It’s that time of year again: February in Portland. The annual reminder that 37 degrees Fahrenheit is the worst possible temperature, that sacrificing small cute animals would be worth it for a small patch of blue sky, and that my own uncanny ability to conjure an Old Testament-style downpour simply by walking my dogs remains unrivaled. It’s also time once again for the Portland International Film Festival, which celebrates its fortieth iteration this year.
The festival, which runs through February 25, and takes place at theaters all over town, includes a typical mix of titles that will be returning to local arthouse screens over the coming months and those which may never pass your way again. (I’m still waiting for someone to release on disc or online the Austrian movie “The Unfish,” which played PIFF in 1999 and then vanished forever.) There are well-crafted middlebrow entertainments, ragged experiments, and a few inevitable dogs.
Having attended and/or covered the festival for (creak! groan!) more than half of its life, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of trotting out clichés about its significance. Film, more than any other art form, allows viewers to experience quite directly the lives of people, fictional or not, in locales and cultures that would otherwise remain exotic and abstract. Even the most evocative literature or music can only, well, evoke the reality it’s depicting. When Iranian cinema began to gain worldwide cachet in the 1990s, for instance, it was the first time many Western viewers saw what an ordinary street scene in Teheran was like.
So, yeah, it’s always been true that international cinema helps to bind the world more closely together, helps to humanize The Other, and opens our eyes to how alike we all are despite and beneath our diverse and magnificent differences.