Movies Without Borders: The 42nd Portland International Film Festival

Sometimes the best place to tap into our empathy is in the dark at the movies

The tagline for this year’s Portland International Film Festival is “Empathy has no ethnicity.” While clearly intended as a response to the xenophobia and intolerance currently plaguing our nation, it’s also a timeless reminder of the value of global cinema. It harks back to Roger Ebert’s famous description of cinema as a “machine for empathy.”

Movies, after all, arguably do a better job than any other art form at creating an intimate, visceral sense of identification with people totally unlike ourselves. They help us to recognize universal human tendencies as familiar emotions play across the faces of those separated from us by space and, increasingly, by time. Suffice it to say that if more Americans watched more non-American movies, the world would be a better place.

This year’s PIFF (March 8-21) is the 42nd overall, but the first to occur following the retirement of longtime Northwest Film Center director Bill Foster last year. While this year’s fest (and any in the foreseeable future) will surely evidence Foster’s ongoing influence, it will be interesting to see in what ways the event evolves in an increasingly competitive media landscape. As the theatrical distribution of foreign-language films continues to wither and their availability on home video or streaming platforms remains unreliable, PIFF offers, perhaps more than ever, the best and sometimes only way to experience a dizzyingly diverse array of experiences hailing from every continent save Antarctica. What follows is a necessarily scattershot look at this year’s program.

One divergence from usual PIFF practices of note is the inclusion of a retrospective sidebar dedicated to the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. Her first four features have marked Martel as the most important female filmmaker in Latin America, and her latest, 2017’s “Zama,” took the top spot in Film Comment magazine’s annual critics poll. “Zama,” based on a novel by Antonio Benedetto and set in 18th-century Paraguay, was a departure for Martel, whose first three films dissected the upper-middle-class milieu of Buenos Aires in which she was raised. Her debut, 2001’s “La Ciénaga” (a/k/a “The Swamp”), is about a decadent family spending a summer vacation at their decaying country estate, and it immediately marked her as a talent to watch. These two films, along with 2004’s “The Holy Girl” and 2008’s “The Headless Woman,” screen at the Whitsell Auditorium March 9-11.

Martel is one example of a strong and welcome trend in global cinema: filmmakers who have no apparent desire to test the Hollywood waters and are content to labor in their home countries’ industries. This trend, I would argue, is at least partially responsible for the current wave of international auteurs, one which may be the most consistently fascinating since the classic Kurosawa/Bergman/Fellini axis waned in 1980s. Many of these budding titans are featured in PIFF’s Masters selection, alongside the one voice from that golden era still railing against the dying of the light—88-year-old Jean-Luc Godard. His newest experiment in the non-narrative cinematic essay, “The Image Book,” is one of the festival’s must-sees, even for those who find Godard’s curmudgeonly scattershot approach as frustrating as it is fascinating.

China's Jia Zhangke is represented in this year's PIFF with the intimate epic "Ash is Purest White," which stars Zhao Tao./Courtesy Portland International Film Festival

China’s Jia Zhangke is represented in this year’s PIFF with the intimate epic “Ash is Purest White,” which stars Zhao Tao./Courtesy Portland International Film Festival

Those continuing the auteurist tradition that Godard so immortally embodies include Germany’s Christian Petzold, France’s Mia Hansen-Løve, Iran’s Jafar Panahi, Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, and China’s Jia Zhangke. Of these, Zhangke is perhaps the most celebrated, and his latest, “Ash is Purest White,” continues his career-long exploration of life in 21st-century China. It tells the decade-spanning story of a woman (Zhao Tao, in a kaleidoscopic performance) who makes a momentous decision to protect her mobster boyfriend and alters her life forever. It’s an intimate epic spanning Chinese society and geography that culminates in a powerful finale.

Other notable titles screening during PIFF’s first weekend include “Asako I & II,” a disarming Japanese blend of romantic comedy and metaphysical mystery in which a young woman falls for an enigmatic charmer, only to have him disappear one day. Two years later, she meets another man who looks exactly like him, sparking a new crush—or is it the same crush after all?

For a more pared-down, (far) less whimsical experience, check out director Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx,” which features an elemental performance by Susanne Wolff, the only person on screen for much of the film’s running time. She plays a German paramedic who embarks on a solo sailing trip in the Atlantic Ocean. One morning, after a fierce storm, she encounters a drifting trawler overloaded with African refugees. The Coast Guard is unresponsive, so she must decide for herself how much aid she can offer to these desperate, doomed souls. Grippingly shot and imbued with a calm but righteous fury, this is a miniature tour de force.

Wolfgang Fischer's "Styx' deals with the humanitarian crisis inside Europe's refugee influx and stars Susanne Wolff/Photo courtesy of PIFF

Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx’ deals with the humanitarian crisis inside Europe’s refugee influx and stars Susanne Wolff/Photo courtesy of PIFF

This year’s documentary lineup features a few titles with local ties. Portland filmmaker and clinical psychologist Jan Haaken’s sixth feature, “Our Bodies, Our Doctors,” profiles doctors and nurses who work to provide abortion services while dealing with the stigma from others in their profession and interference from the religious organizations for which some of them work. Another Portland documentarian, Irene Taylor Brodsky, follows up her 2007 Peabody Award-winning “Hear and Now” with “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” Both Brodsky’s parents and her son are deaf but able to hear thanks to cochlear implants, and “Moonlight Sonata” traces their cross-generational journey. Finally, director Arwen Curry profiles the late Portland literary legend with “Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin,” which screens along with Vanessa Renwick’s experimental, LeGuin-inspired short, “Kesh.”

PIFF always offers a welcome reminder that animated features come in as many styles and moods as there are stories to be told—as the Colombian coming-of-age story “Virus Tropical” demonstrates. Based on a graphic memoir, it follows the life of a girl born into a moderately eccentric family (including an ex-priest as a father) that shuttles back and forth between Quito and Cali, with the occasional stop in the Galapagos Islands. The black-and-white, line-drawing style captures the feel of a comic-book page, while the inventive transitions and wry humor mark a thoroughly cinematic approach.

This year’s animation selections at the Portland International Film Festival include the Colombian coming-of-age story “Virus Tropical”/Photo courtesy of PIFF

This year’s PIFF After Dark selections are also a valedictory of sorts, as the festival’s programmer du genre, Nick Bruno, has decamped for a job with the Seattle Film Festival. Bruno brought a welcome breath of edgy international terror to the sometimes overly cozy confines of the Film Center, and one hopes that this torch will be picked up in the future. Among the most intriguing entries on the schedule are the Irish thriller “The Hole in the Ground,” which is about exactly that; “One Cut of the Dead,” a Japanese meta-horror-comedy about a film crew that runs into some zombies while making a zombie movie; and the Norwegian “Valley of Shadows,” which follows a young boy as he ventures into the woods to find out whether a werewolf is responsible for all the recent sheep-killings or not.

With 85 features on tap over fifteen days, this is but the merest toe-dip into the waters of PIFF. As ever, it remains Oregon’s premiere opportunity for cinephiles to bathe in those waters, escaping the humdrum, brain-numbing overkill of mainstream Hollywood for experiences that stimulate the mind, saturate the senses, and, more often than not, provide a small glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else.

(The 42nd Portland International Film Festival runs from March 8 through March 21, with screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium, the Regal Fox Tower, Cinema 21, OMSI, and Cinemagic. For a full schedule and program, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/piff42/.)

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