Western films transport their audiences to another time and place — dusty ranches, wide open deserts, small-town mystique. But it’s rare for fans to have the opportunity to quite literally immerse themselves in these cinematic landscapes … until now. The Pioneertown International Film Festival, holding its inaugural iteration this Memorial Day weekend, aims to do just that. Considering the history of its namesake, it’s surprising the event didn’t start sooner.

Pioneertown was built in the 1940s just outside of Joshua Tree by famed Western actor and musician Roy Rogers, among other entrepreneurial-minded Hollywood elites. The intent was to recreate the look of an authentic Western town packed with sound stages, for filmmakers to live and breathe the movies they were making (notable titles filmed in the area include Westerns like Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, starring Robert Redford, and shows like Annie Oakley and The Gene Autry Show). “They made hundreds upon hundreds of Westerns out here — television and movies,” explains the festival’s founder, filmmaker Julian T. Pinder, who stumbled upon the cinephile’s haven long before its twenty-first century resurgence as a getaway destination for Los Angeles industry stalwarts with expendable income.

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Pinder is a director, writer and producer with decades of credits under his belt (most recently known for creating and directing Netflix’s Fire Chasers, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio). Pinder had been on a road trip and noticed the haunt’s unusual name while looking up directions. “I ended up driving out there just based on a little word on the map. The second I saw it I just fell in love, and then ended up moving up to a ranch up the mountain with [my] horses,” he explains. “It’s got this really amazing cultural history. I thought that it should be celebrated. And people should be remembering what its legacy is and what it did for the Western film genre. So [the idea for the festival] came out of that.”

Dave Miller has lived in Pioneertown since 2006, and is the founder of the community organization and leadership group Friends of Pioneertown. Because the locale is so small, the town doesn’t have an actual mayor, but Miller has been lovingly christened the unofficial mayor of Pioneertown by his peers. “I deny that completely, but that seems to have been the reputation I’ve been endowed with,” he laughs. He’s been dreaming of a festival celebrating the legacy of this unique township for years — “We’ve always been 100 percent supportive — what do you (Pinder) need us to do, and how can we help?’” When COVID delayed the festival, Miller and his friends helped to maintain the drive-in movie theater that had been built as a venue for some of the fest’s screenings. Miller explains that “what we’ve done is made sure the facilities in town are going to be able to house [the festival], that the county is not going to shut it down.”

Conceptualizing and organizing a brand new film festival is no small task, and far from anything Pinder had done before. He began incubating the idea over a decade ago, and after years of planning and collaborating with other like-minded collaborators, his dream is finally becoming a reality. At first, he wasn’t sure if his vision for an exclusively Western-focused festival was feasible: “We didn’t know if there were enough contemporary Westerns being made to make it not just some kind of hokey classics festival,” he explains. “We really did the deep dive for quite a while, for a number of years, consulting with other film festivals, filmmakers, with studios, with distribution companies, with friends, to really figure out if we could actually do a Western-focused festival. And it turns out, in the end, we really felt like we could.”

He brought on Todd Luoto, formerly of the Sundance shorts programs as well as the Newport Beach and Silver Lake film festivals, as his head of programming. Early conversations between Pinder and Luoto examined what “Western” meant to them as a genre of film. “Tremors is kind of a Western, and Star Wars is kind of a Western — these films that have a narrative that follows the Western archetype, even though they’re not people in the 1800s on a horse and carriage in a small town in the West. So we approached it like that, but we still wanted to keep it somewhat traditional,” Pinder muses. “We are both fans of the genre,” Luoto offers, adding “I think Julian’s admittedly a little bit more like a real cowboy.”

Luoto emphasizes that in the selection process, the festival made a commitment to both acknowledge and work against the genre’s often problematic tropes. “We both really wanted to make a modern festival that kind of attacks these issues head on, as far as some of the more problematic elements that unfortunately are part of the Western genre,” Luoto explains. “And not really run away from those, but see if we can create an experience that addresses those and in turn tries to create a new kind of language of the Western.” That meant looking to highlight indigenous voices where possible — the opening night film, The Last Manhunt, is “from an indigenous filmmaker and perspective,” Luoto says. It’s produced by Jason Momoa and directed by Christian Camargo, and tells the tragic true story of the old west’s last major organized manhunt, based on the Chemehuevi tribe’s oral history.

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Jason Momoa in The Last Manhunt Courtesy of The Last Manhunt

Other lineup highlights include Ukrainian director Roman Perfilyev’s The Inglorious Serfs, described by Pinder as “Tarantino-esque.” Displaced by the war, Perfilyev and his family have fled to the United States — they’re being flown out to Pioneertown to see the film on the big screen. Additionally, “Adam Piron, who is the new director of the Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute, is presenting [Jim Jarmusch’s] film Dead Man, which is a favorite of his, and going to talk about it as well,” adds Luoto.

The closing night film is a screening of Alexandre O. Philippe’s Western documentary The Taking, “all about Monument Valley [the stretch of desert near the Arizona-Utah border owned by the Navajo tribe and often used for filming Westerns] and looking at Westerns, folklore, mythology and some of the pros and cons with some of the representations that have existed there and what that’s done to the Navajo, those who live there, and people’s perceptions of what a Western is.” The programming team has ensured each selection is represented by filmmaking attendees. “Literally every film we have playing, even the classics, there’s someone coming out who’d been a part of it, or is a part of it,” Pinder effuses. “Even our tribute to Monte Hellman, who sadly passed away last year: we’re screening his Acid Westerns he did with Jack Nicholson back in the 60s [. And Monte’s daughter and Jack’s daughter will be presenting that program.” There’s also a 30th anniversary screening of An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, with director Phil Nibbelink attending.

Ultimately, the Pioneertown organizing team are most excited to pay tribute to the town and genre’s history while paving the way forward in terms of how a Western is defined. “One of the principal reasons we started The Friends of Pioneertown was the Western heritage of the town was being buried and lost. Our principle purpose is to keep that heritage alive,” says Miller, who’s thrilled that the festival will celebrate historic Western films hidden in the dust for too long. In future iterations of the event, “I’d like us to continue to push the idea of what a Western can be, and be experimental and innovative in our approach to that,” Luoto says. Another goal for the festival: “Increasing representation,” Luoto continues. “It’s nice that we’re having indigenous voices that are part of this, it’s great that we have some women filmmakers as well, but I’m hopeful that that will continue to change and evolve, [and that] the genre will be seen as more open and shared by everybody.”

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