the Bay Area with works best described as off the wall, or off the side of buildings, or off whatever surface is convenient.

Stone showed one flick on the side of a hill, relying on a carpet of white flowers and a big dose of flour as the screen. Another took viewers on a surreal, back-to-the-future tour of San Francisco's Market Street, ending with a shot of the Ferry Building from the same perspective as the audience that was watching her film.

Perhaps her most ambitious project, The California Tour, an odd collection of amateur films, archive footage, experimental works, sing-alongs and bingo games, paid homage to the nearly extinct American tradition of drive-in theaters, and played on many of the remaining outdoor screens in the state.

"Growing up in Humboldt County is what inspired me to do the California Tour," said Stone, who fondly recalls her visits to the Midway Drive-in between Arcata and Eureka.

"I remember going there when I was a [teenager.] Sneaking in, making out. Where do [high-school kids] go now for that kind of play? The backdrop of the huge images flickering was magical. Someone should buy the place and turn it into a huge alternative paradise. It feels good to be outside watching movies."

The other judges live in Portland, Ore., a rising star in the experimental film, music and art scene.

"There is definitely a lot of stuff going on up here. I think that Portland has become the new San Francisco, the town that young artists from around the country move to," said McCormick, one of the most respected experimental filmmakers in the country.

His documentaries are often non-narrative, a polite way of saying there is absolutely no plot or rational theme.

Brilliant, absurd and funny, his works have combined found footage with a modern voiceover to chronicle the heartbreak of a man in a polar bear suit; stared unblinkingly at a tugboat until it fades into abstract oblivion; and stitched together 1970s TV commercials to create a disaster epic about advertising.

In The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, McCormick wryly makes the case that city workers employed to paint over urban graffiti are themselves artists, comparing their cover jobs to such abstract masters as James Rothko.

Renwick, a self-described cinematic "rabble rouser," has made documentaries that zoom in on a home birth, showcase freeway paintings by a Greek artist and watch a yard art installation grow over time.

When she turns the camera on herself, she is no less probing. One short enlists flaming tampons and Molotov cocktails to dramatize her suffering with Toxic Shock Syndrome. Another puts blurry focus on her feet as she recalls going shoeless for two years.

"The Earth feels really good no matter what it is covered in," she said.

Renwick has nothing but praise for the student organizers of the festival, whom she described as quite accommodating on the subject of a special friend, who will serve as an unofficial fourth judge.

"They were into me bringing my dog, Jack. He's seen a lot of films and knows what's up," she said.


Monday, April 3. Chuck Hudina leads a workshop including the use of multiple projectors at 2 pm, and presents a selection of his own films at 7 pm.

Tuesday, April 4. Matt McCormick leads a workshop focusing on self-distribution for the independent filmmaker at 2 pm, and presents a selection of his own films at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 5. Vanessa Renwick leads a workshop focusing on the ethical dilemmas of documentary filmmaking at 2 pm, and presents a selection of her own films at 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 6. Melinda Stone leads a workshop focusing on travelling cinema at 2 pm, and hosts a discussion about the filmmaking process while presenting a selection of her own films at 7 p.m.

Friday, April 7. Peoples Choice Night I at the Minor Theatre: 7-9 p.m. Peoples Choice Night II at the Minor Theatre: 9-11 p.m. (Favorites of the screening committee)

Saturday, April 8. Best of the Fest I at the Minor Theatre: 7-9 p.m. Best of the Fest II at the Minor Theatre: 9-11 p.m. (Official award winners from the judges)

All workshops are in Room 117 of the HSU Theater Arts building. Admission is free. All films screen at the Minor Theatre in Arcata. Admission is $7.25 ($6.25 with Humboldt State ID, $5.25 for seniors and children). For more info call (707) 826-4113 or visit


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