Portland Film Festival Executive Director & Co-Founder Josh Leake took time out of his hectic film festival planning schedule recently to talk with #DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary. Topics covered include: 59% of the films in this year’s program are directed by women, the importance of including a wide range of voices in film, the importance of screening committees and community building, and more. Portland Film Festival runs October 30 – November 5, 2017. Stay tuned tomorrow for a new #DirectedbyWomen Conversation with a number of women directors who have feature films in #PDXFF17.
DBW: Josh, how are you doing? You’re pretty busy I take it.
JL: It’s always the mad dash to make sure everything’s perfect.
DBW: Thanks for taking some time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.
DBW: I’ve been really delighted over the last few years to be celebrating with your festival in September during the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party. It’s been a great pleasure and now this year you moved back to October/ November, but I still feel like we’re celebrating together.
JL: I know. That was one of the cool things about our timing was that it coincided with you guys. We’ve always done stuff together. Unfortunately it came down to our venue. In the past we’ve been in twelve theaters and we decided for logistics we’d buy out a whole theater for seven days versus go to twelve theaters over seven days. And the venue’s employees like to drink and camp over Labor Day Weekend.
DBW: So they did not want your festival interrupting that.
JL: I mean they loved having us, but it felt like they hated us at the same time, so we sat down with them and I said, “When’s the best time to do this festival?” and they said, “October would be great” and I thought it would be kinda fun to do it around Halloween, so that’s kind of why we did it. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be part of the #DirectedbyWomen party. I really liked it, but change is good.
DBW: I also of course think that we celebrate women directors all year round obviously.
JL: There you go.
DBW: … but you know one of the fun things about having a concentrated period of time like a festival or like the Worldwide Film Viewing Party, which you know is a loose configuration of different people’s activities, is the celebration and community building capacities are so strong.
DBW: So one of the things that I wanted to say is I’m very excited to hear that 59% of your films have women directors this year. That’s really cool.
JL: Yeah, definitely. We’re excited about ALL our directors. It wasn’t something we sat down and planned. We played our favorite films and it turns out that a huge majority of those were directed by women.
DBW: Something I remember from last year I had a chance to do some interviews with some of the women who had films there and then they were reporting to me how much fun it was for them to show up at your festival.
DBW: On those occasions when a lot of directors get up on stage together they looked around and they weren’t the only woman there you know, so it’s a sign that there are opportunities for film lovers and filmmakers to come together and see the transition from how it had been in the past to where we can go now, which is having opportunities for a wide variety of different voices to be heard and I’m really excited about that.
JL: Me too. That’s definitely what we say when we talk with people about our festival. It’s about not just listening to one voice, but hearing different perspectives. It’s so important in today’s world to have different perspectives and not necessarily the mainstream Hollywood. It’s nice.
DBW: Talk a little bit about your Indigenous Voice program. That seems very exciting.
JL: It is. We looked at things that you felt were interesting and things that were not as commercial in the sense that you don’t really see a lot of indigenous films being made and we felt we found so many of them of them this year that we should definitely highlight and screen them. I’m excited, because the films are awesome—not just because they talk about indigenous issues. Like one of the films we’re doing is called UNAUTHORIZED! The Fighting Sioux. It’s about sports teams taking indigenous icons and using them. Is that right? Is that wrong? So definitely there are a lot of different films we’re playing. And of course our opening night film When they Awake, which is an amazing documentary. I’m just super excited about it. We actually have a lot of Native Americans that volunteer at the festival and on our staff, so we’re definitely not just interested in one type of film. We like the idea of variety. That’s what makes life interesting.
DBW: That’s great. I agree. I was happy to hear you say people are involved in your staff, because sometimes it is really a challenge to bring a wide variety of kinds of films to the festival, if you don’t have enough diversity in your community of people who are making the choices. It’s not always easy to understand what’s unique and powerful about films that you maybe aren’t so familiar with, which I think one of the big challenges we have at this time.
JL: I agree. Three fourths of our staff are women and half are diverse so we have a lot of different perspectives in age, gender… and I think it makes us a really strong family. And I really love that. We’re all volunteers. People and watch and pre-screen for us are past filmmakers. There are other filmmakers. They’re not just in Portland. We have screeners that are around the world, which is awesome.
DBW: If somebody wanted to get involved as a screener, who would they reach out to?
JL: Our Director of Submissions Molly Silverstein is in charge of that process, but we don’t let anyone join. It’s gotta be someone that has some kind of filmmaking background or a film degree or a past filmmaker that’s screened with us.
DBW: That makes sense.
JL: But definitely if you were interested in screening, obviously you are a professional. We’d definitely encourage someone like yourself.
DBW: The reason I was thinking about it, Josh, is a lot of time when I speak with filmmakers… I try to reach out in my work to women… I focus on women filmmakers because I feel that a lot of women aren’t aware of their work. My take is as a film lover I think people are deprived if they don’t see these wonderful films. Of course we can’t see everything, but if you don’t know it’s out there you can’t be looking for it. So I like to proceed from that perspective.
JL: I agree.
DBW: I like to bring attention to festivals like yours that have exciting filmmakers and there’s an enthusiasm, so we can feel connected, even though we can’t all have a chance to go to your festival. We can learn and keep an eye out for these films, so what I was thinking about in terms of screening committees is I notice that a lot of younger filmmakers or filmmakers who are newer to the process are not familiar with the complexities of trying to choose a program. Sometime they feel when their films are not selected that they feel a sense of rejection of their work and I often think that filmmakers would benefit so much from serving on screening committees and seeing what’s out there and have a more complex view of the process.
JL: I agree. I met a filmmaker once who told me that he didn’t like to watch movies, but he had the ability to speak to people. Very egotistical. I think that’s the old way of making movies. I think the new way of making movies is more collaborative. It’s about empathy. It’s about letting other voices be heard and letting other voices take charge. I think that’s definitely important. And you’re right. The screening committee is so important. We created a new system this year. It took us a while to make sure everything got screened. We ended up getting about 500 more submissions in the last week than we expected, so we had to push our announcement back by two weeks, because we wanted to make sure we watched everything, which we did, and we were even able to program some more films, which was awesome. We always keep some slots open in case we find something. Even now we have about two or three slots open. I think it’s just really an honor to watch the movies. People put so much of their heart into them. It’s such an honor.
DBW: Can you talk a little bit about what your festival does to make sure filmmakers can be in attendance?
JL: That’s a good question. First off, if you submit to our festival, you can come to our festival for free. We’ll give you an industry pass. This year we received several thousand submissions.
DBW: So if you submit a film to the festival—whether or not your film screens—you’re still welcome to attend?
JL: Yes. We encourage it. Because we consider ourselves an industry film festival. Every year we spend so much money flying professionals in to do workshops, classes and really I think one of the coolest things about our festival is the connections that you can make, the networks. It’s awesome. My two team leaders Diane and Diana are in charge of fifty or so workshops this year. It’s awesome. For example we have Leslie Dixon with us this year.
DBW: I heard she was going to be there. That’s exciting.
JL: She really likes the festival. She’s come back a couple of times. She’s teaching screenwriting classes. She sells stuff to the biggest names out there, so it’s pretty cool to have people giving back. I think that’s something that’s pretty special about the festival. And exciting.
DBW: I really like that. When you were saying earlier about new ways of making films, one thing that I think of is any filmmaker is actually not just making a separate piece of work, but they’re making something that’s part of a greater conversation in the cinema world. When you have a chance to come together and not only watch films and talk to filmmakers, but to learn what other people are thinking about what goes into making them, you can break out of those old models and advance us in really interesting ways. One of these days I’m going to make it out there to your festival. I would love to. I always feel like I’m there in spirit.
JL: I hope you can.
DBW: Is there anything else that you’re really excited to tell people about what’s happening this year in the festival?
JL: We’re screening tons of films. We’re really building a community. Everything’s within a few blocks of each other, which is awesome. Every day during the festival we’re doing a Directors Coffee Chat at noon. We’re doing this downtown Portland right in the middle of the city. Directors will talk about their movies. We’re catering it and serving drinks, so we should have a lot of people in attendance to listen to the directors’ talk. It’s really just a celebration of film. We think that there are so many amazing directors that we’re screening this year. We’re just excited. We usually have a lot of people associated with the films attend. Last year we had hundreds of cast, directors, producers come for the films that we screen. I expect this year to have as many coming as well.
DBW: That’s good. In the next few days as part of the #DirectedbyWomen Conversation series I’m putting together a blog post highlighting some of the women who have feature films in your festival, because I find that helps people to get a feel for some of these filmmakers. It’ll also tell people which filmmakers are going to be present so they can keep an eye out for them.
DBW: I am taking a little break in November as I’ve been doing this nonstop for the last three and a half years. Let’s think again. Next year will be the fourth anniversary of the Worldwide Film Viewing Party. If there are some things we can do to highlight activities around Portland, I’d love your thoughts on that.
JL: We’ll definitely try to put some things together. That would be awesome.
DBW: And of course let’s continue our collaboration. it’s been a real pleasure. I really appreciate it. I know you have a ton of things to do. I don’t want to keep you.
JL: I appreciate you reaching out to the filmmakers. I know they really love to have their films written up.
DBW: My pleasure. Thanks. Have a great festival.