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Portland director’s ‘Hunger Ward’ earns Oscar cred; films in theaters?

Streamers: Skye Fitzgerald’s documentary short about the devastating war in Yemen chronicles two women's struggle to aid children caught in a war-caused famine

Better late than never (although some may differ), the Oscars are upon us. Expectations are that this year’s viewership on Sunday will continue its years-long cratering process, especially considering the lack of big-screen spectacles up for consideration. But for those who see award ceremonies as an opportunity for quality films without eight-figure promotion budgets to get a boost in visibility, this year’s Oscars are a boon. In a non-COVID year, a film like Munari or a performance like Riz Ahmed’s in Sound of Metal may have been overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Tom Hanks’ in Bios. So instead of bemoaning the lack of any Avengers, Transformers, or Jedis in the Best Visual Effects category, let’s appreciate the presence of Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan. (Okay, maybe not the best example.)

One category that regularly raises awareness of otherwise under-the-radar efforts is Best Documentary Short. Of all the films nominated each year, these five have the lowest box office prospects, and they’re not generally seen as auditions or springboards to more lucrative Hollywood work. No, these are almost always labors of love and, even more, of a burning need to capture and tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Among this year’s nominees, all of which meet that criteria, one stands out: Portland-based filmmaker and activist Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward.

Hunger Ward

“I don’t think of myself as an activist in the traditional sense,” Fitzgerald said when I spoke with him last week. And yet, he adds, “Cinema is uniquely positioned to move people, to bring a virtually unseen story to a much broader audience so they will care, so they will marshal resources to engage the problem.”

Hunger Ward chronicles, unblinkingly, the impact of the Saudi-led (and U.S.-supported) war against Yemen, which has resulted in what’s frequently called the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. The film follows two women who heroically strive to treat young children and babies who are victims of the famine caused by this conflict. It bears witness to hell.

Fitzgerald has been Oscar-nominated once before, for his 2019 documentary short Lifeboat, so the prospect of his films (if not, in this year’s remote ceremony, him personally) rubbing elbows with Tinseltown’s elite isn’t new. The incongruity of his Herculean (if not Sisyphean) efforts being celebrated alongside, say, Green Book, is not lost on him. “Is it strange to get into a tuxedo and receive an award for a film about childhood famine in Yemen? Yes,” he says. “But I take a practical approach towards any way I can get the message out and I take that opportunity to communicate.”

Even for a filmmaker like Fitzgerald, who has put himself in harm’s way making films about unexploded land mines in Cambodia, doctors in the Syrian civil war, and Libyan refugees crossing the Mediterranean, Hunger Ward presented special challenges. Journalists and Westerners are largely banned from the war zones, and, says Fitzgerald, “it took us eight-and-a-half months to get our visas. I found out later that it took [New York Times columnist and fellow Oregonian] Nicholas Kristof two years. So we felt pretty good about that.”

Once acquired, the visas allowed for only a two-person crew, Fitzgerald and a cameraperson, and were good for only 30 days. Accompanied by a government minder, the team visited a refugee camp in the northern part of Yemen and a hospital in the nation’s south.  In that time, they captured images that will be seared in viewers’ brains for quite some time—images of unimaginable suffering and desperation as well as images of quiet, fierce perseverance in the face of everything.

The latter are, of course, crucial, both for a film and a life. Despite what he’s witnessed, “Hope is what gets me up in the morning,” says Fitzgerald. “The hopeful acts [the doctor and nurse in the film] do on a daily basis is what motivates me to get this film out as widely as I can.” The problem “may seem intractable, but it can be resolved to a great extent by U.S. government action. Because our government is supporting the Saudi coalition in concrete ways, if U.S. support is removed unilaterally, the Saudis will withdraw and stop their bombing of the country. People can engage directly after watching it and take action that can affect the clinics depicted.” In other words, Fitzgerald has done his job. Now it’s up to us.

(“Hunger Ward” is streaming on Paramount+ and Pluto TV, and is available as part of the Oscar Nominated Best Documentary Shorts program playing in the virtual cinemas of Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre and in-person at the Living Room Theaters.)

ALSO PLAYING:

For the first time in forever, we now report on some films playing in actual theaters that, if you are so inclined, you can buy a ticket and see along with strangers. (In addition, Cinema 21 continues to offer private rentals.)

Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill in Test Pattern

Test Pattern: Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) works in nonprofit fundraising. Evan (Will Brill) is a tattoo artist. They meet cute and quickly fall hard for each other. Then, to celebrate her first day at a new job, she goes out for a drink with a girlfriend, gets slipped something by a guy she meets, and wakes up in his bed. But that’s only the beginning of her nightmare. This well-acted, subtly angry indie drama shot in Texas follows the couple on the day after the presumed sexual assault, as they visit one medical facility after another in search of a rape kit. The journey becomes increasingly Kafkaesque, and over the course of a few hours, the strain causes cracks in their previously idyllic relationship. Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature packs insight into the ways that dynamics of both gender and race always remain hidden beneath the surface. (Opens Friday, April 23 at the Living Room Theaters)

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street: Between the boom in tribute to Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood, and the recent encomiums for Big Bird and his turf, we’re in a golden age of Gen-X childhood TV nostalgia documentaries. This straightforward, but inevitably engaging, example focuses on the behind-the-scenes forces who revolutionized television by combining science-based educational practices with commercial-based strategies and by consciously gearing the show towards inner-city, minority preschoolers. Jim Henson gets his due, but a more welcome spotlight shines on Joan Ganz Cooney, the first executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop, and on Jon Stone, Sesame Street’s longtime director. I found the earlier passages detailing the show’s creation more compelling than the retelling of later, more familiar incidents from its history—although, it must be said, the scene where Mr. Hooper’s death must be explained to Big Bird loses none of its power on repeated viewings. (Opens Friday, April 23, at Cinema 21).

The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters: What I knew about truffles before watching this movie: They’re some sort of fungus that grows underground, considered a culinary delicacy. People, stereotypically rural European men who follow the old ways, use dogs and pigs to suss out their location using smell. They are not used in the creation of truffle oil, which gets its flavor from a synthetic compound. What I know about truffles after watching this movie: Pretty much the same thing. That’s a long way of saying that The Truffle Hunters is, as its title implies, about the crusty northern Italians (and their who’s-a-good-dogs) who know the secret spots more than it’s about the goodies themselves. In addition, it’s not out to teach anyone anything, but to transport them to a seemingly timeless subculture and expose them to its sights and sounds. In that sense, it succeeds, but it left this left-brained rationalist wanting to know a little more about what it was seeing. (Opens Friday, April 23, at Cinema 21)

Subashini Ganesan: Creative Laureate Checks In

Stage & Studio: Dmae Roberts and Portland's arts advocate talk about Covid relief, EDI initiatives, and what the next laureate might do

What is the current state of Portland’s creative community? One person who has had her finger on the pulse of the needs and challenges for Portland’s artists is Subashini Ganesan, and she’s checking in with Dmae Roberts.

Subashini Ganesan-Photo: Intisar Abioto.

In 2018, Ganesan was selected to become the Creative Laureate of Portland, the first woman of color to represent the city’s creative community. As the cultural ambassador of Portland, she conducted surveys to help artists define needs for affordable space, and organized arts and culture communities in an event, “Walk with Refugees and Immigrants.” She also co-founded and organized an emergency relief fund for artists during March through July in 2020 as the arts community struggled to adapt to COVID-19.

Creative Laureate is an unpaid position with a stipend for expenses. Ganesan became an advocate for arts practitioners as she has worked to bring together funders, business people and artists to improve the health of the arts community. She’s about to step down on June 30, and the city is searching for its next Creative Laureate: The application deadline at Portland.gov is April 30 if you’re interested.

Dmae Roberts has a frank conversation with Ganesan that addresses affordability, COVID-19 relief funding, community healing, the likelihood that EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives will stick, and the forecast for the next 18 months. Ganesan also gives advice to the next Creative Laureate. Listen in right now on this episode of Stage & Studio to learn more about her stint as Creative Laureate. Ganesan’s next plan is to establish a community healing space and portal on Portland.gov that will highlight for artists events and resource sharing for artists.

Theme Music by Clark Salisbury

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Subashini Ganesan is an artist, arts administrator, and the Creative Laureate of Portland. Ganesan choreographs and performs potent and universally relevant expressions drawn from her foundation in Bharatanatyam. Over the years, Ganesan’s original works have been presented by local arts organizations such as PICA, Conduit, Performance Works NW, Ten Tiny Dances, Portland Center Stage, Third Angle New Music, and Risk/Reward. Ganesan also collaborates extensively with many artists including Mike Barber, Anita Menon, Michelle Fujii, Sabina Haque, and Yashaswini Raghuram. 

Photo: Intisar Abioto.

In 2010, Ganesan founded New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), a performing arts venue in Portland that celebrates multicultural independent performing artists who teach, are in residency, and create new works. N.E.W. and Ganesan as its founder received RACC’s 2018 Juice! Award and White Bird’s 2019 Community Engagement Award for making affordable space possible to artists and arts organizations.

Ganesan is a member of the Teacher Advisory Council of the Portland Art Museum and is a Community Advisory Committee member of the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (IFCC). She serves on the Board of Directors for the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation and the Portland Parks Foundation. As the Creative Laureate of Portland, Ganesan serves as the official ambassador for the broader creative community in Portland.

Ashland Film Festival celebrates the power of young people

Streamers: The indie festival rolls out a virtual and live-event 20th season, opening Thursday with a lineup strong on documentaries

In a sign of the halfway-hopeful place in which we find ourselves these days, the Ashland Independent Film Festival is returning this year in a hybrid format for its 20th anniversary. A virtual, online version of the fest kicks off Thursday, April 15, and runs through April 30, followed by five evenings of outdoor, socially distanced screenings in late June, by which point both vaccination rates and summer weather should make such events more feasible.

The online portion of AIFF kicks off with a screening of The Water Man, the directorial debut of actor David Oyelowo (Selma). It’s a family-friendly drama about a boy (Lonnie Chavis) who seeks out a forest-dwelling supernatural being that he believes can help his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo, who also appears in the film, will participate in an online talk on April 16. Ashland has always been a festival that punches above its weight, and that continues this year, especially in regard to the documentary offerings.

A scene from the documentary “Youth v. Gov”

Those range from the outrageous to the inspiring, and from the sublime to the ridiculous. One common thread is the power of youth. Of both local and global interest is Youth v. Gov, a thoroughly engaging look at the groundbreaking, potentially lifesaving lawsuit filed by a group of 21 children against the United States government, alleging that the continuing support of fossil fuel technology amounts to a deprivation of their constitutional rights to life and liberty. Led by attorney Julia Olson of the Eugene nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, the case made news back in 2016 when an Oregon District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to sue. This led to a barrage of attempts by the Trump Administration to get the case thrown out, a process that Youth v. Gov chronicles in a way that provides clarity on the legal maneuverings and insight into the impressive cast of kids and their formidable lawyer.

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Lillian Pitt: 10,000 Years Through Art

Stage & Studio: Dmae Robert talks with the noted Warm Springs artist about friendships, mentoring, Covid, and the Indigenous traditions that shape her art

Dmae Roberts first met Lillian Pitt when noted writer Cheryl Strayed curated an artists  section of a TEDx talk in 2013 that included Roberts and Pitt. Though she was familiar with Pitt’s work, it was a pleasure for Roberts to finally meet her. In her TEDx talk, Pitt shared the stage with Toma Villa, a young artist she was mentoring.

In her new curated art show Pitt is again sharing space with Villa and other Native American artists, two others she’s also mentored. That is the giving spirit of Lillian Pitt. Her new show Lillian Pitt Solo Show: Ancestors Known and Unknown runs through May 1 at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River.

Lillian Pitt. Photo: Dennis Maxwell

Pitt features her glass art based on petroglyphs for this exhibit. Other artists and artwork she curated for this show include photography by Joe Cantrell (Cherokee Nation) and contemporary paintings by Sara Siestreem (Hanis-Coos Tribe),  large-scale mixed media wood carved masks by Toma Villa (Yakama Nation), found-object sculptures by Debora Lorang (friend of the Columbia Gorge Native Americans), and  aesthetically rich oils on canvas by Analee Fuentes (Mexican Heritage).

COVID-19 safety restrictions are in place at the Center. More info at: https://www.columbiaarts.org/ancestors-known-and-unknown/.

Lillian Pitt with Toma Villa’s works at the Columbia Arts Center in Hood River. Photo: Joe Cantrell

In this podcast, Pitt talks about her early history growing up on the Warm Springs reservation, the effects of COVID-19 on her community, the value of mentorship which she learned from her own mentor, the revered Navaho nation artist RC Gorman, and has passed on to other artists some who are featured in this new show. She also details how she is honoring 10,000 years of Native American peoples on the Columbia Gorge and the importance of Celilo Falls as an historic meeting place for Indigenous communities.

Theme Music by Clark Salisbury

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More about Lillian Pitt:  A Pacific Northwest Native American artist, Pitt was born and raised on the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon and  is a descendent of Wasco, Yakama, and Warm Springs people. Her ancestors lived in and near the Columbia River Gorge for more than 10,000 years. The Columbia River was called, simply, the Big River, or the Nch’i-Wana, by her ancestors. It was the backbone of one of the largest trade networks in all of Native America. Pitt’s works have been exhibited and reviewed regionally, nationally and internationally, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions. Her awards include the 2007 Earle A. Chiles Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the 1990 Governor’s Award of the Oregon Arts Commission, which declared that she had made “significant contributions to the growth and development of the cultural life of Oregon.”

Lillian is primarily a sculptor and mixed media artist, and her lifetime of works includes artistic expressions in clay, bronze, wearable art, prints, and most recently, glass. Art by Lillian Pitt can be found in personal collections, art galleries, and museums. Her works are also displayed in numerous public spaces including parks, schools, and cultural institutions. 

Streamers: A forgotten feminist filmmaker, and the stellar biography “Mike Nichols: A Life”

Celebrating the French director Nelly Kaplan on the Criterion Channel; a vivid and engaging biography of an American director-of-all-trades

By the time this column posts, it will be April, and another Women’s History Month will have come and gone. But does that mean we should stop spotlighting the contributions made by, for example, women filmmakers? If you think for a moment that was not a rhetorical question, we probably can’t be friends. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the work of a director whose name and filmography were new to me, but who deserves recognition for at least a couple of movies that captured a spiky, often hilarious feminism at a time when such a thing was rarely expressed, even in the relatively progressive milieu of post-’68 France.

Nelly Kaplan in 1969. Photo: Cythere/Paris Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock,
Cythere Films/Paris Film, On/Off Set, “La Fiancee Du Pirate.”

Her name was Nelly Kaplan, and she was born in Buenos Aires. After embarking on the pursuit of an economics degree, she fell in love with cinema and moved to Paris, where she frequented the Cinematheque Francais and became a trusted assistant and mentee of the legendary filmmaker Abel Gance, whose Napoleon had revolutionized the art in 1927 and who was still going fairly strong. After dabbling in short documentaries, Kaplan made her feature directing debut with 1971’s A Very Curious Girl.

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Resistance: Relocating Minoru Yasui’s prison cell

Civil rights hero Minoru Yasui’s former jail cell, relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, bears witness to an ongoing struggle

As the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Minoru Yasui arguably should be a household name in the state already. Yet only recently—nearly eight decades after Yasui’s most heroic act—has his journey become known to a wider audience. 

“Many people don’t know his story,” says Lynn Fuchigami Parks, executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “But he really is a civil rights hero.”

Minoru Yasui in 1946/Image courtesy of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project

Anyone who encounters Yasui’s former jail cell, which has been relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon and restored over several months by artist Brian Borrello, will find his story hard to forget. The museum has been in the process of relocating from its longtime home on Second Avenue to the Old Town Lofts building at NW Fourth and Flanders. It’s set for a by-appointment reopening on May 7. Once it does reopen, visitors can get a vivid sense of life in Portland’s Japantown—or Nihonmachi—through a collection of artifacts and photographs from the museum’s permanent collection. Yet nothing can quite compare to the arresting power of this eight-by-eight-foot steel cell, where Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in 1942 and ’43.

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Roberta Wong – Conceptual Artist & Tireless Advocate

Stage & Studio: In her newest podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with artist and curator Wong about challenging stereotypes and anti-Asian racism

Note: Dmae interviewed conceptual artist Roberta Wong the day of the killings of six Asian women in Atlanta, Ga. that night on March 15, 2021 in an apparent (though not yet charged) hate crime. In their conversation, the two Asian-American women talked about Wong’s earlier work that challenged the stereotypes and racism against Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and about how, unfortunately, her work is still relevant considering the rise of anti-AAPI hate incidents around the country.

Stop AAPI Hate gathered a report summarizing the 3,800 reported incidents by AAPIs around the country. Out of all the reports, 68 percent of the respondents were women. The overall amount of reports went up by about 2,800 hate incidents nationwide from the period of March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021.  AAPIs who experience a hate incident can still report it at Stop AAPI Hate. Read the full report. Locally, you can report hate incidents at Report Hate PDX.

Roberta Wong. Photo by Julie Keefe.
Listen to Roberta’s interview here!
Subscribe and listen to Stage & Studio on: AppleGoogleSpotify, Android and Sticher and hear past shows on the official Stage & Studio website. Theme Music by Clark Salisbury.

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FOR HER SECOND WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH PODCAST episode on Stage & Studio, Dmae talked with Roberta Wong, a veteran artist who grew up in Portland and has created thought-provoking conceptual art focused on themes of identity, ethnicity, ritual and transformation.

Her works during the 1980s, among them All Orientals Look Alike, All American, and Chinks, directly challenged people’s concepts of what it means to be Asian American.  Wong even contested an assumption in a grant proposal to the Metropolitan Arts Commission (the precursor to Regional Arts and Culture Council) that slated all Asian artists under the “folk arts” category.

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