Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Streaming: Fall film fests flourish from afar

Three crucial Portland film festivals figure out how to keep the images streaming during the pandemic.


Around the globe, it’s fall film festival season, but of course it’s a season the likes of which has never been seen before (and with any luck intelligence, won’t be seen again). Industry pros, major critics, and the pass-buying public have been getting socially distanced sneak peeks at awards-caliber movies coming soon to a screen near you. Whether that’s a laptop screen or a theater screen, of course, remains to be determined. The Toronto, San Sebastian, and Venice Film Festivals have all limited public screenings, and the ability of festivalgoers to travel to them has been, of course, almost totally curtailed.

Closer to home, it’s fall film fest times, too. Perhaps the cruelest blow to Portland’s cultural corpus administered by the pandemic was the abrupt shutdown of the Portland International Film Festival in early March. The pain was especially acute since this was the first iteration of the city’s premiere filmgoing event to be conducted under the leadership of the Film Center’s new Director, Amy Dotson. Dotson brought a dramatic change in focus to the institution, intent on leaning forward into new technologies and new venues for both filmmakers and filmgoers.

The 42nd edition of PIFF, appropriately branded as Cinema Unbound, got off to an impressive start with a snazzy awards ceremony and a variety of nontraditional cinematic experiences on tap, along with a renewed focus on regional filmmakers. All that, of course, came to a screeching halt along with most other aspects of normal life, and with theaters still unable to host crowds for the foreseeable future, the Film Center has offered up PIFF 2.0, a weekend of screenings featuring works originally scheduled to show back in March.

From October 1st through 3rd, the Cinema Unbound Drive-In Theater at Zidell Yards will screen three features, while several others will be available for online rental. The former includes Young at Heart, a tender, indie teen romance that carries the vibe of its executive producers, Mark and Jay Duplass, and was directed by another sibling pair, Sarah and Zachary Sherman; and Marona’s Fantastic Tale, an adorable-looking French animated feature in which traces the life of a winsome, upbeat dog. Not originally scheduled for PIFF, but presented as a sneak preview on Friday night at the Drive-In is Sylvie’s Love, a 1950s-set, music-powered romance between the daughter (Tessa Thompson of Thor: Ragnarok and Westworld) of a record store owner and a saxophonist (Nnamdi Asomugha, the former NFL cornerback who has made an impressive transition into acting).

Among the virtual offerings, highlights include the Oregon-made The Dark Divide, which features David Cross in a decidedly non-comic role as a grieving lepidopterist who embarks on an overly ambitious hiking trip through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It’s based on a true story, and it potently speaks to the increasingly relevant need to, in the face of adversity, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. There are some international films, too, in this international film festival: the latest from Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, Vitalilna Varela, and the Italian drama Martin Eden, based on a Jack London story about a writer-turned-political radical. Both were among the most anticipated screenings to bite the dust six months ago.

A scene from Pedro Costa’s Valentina Varela

At first glance, the film with the most emotional potential is Pahokee, a documentary that follows four African American teenagers from low-income backgrounds as they negotiate the final year of high school in the titular Florida Everglades town. Another moving non-fiction entry, Where the House Was, which chronicles the history of Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, a mecca for writers and other creatives, and the threats to its original home.

Another beloved annual event, the Portland Latin American Film Festival, has also reinvented itself. Hosted by the Hollywood Theatre, PDXLAFF will be offering streaming rentals of a film or two each month between now and November. Their “opening night” selection was Our Mothers / Nuestras Madres, a concisely told drama about a young forensic anthropologist who works to exhume and identify the bodies of victims of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, ostensibly bringing peace and closure to their families. His job gets more complicated when he’s implored by an indigenous woman to investigate a burial ground outside his government-approved ambit, and by the fact that he’s also hoping to learn the fate of his own father. The film was an Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film (from Belgium, of all places!) and it “opened” on Sept. 17, which means it’s available for rental through the end of the month.

A scene from Pablo Larrain’s Ema

Other upcoming titles, each available for two weeks after the date listed, include the latest from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, Ema, about the relationship between a dancer, her estranged spouse, and their adopted son, as well as Olimipia, a partially animated drama set during the tumult surrounding the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Last but certainly not least, the veteran and valuable Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival has figured out a way to preserve its mission in 2020. Festival founder Tara Johnson-Medinger has in the past brought women directors from around the world to Portland as part of POWFest, but this year’s online edition has a necessarily and decidedly local flavor. Which makes it a fantastic opportunity to acknowledge and enjoy the work of Portland’s women filmmakers, many of whom have formed the backbone of the local directing community. Cambria Matlow, Jen Tate, Audreality, and other familiar names from festivals past are represented, with genres ranging from campy horror to nerd comedy to moving personal dance piece to a 360-degree, virtual-reality documentary on women aviators.  All proceeds from POWFest will go help ensure the survival of Portland’s Clinton Street Theater.

Each of these three festivals also features filmmaker Q&A sessions and/or panel discussions, so check the listing for each. Granted, it’s not the same as attending in person, but it’s something—a connection, however tenuous and imperfect, with the sorts of experiences we need to keep in our minds–even if it’s just so we don’t forget how to do them when we are once again able to.

Check this space for additional details on each of the festivals in the next couple weeks.

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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