Portland International Film Festival preview: 5 picks to click from (virtual) PIFF

Marc Mohan picks a handful of favorites from this year's 44th annual festival, much of which is online

Last year’s Portland International Film Festival was among the first cultural events truncated by the spread of COVID-19, and at the time it seemed impossible that the pandemic would continue to be inhibiting normal life when the 2021 edition rolled around. Nevertheless, here we are, albeit with more than a glimmer of hope that seeing movies in public with strangers might once again be possible relatively soon. Then again, that’s what we thought 11 ½ months ago…

“Minari” screens as part of PIFF’s opening-night celebration

In any event, the Northwest Film Center has made PIFF, like many other film festivals, a mostly online experience. Unlike most other film festivals, PIFF has a ready-made, pandemic-friendly resource at its disposal—namely, the Drive-In Theatre at Zidell Yards, where it has hosted popular outdoor screenings over the last several summers. With any luck, fickle March weather won’t put too much of a damper as Zidell Yards hosts both the fest’s opening-night Cinema Unbound Awards on Friday and a diverse lineup of crowd-pleasers for the duration, March 5-14.

The recipients of the second annual Cinema Unbound Awards – the ceremony is Thursday, March 4 – include Portland’s Cinematic Poet Laureate (not an official title) Gus Van Sant, who will be introduced by, among others, Portland’s Poet Laureate (also not an official title) Walt Curtis. Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen will also be honored, as will the producer of the Golden Globe-winning Nomadland, Mollye Asher; New York filmmaker and artist Garrett Bradley, who made the acclaimed, award-winning documentary Time; and Alex Bulkley, one of the producers of the upcoming, Portland-made stop-motion Pinocchio film from director Guillermo Del Toro. While the award ceremony was a gala ticketed event last year, it can be viewed for free online this year. (Of course, the vibe will be much cooler, and the cars much more expensive, at the drive-in experience, which starts at $250 per vehicle. In addition, live attendees can stick around for a free screening of the award-winning Minari afterwards.)

The heart and soul of PIFF, though, has always been the experience of exploring new, offbeat cinematic environments, consuming content from the four corners that hasn’t been predigested by marketing, critical consensus, or award nominations. Typically, PIFF has provided a sneak preview of many titles scheduled for release in Portland’s art house theaters, as well as many other movies for which these screenings might be the only ones they ever get in this city. This year, the balance tips toward the latter, and not only because cinemas won’t be fully open for a while. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t gems to discover. Here are five features worth checking out via the Virtual Cinema program:

“Death of Nintendo”

“Death of Nintendo”: This charming Filipino coming-of-age comedy is set in 1991, among characters thoroughly immersed in American cultural imperialism, from video games to NBA basketball. The travails of the four teenage protagonists (three male, one female) are universal, from awkward crushes to neighborhood bullies to a dawning awareness of the barriers presented by social class. One species of adolescent angst in the movie that’s not universal is the boys’ anticipation of their looming circumcisions, which they anticipate will vault them into full-blown adult masculinity. These dramas play out against the backdrop of increasingly frequent power outages caused by earth tremors, precursors to the monumental eruption of The Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo, a potent, if obvious, metaphor for the explosive changes in store.

The performances of the four juvenile leads are relaxed, engaging, and never less than convincing. Writer Valerie Castillo Martinez and director Raya Martin merge pitch-perfect period, cultural, and historical detail with broad and familiar themes to create a film that’s both goofily entertaining and poignantly affective.

Del Close, the subject of “For Madmen Only”

“For Madmen Only”: The name Del Close holds an almost mystical power in the world of live comedy, and this informative, inventive documentary tries to explain why. Close was the creator, in a very substantial sense, of the notion that improvisational comedy was a legitimate form of expression in its own right. He was also the epitome of the holy fool, an example of both the glories and the pitfalls of living on the cusp of (and sometimes fully immersed in) madness. Like the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, he pushed into territory that others (rightfully) shied away from, sacrificing his own reputation and mental well-being so that he could bring back a shard of some cosmic truth. At least, that’s how the legend goes.

For Madmen Only features copious interviews, new and archival, with a fraction of the big names Close shepherded during his time at The Second City. It also incorporates dramatic recreations, starring James Urbaniak as Close, of the writing of his autobiographical 1980s DC Comics series, Wasteland. Most fascinating, however, is the rarely seen footage of Close and those he taught practicing their craft, not only for the glimpses of titans like John Belushi and Amy Poehler in their embryonic forms, but also for the chance to see the ephemeral creative work of this singular force preserved in amber.

The inimitable Narcissus Quagliata in a scene from “Holy Frit!”

“Holy Frit!” If you learn nothing else from this curious, quixotic documentary, you’ll forever know that “frit” is the ground-up glass that the makers of stained-glass art sprinkle on their work before it goes in the kiln: It’s responsible for the varying thickness and opacity that distinguish the medium. There is, fortunately, much more to the story of Tim Carey, an oil-painter-turned-stained-glass-maker who bids for, and wins, the job of crafting the largest stained-glass window in the world. Step one: figure out how in the world to do it. Carey, an affable, sometimes irascible, always frank figure, fortunately persuades the world’s foremost expert on glass fusing to aid in his Herculean task. That expert bears the too-good-to-be-true name of Narcissus Quagliata, and the best way I can describe him is as the long-lost Italian son of the great, cigar-chomping filmmaker Sam Fuller. (If you’ve seen The Big Red One, you know that’s not impossible. But I digress…) The collaboration of Carey and Quagliata is maddening but fruitful as they struggle to meet the needs (artistic and budgetary) of their client, a Kansas megachurch.

There’s a Portland connection, too: At one point, production timelines are threatened when a primary supplier, Bullseye Glass, has its Southeast Portland facility shut down after toxic elements are detected in the air nearby. While this event caused great concern for local parents and neighbors, the filmmakers are sympathetic towards Bullseye, noting in an end-credits postscript that the City of Portland eventually retracted its claim that the glass factory was responsible for the pollution.

The subjects of “A Rifle and a Bag”

“A Rifle and a Bag”: Another vocabulary word I picked up at this year’s PIFF is Naxalite. The Naxalite movement is a Maoist insurgent group in India that began with a peasant uprising in the late 1960s and has continued to wax and wane in the eastern and southern parts of the subcontinent ever since. In recent years the Indian government has offered amnesty to rebels who agree to give up violence, and this film follows two who’ve taken them up on the offer. Somi and her husband have a young son, and another child on the way. To secure a stable life for their kids, they have abandoned armed struggle and resettled in a new community. Obstacles persist, though, frequently in the form of a stern bureaucracy that refuses to register their son for school without verifying his father’s identity, something that can’t be done without returning to their home village, where they would be seen as traitors to the cause.

Part ethnography, part domestic drama, and part character study, A Rifle and a Bag is an intimately shot examination of the difficulty of balancing idealism and responsibility.

Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah in “A Son”

“A Son”: What could have been a typical medical melodrama becomes something more layered in this story about the toll taken by both family secrets and religious dogma. A well-off Tunisian couple, Fares and Meriam, having returned home with their son from living abroad, encounter sudden tragedy when the boy is injured by rebel gunfire during a family road trip. It turns out he needs a new liver to survive, and Tunisia, despite being a relatively liberal Muslim nation, does not allow transplants except from close relatives. Complicating matters, tests reveal that Fares (Sami Bouajila) is not the boy’s biological father – he was the product of a brief liaison Meriam (Najla Ben Abdallah) had with a co-worker years ago.

While Meriam desperately tries to track down the only possible donor, Fares, mad with grief and jealousy, eventually pursues less orthodox avenues in an effort to save his son’s life. The timing of all this is important: it’s 2011, not long after the Arab Spring-inspired Tunisian revolution and as the Libyan civil war rages to the east. This intersection of cultural upheaval, family conflict, and medical suspense makes for a gripping, superbly acted film.

Of course, this is merely the tip of the iceberg. A diverse array of short films, a smattering of interactive events, and even an online master class in improv led by some of Portland’s finest comics await. Del Close would be proud.

For a full lineup, including ticket prices, how to access the online screenings, and more, visit www.cinemaunbound.org.

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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