Vashon Island’s summer film festival, a beautiful and easy ferry ride from Seattle, is creating a niche as a unique boutique film experience. The friendly, supportive, and culturally-inspired community comes together to share their guest houses, farm-to-table fare, and so much more while enjoying Vashon’s beautiful summer island weather. Set at the newly renovated, family-operated cultural landmark Vashon Theatre and its new outdoor event pavilion, The Backlot, the annual festival will be even more exciting for 2023. This year’s film festival will feature a selection of other events for patrons to experience, including Rock on the Rock, its Saturday Night Soirée, and the Sunday Awards Ceremony. All events will be hosted at The Backlot.
The Vashon Island Film Festival (VIFF) is an event presented by Vashon Film Institute (VFI), a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering independent filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest, and for 2023 will screen 12 features and ten short distinguished films on the festival circuit.
“The Vashon Film Institute has established VIFF as our flagship program for celebrating independent cinema, and its success is vital to our development of other educational programs, events, and workshops focused on youth and the entire community at large,” says VIFF founder Mark Mathias Sayre, an international film producer, and longtime island resident. “If we can engender the creation of more art—and support its creators—in addition to celebrating the art itself, then the institute will fulfill its principal goals. To quote Lawrence of Arabia, ‘Big things have small beginnings.’”
VIFF will screen an array of esteemed features, eight narratives, and four documentaries curated by Sayre and the VFI programming team. “Last year, we discovered that programming the festival ourselves offered the advantage of quality control, and we’re sticking with that model this year by selecting a handful of varied and exceptional films that have resonated with audiences on the festival circuit,” says Sayre. “As such, we have some of the best-performing films from this and last season, including Grand Jury and Audience Award winners from Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Berlinale, and more. In many ways, this is a showcase of 2022-2023’s crème de la crème in competition against each other at a singular festival.”
A distinguished selection of eight narratives and two documentary shorts rounds out the program, and all screenings are slated to occur in person.
“We’ve got coming-of-age stories; children, adults, and families gone wrong; smart, short, and sharp horror; an inspiring examination of a female football league; a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction spy saga; and long-overdue salutes to two of the Pacific Northwest’s most legendary bands, to name a few of our offerings,” says Sayre. “I think there’s something for everyone in this year’s program.”
The narrative features include:
Fresh from its world premiere at SXSW 2023, Lance Larson’s Deadland follows Mexican American U.S. border agent Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina), who is bewildered when an undocumented immigrant he witnessed die reappears days later.
Escaping Ohio, written and directed by and starring former Akron resident Jessica Michael Davis, is a fresh perspective on the teenage rom-com. On the brink of adulthood, Sam (Davis) has dreams of leaving her small town for new adventures in California. But this is unwelcome news to her best friend JJ (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who dares to prove why Ohio is worth sticking around for. The film just had its world premiere at Dances with Films.
In the multiple award-winning I Like Movies, Canadian director, co-producer, and writer Chandler Levack tells the story of Lawrence, a socially inept seventeen-year-old cinephile who gets a job at a video store, where he forms a complicated friendship with his older female manager. The film took home awards from Calgary, Santa Barbara, and Miami.
Writer-director Paris Zarcilla brings the horror/mystery/drama mashup Raging Grace to Vashon from SXSW, where it won the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Features. Joy is an undocumented Filipina immigrant struggling to do her best for her daughter when she secures a job taking care of an extremely wealthy but terminally ill old man. The new position pays well, but Joy and her daughter Grace start to realize everything is not as it seems: Something dark is festering beneath the surface, threatening all they have worked for.
Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper captured the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance this year. Following her mother’s death, a resourceful 12-year-old girl, Georgie (Lola Campbell), continues to live alone in their London-outskirts flat. She makes money stealing bikes with her friend, Ali (Alin Uzun), and keeps social workers off her back by pretending to live with an uncle. It works like a charm until her estranged father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), appears. Sizing him up as a rubbish dad, Georgie wonders why he’s suddenly taking an interest, especially when she’s doing just fine on her own. Thank you very much.
Directed by Lawrence Chen and produced by Jonathan Hsu, the unique hybrid docu-narrative Starring Jerry as Himself is the story of Jerry C. Hsu, in which he plays himself, a retired, divorced Taiwanese immigrant living in Orlando. Based on a true story, Jerry receives an urgent call from the Chinese police, who inform him that he’s the prime suspect in an international money laundering investigation. Under threat of arrest and extradition to China, the police force Jerry to cooperate as an undercover agent in their case. After months of keeping the investigation a secret, Jerry finally reveals everything to his family, who decides to document his ordeal and discover the truth about what really happened and how it changed Jerry’s life forever. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature, Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Acting Award (Jerry C. Hsu) at Slamdance this past January.
In Olivia West Lloyd’s psychological thriller Somewhere Quiet, Meg (Jennifer Kim) tries to readjust to normal life after being involved in a heinous abduction. She takes a healing trip upstate with her husband Scott (Kentucker Audley) to stay at his family’s countryside compound. Meg’s plan to regain her sense of normalcy gets swiftly disrupted by the arrival of Scott’s cousin Madeline (Marin Ireland). Their conflict brings out passive-aggressive behavior that makes Meg question her sanity while also coming to terms with the truth behind her kidnapping. The film world premiered at Tribeca.
Three generations spend the summer uncovering the secrets of mysterious tobacco barns in Rocio Mesa’s Tobacco Barns. Seven-year-old Vera lives in the city but adores spending the holidays in her grandparents’ town—particularly in their deserted tobacco barn. Nieves, a local teenager whose father forces her to help work her family’s land, can’t avoid feeling caged. The two girls, driven by the sense of adventure and the need to find themselves, respectively, will be connected to a magical creature that will change the way they see their reality.
The documentary features include:
From neighboring Whidbey Island, filmmaker Jordan Albertsen’s Boom: A Film About the Sonics tells the untold story of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s wildest and most influential bands, The Sonics. Boom takes a deep dive, exploring how a relatively unknown band from the Pacific Northwest became a worldwide phenomenon 50 years after their heyday and, in doing so, shaped music for decades to come. Featuring interviews with homegrown heroes and breakthrough artists alike from Pearl Jam, The Sex Pistols, Heart, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and many more, Boom comes to Vashon trailing lavish critical acclaim and years of accolades and prizes at festivals from Tacoma to Bremen in a new, never-before-seen director’s cut.
Downwind. Mercury, Nevada, was the site for testing 928 large-scale nuclear weapons from 1951 to 1992. Martin Sheen narrates this harrowing exposé from directors Mark Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller of the United States’ disregard for everyone living downwind.
Documenting Earth, “the world’s slowest metal band,” Even Hell Has Its Heroes director Clyde Petersen tracks Earth’s pivotal role in popularizing grunge and its visionary founder’s friendship with Kurt Cobain.
Winner of the Audience Award for Documentary Spotlight at SXSW 2023, Olivia Kuan’s The Herricanes chronicles The Houston Herricanes. This pioneering team was part of the first women’s full-tackle football league in the 1970s. Their unknown story is one of commitment, courage, and strength. Despite adversity and hardship, they fielded a team purely for the love of the game. What they started is a movement that is still in motion today. Kuan also took home the Louis Black/Lone Star Award at SXSW this year for her directorial work on the film.
VIFF will also screen eight narrative and two documentary shorts: Bläckfisk from director Sarah Hanner, awarded Best Director of the Year at the Independent Shorts Awards 2023; Closing Dynasty from director Lloyd Lee Choi, Audience Award Winner for Narrative Shorts at SXSW 2023 and recipient of the Crystal Bear Award for Best Short Film at Berlinale 2023; Cycle from director Leigh Powis; Dead-Enders from directors Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Tyler Walker, Audience Award Winner for Midnight Shorts at SXSW 2023; Down Home from directors Riley Engemoen and Liz Moskowitz; It Turns Blue, from director Shadi Karamroudi, recipient of the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Shorts at SXSW 2023; Nicole, from directors Edy Modica and Ian Fari; We Were Meant To, from director Tari Wariebi, world-premiered at Sundance 2023; When You Left Me On That Boulevard, from director Kayla Galang, awarded the Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film at Sundance 2023; and Will You Look At Me, from director Shuli Huang, Queer Palm Award Winner at Cannes 2022 and recipient of the Grand Jury Award for Best Non-Fiction Short Film at Sundance 2023.
At Rock on the Rock, VIFF’s Friday night event at the Backlot, ticket holders mingle with filmmakers while giving their necks some welcome whiplash as local bands shred into the night. Then the Saturday Night Soirée features live music, street food, and a beer/wine garden at the Backlot.
Narrative and documentary features compete for the coveted Quartermaster Award, which recognizes excellence in feature filmmaking, and the Audience Award for Best Feature. Nominees from the features also compete for the Red Bicycle Awards, which honor individual categories determined solely by the Vashon Film Institute’s executive team.
Short Films compete for the Burton Award, which recognizes excellence in short filmmaking, and the Audience Award for Best Short. The awards take place Sunday, August 13, at 7:30 pm at the Vashon Theatre.
Winners for all awards are selected by VIFF’s Jury in an anonymous voting process, excluding the Audience Awards, which attendees determine. This year’s jury consists of actor Cameron Jebo (Power Rangers Megaforce); actress Ali Richey (Low, Low); actor/producer Steven Swadling (Freedom’s Path); author and comedian Amber Tozer (Sober Stick Figure); and actor Dallas Dupree Young (Cobra Kai, 1-800-Hot-Nite).
“A film festival should introduce its audience to films they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see, especially in the theatre,” says Sayre. “As such, we’ve focused on programming a high-quality line-up of truly ‘independent’ films. We also believe off-island patrons will find something residents already know—that the island is one-of-a-kind. Vashon is one of the most beautiful settings in the country, if not the world.”