PORT TOWNSEND — It’s been a wild, unpredictable ride, and the new version of the Port Townsend Film Festival hasn’t even started yet.
“I’ve had all kinds of emotions about it,” said KC Upshaw, the fest’s development and promotion director.
Joining the veteran staff of the 21st annual festival in January, Upshaw was “the newbie.”
Then the pandemic pushed nearly everything online — and “we’re all newbies,” she said.
“We’re all doing this for the first time, together,” this being 80 films plus interviews with filmmakers, a composers’ panel, sponsorships, audience voting and awards spread over 10 days.
The Port Townsend Virtual Film Festival begins Thursday with dramatic features, documentaries and shorts from around the world and close to home.
The complete program guide, with movie trailers and instructions for streaming the films, can be found at PTFilmfest.com. Passes are available at $120 for full access to all films and events, or $60 for a six-pack of movies. Single tickets for $12 go on sale on the website at 8 a.m. Thursday.
The festival has a long history of lines outside downtown theaters, packed restaurants and movie-star special guests. This year, actor and activist Sean Penn could be seen as one of those. “Citizen Penn,” a look at his dive into the humanitarian aid world after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, led the pack in terms of popularity among pass holders, Upshaw noted earlier this week.
“It’s a phenomenal documentary, takes you on a rollercoaster,” she said.
Other cinematic adventures: “The Race to Alaska,” about the 750-mile sailing competition that started in Port Townsend; “Outside Story,” about a Black man who locks himself out of his apartment without his shoes, wallet and ID, and “The Perfect Candidate,” about Maryam, a Saudi Arabian doctor who finds herself running for office.
Bringing neighbors into this online film-viewing party has been an adventure for Upshaw, too. In other years, sponsors had to commit several weeks before the festival in order to appear in the printed program. With everything online this time, Upshaw was able to include a last-minute sponsor, Windermere Realtor, actor and cinephile Amanda Steurer-Zamora. She’s supporting “The Perfect Candidate” and the “Reviewer’s Choice #2” program of five short films.
Downtown Port Townsend may not see yesteryear’s queues of people — except perhaps on the festival’s two Saturdays. Owner Rocky Friedman will man the Rose Theatre window at 235 Taylor St. from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday and on Oct. 3 to provide popcorn; festival-goers can pick up theirs thanks to Holley Carlson of Coldwell Banker Best Homes, who is sponsoring popcorn for pass holders.
Next door to the Rose, the Silverwater Cafe — another longtime festival participant — is partaking in the “dinner and a movie” program. The restaurant, which reopened in July after a months-long closure, offers a Middle Eastern dinner for takeout to accompany “The Perfect Candidate.”
Finnriver Farm & Cidery of Chimacum is connected on several levels to “Fandango at the Wall,” a documentary about the Fandango Fronterizo Festival held on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Director Varda Bar-Kar is the sister of Finnriver cofounder Crystie Kisler.
On Oct. 2, 3 and 4, Kisler and the Finnriver kitchen will offer a seasonal taco takeout package plus copies of the “Fandango at the Wall” book.
“Fandango” is another of the films piquing festival fans’ interest. While “Citizen Penn” was in first place, the next top five films pass holders are pre-ordering include:
• “A Most Beautiful Thing,” about the African American rowing team formed in Chicago’s ghetto;
• “I’ll Meet You There,” about Dua, a talented dancer fascinated with khattak, a classical Pakistani form traditionally considered inappropriate for “respectable” women;
• “Baato,” the story of one family’s journey through the Himalayas to sell medicinal plants in the city markets;
• “Standing Up and Falling Down,” about a young comic’s life-changing encounter with Billy Crystal.
“And there are special events!” Janette Force, the festival’s indefatigable executive director, wrote in an email.
Those include her discussion of the film “Groomed,” with director Nancy Meckler and playwright-actor Patrick Sanford about early childhood trauma and recovery.
That will be available for streaming any time the viewer chooses, as will “Music to Our Ears,” a panel conversation with film composers Miriam Cutler, Atticus Berger and Heather McIntosh and moderator Doug Blush.
People can browse the program, pick their films and watch them in the next day or so — along with adjacent filmmaker interviews — without having to rush the way they did at previous festivals.
“For 20 years, our audiences have happily lined up, visited with each other, gotten tickets … but often, the pressure [of multiple screenings] continued to make them feel like they could not stay for questions and answers with our beloved filmmakers,” Force wrote.
This year, “there is no reason not to stay for a conversation following the film because hooray! You are not late! — although you may have fallen asleep, in which case you can just rewind or watch tomorrow.”
The festival jury’s choice awards, some $6,000 in prize money, will be announced in a special program available at 8 a.m. Sunday.
Force added that viewers, as they watch their selections, can also vote online in the Audience Choice Award race.
Those winners, in the documentary, narrative feature and short film categories, will be announced Oct. 6.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.