film

Rising COVID numbers, and Governor Brown’s reponse to them, have forced those Portland movie theaters that were offering private rentals to shut off that vital revenue stream. This has come at an especially inopportune moment, as several highly anticipated films were, or were about to be, available to watch locally on the big screen. Although that’s not possible at the moment, this post will be updated to reflect any change to that situation. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these winners on your streaming service or on (it still exists!) physical media in the near future.

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Dance on film: Making contact

The Contact Dance Film Festival, an eclectic weekend of international dance films presented by BodyVox, returns for its fourth year.

The Contact Dance Film Festival, a weekend of eclectic international dance films presented by BodyVox, returns for its fourth year this weekend. “Festival” might seem like a bit much to describe a three-night event, but the company has managed to pack an impressively broad selection of independent, dance-centric films into the weekend. Running May 9 to 11, the festival is divided into three programs, each with its own perspective on the intersection between dance and film.

Founded, as the company says, to support and promote new independent dance films, the Contact Dance Festival offers a slate of international films, a feature-length film, and another collection of short films guest-curated by Ohio State University students.

The Dancing Over Borders program features “Unfolding,” a film with work created and performed by Portland’s Muddy Feet contemporary dance collective.

The Dancing Over Borders program, running on both opening and closing nights, is a collection of 11 films from nearly as many countries, including one from Portland. Unfolding, shot in part in a classic Portland bungalow, adds recognizable local flavor to this worldwide survey.  The alternately surreal and playful piece within it is choreographed and danced by the Muddy Feet contemporary dance collective, featuring local mainstays Suzanne Chi, Rachel Slater, Kailee McMurran, and Lena Traenkenschuh.

The longest piece of the night, Les Sirènes—Chant XII, is also one of the standouts. Directed by Philippe Saire, this Swiss film is broadly inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s “transposition” of it in Ulysses. Three women in vibrant but simple outfits stumble and slide gracefully down giant piles of sand, bottles in hand, three sheets to the wind as they embark on a journey from the sand to the water, exploring the environment through improvised but intentional movement.

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Fragmentation in motion: An interview with Jaleesa Johnston

A free screening and animation workshop for black femmes, women, and non-men in Portland, hosted by the first and the last

This past April, I had the pleasure of interviewing artists kiki nicole (they/them) and ariella tai (they/them) about their work through the first and the last—an experimental film/video and new media arts project. This endeavor offers a platform to amplify and support the artistic work of black femmes, women, and non-men through screenings, skillshares, and workshops based in Portland. During our discussion, nicole cited the influence of another Portland-based black femme artist, Jaleesa Johnston (she/her), whom they were excited to curate into their year of programming.

Johnston will be facilitating a screening and workshop as part of the first and the last’s programming this weekend, July 28 and 29. I had the opportunity speak with her about her incisive body of work and conceptual process, and how all of the above will inform these upcoming events.

Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston describes her artist practice as interdisciplinary: The ideas and concepts come first, followed by mediums for their expression. “If I don’t know that medium, I just find a way to learn it or teach it to myself,” she said, reflecting back a sense of determination that nicole and tai emphasized when I spoke to them earlier this year about the work of various self-taught black femme artists.

“Pretty much all of the themes and ideas that I deal with have to do with black female subjectivity and understanding what it means to stand within this in-between space of being both the subject and object in my work, and historically being seen as both subject and object,” Johnston explained. She described how blackness becomes a “liminal space” that can be defined, in certain senses, but also remains undefined. “That actually can be very beneficial and very freeing,” she continued. “I can use that to harness and activate a radical space that allows me to expand beyond the confines of what blackness has conventionally meant or historically meant.”

On July 28, Johnston will screen an excerpt of the video “Compared to What” (2017) by Ayana V. Jackson. A US-born photographer and filmmaker, Jackson often references 19th and early 20th century presentations of black bodies through her self-portraiture. Her performative and photographic work calls into question the ways the camera has historically been used to construct identities.

“It’s an animated video piece, but through photography, stitching together different photos,” described Johnston, who first encountered the film when she was teaching a photography class at Pacific Northwest College of Art. That same semester, Jackson visited the school and came to speak to Johnston’s students.

“It was through seeing her piece that I started really thinking about what’s not said,” she remembered.

The film piqued Johnston’s interest in the difference between live performance and performance that is mediated by photography or video. “Watching her video piece, I just was thinking about the body…the body in fragments caught through snapshots,” she said. As she encountered the film, Johnston considered how live performative work is often presented comprehensively, from beginning to end in real time for an audience, while performative video or photography can sometimes allow for more discretion and choice-making around what is revealed and what is obscured.

In this sense, for Johnston, what is is not said and what is not seen becomes paramount.

“There’s this fragmented piece of body that is actually still finding a way to function and interact and come alive on the screen,” Johnston reflected of the film.

Following the screening, on July 29, Johnston will facilitate an animation workshop seeded by the notion of fragmentation, a concept that shows up in her own work as well, in pieces such as “Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” and her collage work, Between Contact. In this skill-building workshop, participants will have the opportunity to learn how to create a .gif through Photoshop and an animation through PowerPoint.

“Antique White and Flesh” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston expounded on the phrase “Fragments from the (W)hole,” her choice of title for this offering. “As people, we break off little bits of ourselves, and that’s what people get to see and interact with, but they all tie back to this part of us that is a larger, whole person,” she said. “There are moments where I feel whole, and then there are other times where I feel like a void, like an actual hole.”

Johnston spoke to the notion of fragmentation as a mode of moving through the world, the act of sharing pieces of oneself that connect back to a unique and complex human identity—yet, without revealing its wholeness. For her, there are a range of affective states evoked by this fragmentation, experiences of “feeling fully present and alive, and then moments of feeling like you’re not really here, not really there.” It is critical to consider, as she articulated, “what that means in terms of blackness, and what that means for how we [black folx] have constructed our identity, especially given the history of blackness as its constructed through photography.”

“My rat race of a mind has wired all these things together that I hope to communicate during the workshop,” said Johnston, musing over the marriage of concept with practical skill-building.

Ultimately, she hopes to give others, especially black femmes, opportunities to work with the camera and to create a kind of narrative—one that “allows for this complicated sense of being to exist.”

*****

Join the first and the last for a screening of Ayana V. Jackson’s work with Johnston on July 28 at 6 pm and an introductory animation workshop on July 29 at 6 pm. These events will be hosted at Alberta Abbey with the Black Life Experiential Research Group (BLERG). Both events are free and open to the public, and the animation workshop will be catered by Platanorising.

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast. Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more. 

 

FilmWatch Weekly: May it please the court

A film critic-turned-law-student looks at two new movies tackling legal matters

This week’s column necessarily begins with a personal aside. When it became clear to me in 2016, after years of writing about movies for The Oregonian (God rest its soul), that Portland’s daily newspaper was not willing to invest in regular local film criticism and movie reviews, I began to ponder other career paths. After the Events of November that year, I decided to see if attending law school was an option at my advanced age. It turns out that it was, and, long story short, I have recently concluded my 1L year at Lewis & Clark Law School.

That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my lifelong love of cinema, or my desire to help worthy works of art stand out amid the onslaught of mediocre mainstream moviemaking. Hence my efforts in this space, feeble as they may be. All this backstory is prelude to the fact that, less than two weeks after finishing spring semester exams, I find myself confronting a pair of films directly concerning the legal world, both fact-based and both opening the same weekend in Portland. Each has an agenda, to be sure, and each focuses on the Supreme Court, but other than that they couldn’t be more different in tone, quality, and entertainment value.

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the first and the last: An interview with kiki nicole and ariella tai

A new experimental film/video and new media arts project launches a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.

the first and the last, an experimental film/video and new media arts project germinating in Portland, takes its name from the epigraph above. It is spoken by the character Nana Peazant in the seminal film Daughters of the Dust, produced and directed by Julie Dash. In 1991, it became the first full-length film directed by a black, female-identifying director to be released in theaters across the nation.

Last week, I spoke with the first and the last curators, ariella tai (they/them) and kiki nicole (they/them), as they were gearing up for the Screening and Media Literacy Workshop with Melanie Stevens, taking place on April 19 and 20 at Ori Gallery. This will be the first of ten programs at various venues organized by the first and the last, including exhibitions and more screenings, skill shares, and workshops.

In a contemplative back-and-forth, tai and nicole—who are both black femme artists—articulated how the convergence of their experiences led them to create a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men in the context of the city of Portland, where the erasure of black communities and crisis of gentrification continue to propel dialogues and organizing efforts.

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Film Review: A Bosnian War epic emerges from “Underground”

Director Emir Kusturica's 1995 Cannes award-winner resurfaces in a restored edition

One of the most fascinating films of the 1990s returns to the big screen this week in Portland when Cinema 21 hosts a restored version of director Emir Kusturica’s 1995 historical fantasia “Underground.” The movie was a cinematic event when it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival 23 years ago, and it remains one today, both on its own terms and as a reminder of the conflict that shook the Balkan region during the first half of the decade.

The Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995 claimed somewhere around 100,000 lives and resulted in the displacement of over two million people, and saw genocide practiced in Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. It was precipitated by the breakup of Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the existential re-evaluation of national and ethnic identities it laid bare was one of the most significant immediate consequence of the end of the Cold War.

It’s only natural, then, that more than a few memorable, harrowing films emerged from the region in the years during and following the strife. Bosnian director Danis Tanović’s “No Man’s Land” won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, while Serbian filmmaker Srđan Dragojević crafted pitch-black comedy from the horror in 1996’s “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.” Hollywood’s efforts included Angelina Jolie’s feature directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” as well as Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo.”

But the most epic, memorable and problematic screen treatment of the dissolution of Yugoslavia was “Underground,” which may have been more appropriately titled in its five-episode television cut, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country.” The version that won at Cannes and cemented Kusturica’s status as a global auteur is less than three hours, but it’s still a sprawling piece of quasi-nationalist mythmaking that follows the fates of two friends over five decades on a surreal historical roller coaster.

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Aaron Katz on his new thriller “Gemini” and popcorn problematics

Katz's fifth feature stars Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in a Hollywood-set mystery

“Gemini” is a sleek, entertaining new thriller set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and drenched in celebrity culture. It’s also directed by Portland-raised Aaron Katz, and for anyone familiar with Katz’s previous work, that synopsis might come as a shock. “Sleek,” “glamorous,” and “celebrity” are not words one would typically associate with Katz’s films, which include the “mumblecore” (more on that loaded term later) landmarks “Dance Party USA” (2005) and “Quiet City” (2006) and the quirky Iceland-set buddy film “Land Ho” (2014, co-directed with Martha Stephens).

Katz experimented with the thriller form, sort of, in 2010’s “Cold Weather,” a reserved, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that was also the last film Katz shot in Portland. Relocated to Los Angeles, he’s made the city, as so many filmmakers do, a major character in “Gemini.” Without giving too much away, “Gemini” centers on Jill (Lola Kirke), the devoted personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather backs out of a big role at the last minute, she suddenly has plenty of enemies. It’s Jill, though, who becomes the prime suspect after stumbling upon a violent crime scene at Heather’s mansion. It’s up to the intrepid but somewhat hapless Jill to clear her own name and dodge the suspicions of a detective (John Cho) full of wry insinuation.

Lola Kirke in “Gemini”

I interviewed Katz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival when “Land Ho” screened there, but I didn’t have to go nearly as far when he returned to his hometown for “Gemini”’s screenings during February’s Portland International Film Festival. We chatted at a Southeast Portland coffee shop about the evolution of his filmmaking, life in L.A., and the evils of movie snacks.

You’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now. Is it mandatory for a director to make an “L.A. movie” and address the city as a subject once they’ve lived there for a certain amount of time?

I felt that way, for sure. I didn’t know what I’d think of the city when I moved there. Once we’d been there for about three years, it began to feel like I was going to write something about Los Angeles.

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