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.
But, now, in 2017, another cliché comes to mind. “Now more than ever,” as we say whenever we think things are as bad as they could get, something like the Portland International Film Festival has a political urgency and a social purpose. In a year when an Oscar-winning director could be barred from attending the Academy Awards because he hails from one of seven forbidden nations, the act of immersing oneself in a story crafted, maybe, without an American audience even in mind can be one of resistance.
What can these movies, considered as a whole, tell us about the seismic shifts of the past year, most notably the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump, that indicate perhaps the gravest threat to the tradition of liberal democracy since the Cold War? It’s too soon for any of these filmmakers to have worked in direct response to the events of the past twelve months, but can we glean any insight into the anxieties and concerns that presaged them?
A World of Laughter, A World of Tears
It’s practically impossible to see everything at PIFF, even with a head start and access to preview copies. So drawing conclusions about the overall tenor of world cinema is a fool’s errand to some degree. But, being a fool, I see no reason not to try. I’ve managed to cross more than a few of the movies screening during PIFF’s first week off my list, and I think there are some interesting themes. The most notable aspect, if it isn’t just an example of cinematic confirmation bias, is the number of movies that deal on some level with the difficulty of establishing and maintaining human connection, and the perils of failing to do so. Even when it’s not presented in an explicitly political context, anxiety about isolation and alienation simmers underneath a surprising number of films.
It’s not totally ubiquitous, though. There are different ways that film can spur a sense of cosmopolitanism (a term, by the way, which desperately needs to be reclaimed from the vile clutches of anti-Semites and xenophobes). One is to, almost offhandedly, demonstrate how people in far-off lands are “just like us.” This effect is most potent when the movie in question hails from somewhere that most Americans have never been, or that is even considered one of our national enemies. The Iranian drama “Life+1Day,” for instance, depicts a squabbling family confronting issues of drug abuse, poverty, and other dysfunction. In other words, it’s a story that could take place literally anywhere in the world.
At this point, though, that sort of insight is facile. The Internet’s existence means that no one really has any excuse for remaining ignorant of anyone or anywhere else in the world. (Of course, most Americans don’t need an excuse, but they’re not the ones buying tickets to Bulgarian movies.) And, in fact, “Life+1Day” is a grating, headache-inducing melodrama, made no better by the fact that its rapid-fire dialogue is in Farsi.
Then there are documentaries, which by their nature educate us about some ostensibly worthwhile topic. Also by their nature, documentaries often touch on hot topics of the day. Two notable ones playing in PIFF, both of which open for regular engagements next Friday, Feb. 17, are “Fire at Sea” and “I Am Not Your Negro.” The former, Oscar-nominated, is about the European migrant crisis and its effect on the Italian island of Lampedusa. It’s a harrowing piece of reportage, and certainly the film in the festival that speaks most directly to the stresses that some have used to excuse the inward-looking trends of both Europe and the U.S. The latter is a thrilling, important work inspired by the life and words of writer James Baldwin, whose status as an outspoken gay African-American man during the civil rights era and a member of the vanished species known as public intellectuals makes him an astonishingly relevant voice in these increasingly intolerant times.
The Lonely Hearts Club
Each of those films address contemporary anxieties in a generally straightforward manner, but others come at them more obliquely. Horror films have always served as a fractured mirror reflecting society’s fears and desires, and a couple of the selections in this year’s After Dark sidebar fit the bill. “The Eyes of My Mother” shows the terrible consequences that befall a girl, raised by her parents in rural isolation, after her mother is murdered and she must seek connection in her own demented way. And in Mexico’s “We Are the Flesh,” accurately billed as the festival’s most transgressive entry (at least I hope so!), a pair of siblings find themselves enigmatically confined to a subterranean complex where they fall under the spell of a deranged madman. Both films could be seen as metaphors for the terrible things people can do when there’s no one watching.
Narratives of breakup and disunion pop up as well. (And that’s not even counting Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated “The Salesman,” which tracks the disintegration of the marriage of two actors following an attack on the wife. It’s playing at the Living Room Theaters, and is a powerful, unsettling experience.) “After Love,” from Belgium, is a mundane but well-acted divorce drama about a long-married couple trying, not always successfully, to spare their young twin daughters from the stresses of their split-up. “The Dreamed Path,” from Germany, tracks the dissolution of two pairs of lovers, one in 1980s Greece, the other in present-day Berlin, eventually bringing them together in a realism-tweaking final act. And in “Rara,” a 12-year-old’s outburst threatens the stability of her family, which includes a younger half-sister and two lesbian moms.
The most extreme example of this separation anxiety comes in the form of the conjoined adult twin sisters in the Italian film “Indivisible,” who embark on a quest for surgical emancipation from each other. A bond that inescapable inevitably becomes, the movie says, a prison, and if equating the twins’ predicament to that of nations in the European Union is a stretch, well, then, so be it.
The Long Arm of the Past (and the Present)
Alienation comes in several forms besides the familial, too. People are cut off from their labor, their institutions, and their history as well in some of PIFF’s first-week films. The formally experimental “Ways of Seeing” sidebar contains a pair of documentaries in this vein. “Dead Slow Ahead” follows the vagaries of a typical cargo ship as it meanders on its route, the crew existing in a bizarre reality outside of geography or time. Even more impactful is “Austerlitz,” which is composed entirely of static, black-and-white, minutes-long shots of tourists meandering through the sites of Nazi concentration camps. With their baggy shorts, Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts, and selfie sticks, they are an appalling collective epitome of this century’s inability to truly grapple with the consequences of the last one.
Films from places that have experienced recent histories of repression, authoritarianism, or other traumas hint at how difficult it can be to restore trust in civil institutions, even once a modicum of democracy is achieved. In “The Teacher,” set in 1983 Czechoslovakia and one of my favorite films of the fest so far, a new grade-school instructor, who’s also a high-ranking Communist Party apparatchik, abuses her position of authority by academically punishing those children whose parents refuse to provide her with free favors. Tension arises between the adults who refuse to go along and those who see the arrangement as a way to help their kids get a leg up in an inevitably corrupt system. The Bulgarian drama “Glory,” though set in the present day, evinces a similar cynicism. A humble, socially inept railway worker finds a pile of cash on the tracks and is hailed as a hero, “Meet John Doe” style, before endangering his new privileges by tattling on the theft and cronyism at his state-run employer.
Whether these films deal with recovery from Soviet domination, reflect emergence from the shell of theocratic censorship, or wrestle with the legacy of colonialism, they remind us that history casts a long shadow. European cinema continues to delve into the forgotten corners of World War II, even when the results are as manipulative and tone-deaf as the Danish land-mine-clearing saga titled, obnoxiously enough, “Land of Mine.” (How it ended up with an Oscar nomination is beyond me.) It’s a reminder that American filmmakers and other artists will be processing the fascist tendencies of Donald Trump and his cohorts for decades to come, just as they continue to negotiate the upheavals of the Vietnam-Watergate Era.
To be sure, there are plenty of PIFF entries that offer “mere” diversions, valuable as mental and emotional breaks from reality. I’d recommend “Obit,” a broadly entertaining look at the obituary section of The New York Times, as well as “Lost in Paris,” a whimsical romance between a klutzy Canadian and an incorrigible vagrant from the makers of the equally endearing “The Fairy.”
But as a whole (or at least as much of the whole as I’ve managed to absorb), the experiences on tap at PIFF XL reflect the darkness of the global moment. They don’t offer solace or comfort, or provide numbing distraction through spectacle and noise. That’s what Hollywood is for, after all.
(For a full festival schedule, including times, locations, and ticket prices, visit www.nwfilm.org.)