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OFF has it going on

After 25 years, the Olympia Film Society celebrates by looking back

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Some dread an election year, but 2008 marks a capstone for the Olympia Film Society. This month members celebrate the 25th run of the society’s popular film festival. What better way to commemorate the event’s present success than with a throwback to cinema’s past?

The Olympia Film Festival kicks off Friday, Nov. 7, outside the historic Capitol Theater with the unveiling of a glittery roaring ’20s themed marquee. Inside, music from local guitarist Vince Brown will accompany Buster Keaton’s silent antics from his comedic classic Steamboat Bill, Jr.

“The 25th anniversary is a silver anniversary,” notes festival director Colleen Dixon, “and we’re celebrating our love of the silver screen.”

The society deserves to feel festive. What began almost three decades ago with a small group of cinephiles projecting 35 mm prints on the walls of the old Washington School has steadily swelled to community-wide proportions. The Olympia Film Society now boasts around 2,000 members with dozens lending hands in the festival’s operations.

The annual event couldn’t function without volunteers. Laura Northrup, serving this year as director of programming, describes her work as “a pretty rewarding experience … . It’s really cool to see how dedicated people are and how much pride they take in their own work.” Be they high school students, retired couples or just pure lovers of cinema, “everyone’s getting something different out of it,” Northrup says.

A strong focus on community is one of the ways Olympia Film Festival stands out from other festivals. Only local businesses make up the list of sponsors, thereby eliminating the need for corporate backing and providing organizers greater freedom to choose the screening lineup. In return, Dixon, Northrup and their team make it a mission to find films that entertain and enlighten. Whereas more impersonal festivals exhibit works solely on a judge’s subjective criteria, Northrup says, “I think we really strive to access the community’s needs but … challenging us to grow as a community too.”

As an example, socially conscious documentaries such as Great Speeches from a Dying World (which screened at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year) tap into the city’s ongoing fight against homelessness. Though filmed in Seattle, its themes still hit home. Director Linas Phillips will attend the Sunday, Nov. 9, screening to benefit the Olympia outreach organization Done And Done.

Though the festival devotes a good deal of time to filmmakers, the primary emphasis rests on a movie’s end result — how viewers respond to its message. Northrup believes in the power of that viewing experience; she praises films for “totally taking you into such an intense emotional state … . It’s amazing to let yourself feel that.”

Such a philosophy runs counter to those seen in other markets, but Olympia doesn’t fret over its uniqueness. The city’s distance from Seattle and Portland’s saturated movie milieus allows OFF to set up its own rules. Ignoring the need to award prizes further takes the burden — and focus — off individual filmmakers. “It’s never really been our goal to have a … competitive feel to the event,” says Dixon.

With the pressure to stack one’s work against rivals left out, audiences can freely revel in the eight days of films in store for them. Several hundred submissions have been whittled down to several dozen worthy works that reflect a menagerie of styles and tastes.

For foreign flick aficionados Dixon recommends XXY, an Argentinean feature that struck her as a “really beautifully made … narrative about family.” You might send the kids over to the animation workshop at Mariah Arts while privately enjoying Deirdre Timmons’s sequined portrait of a Seattle burlesque club, A Wink and a Smile. OFF unofficially signs off on Saturday, Nov. 15, with The Bluetooth Virgin, a comedy about screenwriters that, despite its title, has made a strong run through the festival circuit. At that point, horror fiends storm the Capitol for All Freakin’ Night, the festival’s 10-hour-plus homage to maniacal Martians and groovy gore.

New or old, distant or local, short or feature, shot on film or digital, OFF has something for everyone. With a unique attitude on film, OFF definitely has it going on.     

[25th Annual Olympia Film Festival, Nov. 7-15, $6-$75, Capitol Theater, Mariah Art School, Olympia, 360.754.6670,]

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