Film fest preview: PIFF hits fast-forward at 43

New Northwest Film Center Director Amy Dotson brings a new emphasis and a new energy to Portland’s premiere cinematic event

“It’s not going to be robots and lasers!”

That’s Amy Dotson’s way of reassuring fans of film art—and of the Portland International Film Festival in particular—that the 43rd incarnation of the event is staying true to its mission. Since 1977, that mission has been to expose Portland audiences to a cornucopia of global cinema, allowing those with flexible schedules and insatiable appetites to gorge themselves on a diverse menu of movies. And so it remains.

Amy Dotson, the director of the Northwest Film Center

But while some things never change, others do. Dotson took over as the Director of the Northwest Film Center last year, following the 2018 retirement of Bill Foster after nearly four decades at the organization’s helm. Rising to the challenge of putting her own stamp on the Film Center and the Festival, while retaining the core appeal of each, Dotson’s approach can be encapsulated by PIFF’s 2020 motto (and new URL), “Cinema Unbound.” She spoke with ArtsWatch during the run up to PIFF, which kicks off Friday, March 6.

After nearly six months in Portland, Dotson and her family have settled in nicely, and she has been welcomed by the arts and culture community, which she notes includes pretty much everyone. “Everybody really sees themselves as a creative. Other places, people tend to self-identify as one thing—’I’m a doctor.’ Here, everybody is saying ‘I’m a doctor and I play banjo and I have a kid and have I mentioned that I’m doing a lot of macramé lately.’” 

While the Film Center has always combined its exhibition component with outreach and education, Dotson has an expansive notion of the institution’s role: “What we’re doing here is not just watching movies, it’s creativity and storytelling and moving forward.”

Part of that approach is an acknowledgement of the increasingly interdisciplinary approach taken by many filmmakers. “You see people that are creative that are working in film, television, podcasts, visual arts, in the XR and VR [virtual reality] space. Their palette is bigger,” Dotson says. “Artists in the cinematic space feel emboldened to try things, and not every story that’s cinematic has to necessarily be for the big screen.”

The Portland International Film Festival runs March 6-15

That approach has led to some unique programming at this year’s PIFF, including a live podcast experience, a twelve-hour mixtape-style TV show (screening in full the day before the festival officially opens), an electronic music performance accompanied by “custom audio reactive visuals,” and large-scale video projection mapping on the side of the Portland Art Museum. None of these events take place in a movie theater.

The most intriguing of these is a live listening party for “Anthem Homunculus,” the recently released, six-hour, highly cinematic podcast created by John Cameron Mitchell, the “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” icon who has become a Portland fixture in recent months. The podcast features an all-star cast and 31 new, original songs by Mitchell, so the lack of a visual component should hardly be noticeable. Mitchell will be in attendance, along with (according to the program) “guests,” who may or may not include members of the star-studded podcast cast.

Another novelty is the inaugural edition of the Cinema Unbound Awards, a benefit gala (no dressing up required) on Monday, March 9, recognizing artists who expand the possibilities of cinema. Oregon-related honorees include Mitchell, director Todd Haynes, animator Rose Bond, and costume designer Amanda Needham. Proceeds will benefit the Film Centers education and outreach efforts.

Oh, yes, there are still movies to see, of course.

Two major divergences from the past are quickly apparent from scanning this year’s festival program. First, it’s shorter: In previous years, PIFF usually took place over a two-week-plus time frame; this year, it’s ten action-packed days. While more than a hundred films will screen, that number is correspondingly down, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even highly motivated cinephiles with time on their hands could be hard pressed to maintain enthusiasm after 15 days of 3 or more movies a day. Making the festival more of a sprint than a marathon, then, has its upsides. “We really wanted to focus this year on quality over quantity,” says Dotson.

The Portland premiere of Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” set in Oregon during the 1820s, will be at PIFF.

The other major change, at least as far as the screening schedule, is the inclusion of a large number of works from Northwest filmmakers. This is due to the fact that PIFF now encompasses what used to be the film center’s Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. Although each event was beloved on its own, Dotson says the question became, “How do we get both ships to rise? If we melded those two [events], not only would people meet people outside of their particular bubbles, but they would also potentially have opportunity to travel and see things in a new way.” Another goal, she says, was to “help viewers take more risks.” 

This also means that the festival has the twin goals of serving the filmgoing community and the filmmaking community, while recognizing the overlap between the two. “It needed to be more than just a gathering of film lovers,” says Dotson. “We can be a platform for under-represented voices, we can serve as a catalyst for cultural appreciation and conversation, and we can build community.” The sorts of panel discussions (“The Future of Distribution,” “Jumping into Features”) that were a feature of NWFF are now peppered throughout the PIFF schedule, for instance. Dotson has also drawn on past connections to lure guest curators from events such as the Venice Biennale and BAM Cinematheque in Brooklyn.

For longtime fans, there’s a certain amount of whiplash that comes from seeing so many made-in-Oregon efforts listed alongside films from Kosovo, Laos, and Lesotho. But the juxtaposition also allows these local and regional filmmakers to see their work showcased on an international level, and most of them hold up just fine in the comparison.

Asked to spotlight individual films, Dotson suggests “Pahokee,” a documentary portrait of four high school seniors in the rural Florida Everglades. It’s about “young people that are trying to find their way through their community, but it’s very observational, it doesn’t editorialize.” She also recommends the fiction filmmaking debut of documentarian Jessica Oreck, “One Man Dies a Million Times,” which concerns a seed bank in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the scientists who work there. “It’s a boundlessly creative reimagining of a story that’s as old as time.”

PIFF has often served as a springboard-cum-preview for arthouse releases coming to Portland theaters in the ensuing months, and there are a few such titles on tap this year. The opening night bicycling buddy comedy “The Climb” seems destined to return, as does director Armando Iannucci’s (“Veep”) revisionist, star-studded take on “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” The festival’s closing weekend centerpiece is Oregon-based director Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed new film, “First Cow,” which will open theatrically on March 20.

Among the other Oregon-based titles are a trio of world premieres, each a treat. Director Roland Dahwen received a 2018 Oregon Media Arts Fellowship and used it to offset production costs for “Borrufa,” a deliberately paced, slow-burn drama about an immigrant family in Oregon facing upheaval when it’s revealed that the father has been keeping a second family. Portlander Jesse Blanchard’s Kickstarter-funded “Frank and Zed” is an ambitious, gory, and sometimes hilarious horror film made entirely with puppets. 

And Jessie Barr’s feature directing debut, written with and starring her cousin, Portland State University senior Jessica Barr (yes, it’s confusing), is “Sophie Jones.” This tender, heartfelt coming-of-age tale centers on a 16-year-old high schooler (Barr) struggling to process the death of her mother a year earlier. Executive produced by veteran indie director Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said,” “Walking and Talking”), it benefits from impressive, warm cinematography and naturalistic performances, including that of the lead.

With all these changes, it’s probably inevitable that there would be some pushback from longtime members of the Film Center’s Silver Screen Club. Change can be hard, after all. When I ask about that, Dotson’s voice, for the only time in our interview, tenses a bit.

“I think Portland is a changing city, and change is hard for everybody. I’m brand new, so I don’t have 20 years of seeing how this all works. That said, our audience is extremely important to us and we welcome everyone,” she says. “This is our first foray in bringing Portland to the world and the world to Portland, and it’s only going to continue throughout the year. And next year, with our 50th anniversary, it’s only going to get bigger and bolder.”

“Again,” she reiterates, “no lasers and robots. I mean, maybe in two years. Don’t quote me on that for 2023.”


(The 43rd Portland International Film Festival runs from March 6-15, with screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium, Cinema 21, Cinemagic, The Hollywood Theatre, and OMSI’s Empirical Theater. For a full schedule and program, ticket prices, and more info, visit www.cinemaunbound.org.)

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