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At This Free Film Festival, The Filmmakers Sleep in Tents

At This Free Film Festival, The Filmmakers Sleep in Tents

From Sundance to Telluride, Locarno to Palm Springs, there are no shortage of film festivals set in beautiful locales. But The Columbia Gorge International Film Festival (CGIFF)’s setting is unique. Held in the majestic Pacific Northwest, the CGIFF literally integrates film, art and nature with filmmakers sleeping in tents and taking a break from filmgoing to enjoy the outdoors. For the first few days of the free eleven-day festival, filmmakers are invited to go white water rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking in the region, which is about a 40 minute drive from Portland, Oregon and a few hours from Seattle, Washington.

In its eighth year, the festival continues to operate on an unusual model. It’s completely free and festival organizers donate their time. “Nobody gets paid, but we feed everyone and house everyone, or in our case, give them a tent with an air mattress inside,” said festival founder/director Breven Angaelica Warren, who lives in L.A. and spends the rest of the year working at other film festivals.

“I was told by a senior programmer at Sundance that this is my karmic retribution for what I do the rest of the year,” Warren told Indiewire. 

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This year the festival presented over 250 films and screenplays from over 30 countries around the world in all categories, genres and lengths. “There are so many reasons why so many festivals say ‘no’ to great films and I understand those reasons, but there are also so many great artists I would love to show so one of the liberties that we have here is that we can show everything we like,” said Warren. “It’s okay that there may be five films with the same subject matter.”

Though screenings take place at Washougal High School, there are also evening screenings and events on Angaelica Farms, Warren’s parents’ farm, where filmmakers and the festival organizers camp in tents at night.

“I think the camping, which we developed in the last few years, is really unique. You have 50 filmmakers who are basically brushing their teeth together every morning and that creates a really ‘getting to know you’ environment as opposed to just going to an after-party and exchanging business cards,” said Warren. “This is the first year we’re really in the woods and really have a lot of sites….we do hope to build a full shower house next year.”

Warren said that the atmosphere fosters community and creativity. “Last night we had a talent show which went on ’til 3 in the morning. People read poetry and sang songs. We had stand-up comedians perform and they were amazing. I was super-impressed by how many talented people were in the room.” 

Though Warren didn’t grow up in the region, she said her parents are from the Columbia Gorge and moved back there around 14 years ago. “I love the Northwest. I love gardening. I love the outdoors, so everything about this area is ideal. I haven’t figured out a way to afford to actually live up here, so for now, I have a film festival where I get to be with my family and enjoy the Northwestern summers,” said Warren, who works year-round for various film festivals, including AFI, Sundance, TCM and the Los Angeles Film Festival. She’s also a programmer at Outfest and Slamdance.

Unlike most other festivals, there is no special theme for CGIF. “I genuinely don’t have a focus. I pick films I like. I don’t have a theme or an agenda,” said Warren. “We don’t do invitations unless I’ve actually met the filmmaker. We don’t cold call because we get enough submissions. I don’t fight for films. I don’t pay screening fees — obviously, it’s a free festival.”

After meeting with Warren at the festival in August, Indiewire recently reached out by e-mail with some follow-up questions. Below are her responses:

What are your goals for the festival?

Building a network of incredible storytellers. The core of our festival is in fostering community and encouraging the arts, aiming to continue to develop a uniquely intimate destination retreat where artists not only have the opportunity to share their work, but to experience, learn from and bond with other likeminded creators. While film is the heart of the festival, we are also passionate about incorporating other modes of art, from live music, live painting and performance. We also desire for the festival to be an incubator for further creative endeavors. Attending filmmakers have written screenplays during and inspired by the festival, formed spontaneous musical groups and even shot films with the festival as the background setting. Our goal is to make an open and encouraging environment for free expression and artistic exploration.

What sorts of films are you interested in programming?

We show a selection of everything. We have outstanding programmers who screen and select works and we try to put together a very diverse catalog. Of course, there are the professional films, but we also have a heart for student and first-time filmmakers. One of the missions of our festival is to bring talented, aspiring filmmakers alongside tried and true industry professionals. The resulting mentorship environment is incredibly encouraging and stimulating for everyone involved. Successfully developing this environment is an important tenet for our programming team. We also love the films that are impossible to categorize; the films that don’t fit into specific genre: the art films, abstract films, educational films, small stories, and internationally obscure stories. We love to be entertained, educated and confused as often as possible.

How does camping and the setting influence the festival experience?

The camping and the community that arises from this setting are hugely influential to our festival’s experience. Of course you can stay in hotels and happily participate in the festival, but the community really connects and grows over the activities that come with the camping. There is a magic about sharing time on the farm, making breakfast and lounging in the woods over coffee that allows filmmakers to get to know one another and talk about their upcoming projects. We’ve seen so many collaborations come out of the networking here that we are constantly encouraged to create more opportunities for filmmakers to get to know one another. Of course we are all familiar with networking gathering where you share business cards, but when you are literally brushing your teeth with other filmmakers there is a unique opportunity to be in the same kind of environment you will be when it comes to making your films. If you connect well on the farm, then chances are you will also work well together under the pressure of an actual production. It is the same environment that forms unexpected, lasting friendships.

How do you manage to make the festival free? Do you have sponsors? Do you get donations as a non-profit?

CGIFF is financed much the way many of our independent filmmakers make their films. My husband and I put ourselves into an intense amount of debt each year to put on the festival, then work hard for the following year to pay it off. It is a terrible business model, but it is also our passion. We are humbly grateful for many in-kind donations of food and beverage that help. This past year the city of Washougal also supported one of our venues as well as contributed to our marketing expenses via their Hotel/Motel Tax Fund. However, we have yet to find fiscal sponsors with whom we have been able to align our work.

We do believe that we will find sponsors that see the value in our mission for open and accessible art but neither my husband nor I have had any success in grant writing, so we admit our weaknesses. I made my films in a very similar style, personal credit cards and the support of family and friends. I was able to creatively produce some wonderful projects with minimal budgets, but I have never been a fundraiser. The festival comes together the same way. There have been a few persons and organizations over the years who have made supportive contributions that have helped but none of these efforts have ever funded the festival. We are optimistic; or simply crazy.

Find out more about the Columbia Gorge International Film Festival here.

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