Movie News & Reviews

New film, workshops, virtual reality and more at Tacoma Film Festival

A still from “The Send-Off” by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, in the 25 New Faces series at the Tacoma Film Festival.
A still from “The Send-Off” by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, in the 25 New Faces series at the Tacoma Film Festival. Courtesy

The Tacoma Film Festival — now in its 11th year and hosted by The Grand Cinema from Thursday through Oct. 13 — always aims to bring in new films. This year sees the inclusion of new local studios, new events, even a weekend of new virtual-reality technology. The festival will bring 23 of this year’s 25 New Faces named by Filmmaker magazine. Experts will give new workshops in animation and crowd-funding, hosted in two new Tacoma studios. The festival added two series, including Brown Bag Shorts and screenings for The Grand’s science and sci-fi series.

“We have more staff at The Grand, and so more new ideas we can utilize,” says festival director Laura Marshall.

In total, more than 145 films and 13 events will happen in just one week at eight venues across the city.

New venues for workshops include Have Not Films, just opened on the Hilltop by Tacoma filmmaker Sean Patrick Burke, and the new Breaker Studios gallery just south of The Grand.

But, as always, Marshall says the overriding goal of the festival is storytelling.

“I let the stories help decide what I program,” she says.

One example is the shorts packages. No longer cast as “Animated” or “Family,” they’re now in groups around a theme such as family dynamics or perception — that not everything is what it seems to be.

As for more events?

“We wanted to give people a broader experience and dive into the films,” Marshall says.

New technology

The future is here, and it looks a lot like this: You’re in the middle of a rock band studio in Los Angeles. In front is a sofa, behind you the keyboard, above are tall ceilings, below a concrete floor. As the music wafts around you, so do the band members, two or three images of each musician like dreamy holograms. Words of the song appear in midair and poof away like smoke; a street image from outside circles you in a transparent layer. You’re in the 360-degree world of virtual reality, and this music video is just one of the VR films to be shown in a weekend-long experience Oct. 7-9.

“Gaming and cinema are going to merge,” says Kim Voynar. “The future of cinema is interactive.”

“The audience will be the cinematographer,” says Nathaniel Pinzon.

Pinzon and Voynar are a Seattle couple that make up Wondertek, a company that creates and curates VR film. At the new Breaker Studio gallery, they’ll be presenting the festival’s free VR weekend, called “The Veldt” after the Ray Bradbury sci-fi story of a family who disappears forever into a virtual world.

Visitors Oct. 8-9 will get to try on a Samsung Gear headset and watch several shorts in various genres, play with a virtual marimba created by Seattle’s Evie Powell, even watch themselves as Voynar and Pinzon film the event using a Samsung 360 camera.

At the VIP party Oct. 7 ($10), Tacoma artist Chris Jordan will “paint” a virtual 360-degree artwork using the software Tiltbrush (think Illustrator and AfterEffects in surround 3-D) while his brother Will Jordan plays live music. Chris Jordan’s artwork will then be on view through the headsets for the rest of the weekend. FabLab will be making cardboard-framed VR headsets onsite.

And Oct. 9, a happy hour salon will offer conversation with some of the film’s creators, plus Dr. Thomas Furness, one of VR’s original inventors.

“He’s like the Dumbledore of VR,” says Voynar. “He’s lived through 50 years of virtual reality.”

While VR has been around for a while (flight simulations, for instance) VR film is still in its infancy. Voynar and Pinzon, who got into the business three years ago via music videos, find themselves on the evangelizing end, consulting with businesses and trying to convince Hollywood what’s coming down the track.

“It’s like digital was in the 1990s,” says Voynar, who worked for Kodak just before digital film devastated it.

The VR films, while not artistically perfect, are mesmerizing — despite the dorky headset and swivel chair you need to experience them. On view at The Veldt will be Lillian Mehrel’s “Haunt,” an eerie view of the world through the eyes of someone who’s died — perfect for the odd VR experience of feeling completely inside a space with nobody noticing you. There’s a sneak-peek of Wondertek’s own music video, and “Ashes,” a dance film by Jessica Kantor filmed on an empty beach. On your left a couple dances passionately; in front of you the same girl discovers her lover’s body washed up and drowned; on your right she’s returned to scatter his ashes. It’s a hypnotic use of backward and forward footage, stitched seamlessly together to play with space and time as only VR can do.

“360 changes the nature of storytelling completely,” says Pinzon.

New filmmakers, genres

A big part of the festival is new film, and this year sees a return of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces and a feature produced by Burke.

The filmmaker, who moved to Tacoma three years ago to be midway between the film centers of Seattle and Portland, just opened Have Not Films in the Alberta Canada building at South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The studio will produce films and host community workshops, beginning with a film animation workshop for the festival.

Burke is the producer for “As You Are,” a grunge-era teen thriller produced by Burke and starring Charlie Heaton (“Stranger Things”) and Amandla Stenberg (“Hunger Games”) that will open the festival 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at The Grand. A coming-of-age story that doesn’t end well for one of the protagonists, it was filmed in a small town in upstate New York. Marshall discovered the film at Sundance, where it won the special jury award.

“I really want to have Tacoma develop a bigger film industry,” says Burke, who’s also teaching media students at Pacific Lutheran University. “(It’s) the most logistically sound place in Washington — close to the airport, great parking, beautiful locations, no traffic … (and) the Tacoma Film Festival is doing a good job.”

The festival also features new film in the form of the 25 New Faces series. Of the 25 filmmakers on this year’s list (described by Filmmaker magazine as a “geological survey” of new film), 23 are expected to be at the festival, holding Q&As after their film is screened. Some will be “secret screenings” — unnamed and unpublicized while the filmmakers wait for their official premiere at a bigger festival.

This year, many of the filmmakers are women or artists of color. Two of those are Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, better known as the characters Shugufta and Fatima in their comedy web series “Shugs and Fats.” Winner of the 2015 Gotham Award for breakthrough short film, the series takes a funny look at what happens when two hijab-wearing Muslim women attempt to reconcile their beliefs with a hip Brooklyn lifestyle.

“For me, the 25 New Faces has been such an honor,” says Vaz, who’ll be at the festival with Manzoor at the Saturday shorts screening Oct. 8. “As a standup comedian and improv actor trying to do something different, you don’t expect this kind of feedback.”

“It gives us a huge confidence to move forward in this career,” says Manzoor.

The very fact that the makers of a web-based series of three-minute sketches are welcomed into both film festivals and a filmmakers-to-watch list is a sign the film world is changing, both say.

“It shows a deeper respect for all platforms,” Manzoor says.

And the fact that Vaz (born in Mumbai) and Manzoor (born into a Pakistani family in Britain) are South Asian women filmmakers is another sign of change.

“I think we’re still rarities (in the filmmaking world,”) says Vaz. “The landscape is changing too slowly. People of color are still not properly represented.”

Which makes the 25 New Faces — and it’s real-world incarnation at the Tacoma Film Festival — all the more important.

“The polarization of Islam means there aren’t enough nuanced voices out there,” points out Manzoor. “I hope this will inspire more South Asians, especially women, to step forward into the storytelling world.”

New events at new venues

While some of the Tacoma Film Festival events are the same — the opening night and after-party (7 p.m. Thursday at The Grand), a Friday feature (7 p.m. Oct. 7), family shorts and donuts (10 a.m. Oct. 7, both at the Blue Mouse), the awards ceremony (10 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Zodiac Supper Club) and the closing film and party (7 p.m. Oct. 13, both at The Grand), there are many new events this year held at some new venues. Most are free.

One is the animation workshop (2 p.m. Oct. 10) at Have Not Studios led by Benson Shum, an animator whose films include “Frozen,” “Wreck-it Ralph,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and Disney’s upcoming “Moana.” He’ll share his creative process and how to turn it into a career.

Another workshop, this time at The Grand, will teach how to crowd-fund film. It will led by staff from crowd-funding platform and festival partner Seed and Spark (11 a.m. Oct. 8). Funding indie film without having to go to big investors is a relatively new technique, says Marshall, and the festival supports it by giving free entry to films with more than 500 Seed and Spark followers.

Other new events include Brown Bag shorts programs (12:15 p.m. Oct. 10-12), timed for workday lunch hours and including free lemon bars and brownies.

“Weekdays are usually slow for the festival, and we wanted to give people the chance to relax during their work day,” says Marshall.

Other special screenings include films that are part of The Grand’s Science on Screen (“Top Gun,” 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at The Grand with pre-film talk by a naval aviator) and Weird Elephant sci-fi/horror film series (“The Monster,” 10 p.m. Oct. 7 at Blue Mouse).

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Tacoma Film Festival

When: Thursday-Oct. 13; The Veldt VR 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Oct. 7 and noon-8 p.m. Oct. 8-9.

Where: The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma; The Blue Mouse Theatre, 2611 N. Proctor St.; Breaker Studios, 747 S. Fawcett Ave.; Have Not Studios, 1102 S. 11th St. and other venues.

Tickets: Opening film $20; Friday feature $10; The Veldt VIP Party $10; The Veldt and all workshops free; other films $8-$10 (discounts for Grand Cinema members).

Information: Full schedule, venue details and tickets at