Portland International Film Festival

Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

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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.

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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.

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Comment: Our Bodies Our Doctors

An Oregon-made film about abortion providers premieres at the Portland International Film Festival. Friderike Heuer looks at the issues.

Story and photographs by Friderike Heuer

The Portland International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, March 7, and continues through March 21, has a long (42 years and counting) and honorable tradition of focusing on controversial subjects. This year is no exception. On March 8, International Women’s Day no less, it features the world premiere of Our Bodies Our Doctorsa documentary film by Janice Haaken exploring the experiences of contemporary abortion providers.

The team: Director Jan Haaken front center; from left to right: Katrina Fairlee, Sound Recordist, Timothy Wildgoose, Photography, Caleb Heyman, Co-director of Photography, Samantha Prauss, Assistant Director. Not featured: David Cress, Producer.

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Act globally, view vocally: PIFF’s Portland ties

The Portland International Film Festival's second week is dotted with Oregon-sourced cinema

As the 41st Portland International Film Festival rounds the far turn and enters its second week, a mouth-watering array of cinematic flavors remain to be sampled. (We’ll even mention a few of them below.) But PIFF has always done an excellent job demonstrating that Northwest films and filmmakers can stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside their intercontinental kin—and that they can do so without losing their unique local charms.

Greg Hamilton has been a familiar figure in the Portland film firmament for years. He’s organized tributes to director Les Blank, single-handedly kept “Fast Break”—the classic documentary about the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers—in the public eye, and serves on the board of the Hollywood Theatre. Now he’s making his debut as a director with a portrait of another local institution: “Thou Shall Not Tailgate” profiles the Rev. Chuck Linville, an old-school Portland oddball who drives his elaborately festooned art cars around town when he’s not relaxing in his home amid equally eccentric decor.

Greg Hamilton, director of “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

The 25-minute film, screening as part of the shorts program “Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness,” lays interview audio with Linville over archival footage of his automotive exploits. Linville really is an ordained minister (Hamilton first met him at a wedding he performed), as well as a former Postal Service worker and an original member of Portland’s Cacophony Society. There’s a whole section devoted to him in Chuck Palahniuk’s myth-making Portland travelogue, “Fugitives and Refugees.”

One of the creations of the subject of the documentary “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

In other words, Linville and his Church of Eternal Combustion are the epitome of what we talk about when we talk about “Old Portland.” He’s not trying to create a personal brand, or exude some sort of cultivated weirdness. He’s just a guy who, as he puts it, gets bored easily. And who likes to glue hundreds of baby-bottle nipples to the top of his station wagon. “Thou Shall Not Tailgate,” though, isn’t meant as a simple nostalgic gesture, says Hamilton. Instead, it’s “paying witness to the transformation of Portland,” perhaps trying to inspire future kooks by spotlighting those who know how to do kooky right.

(“Shorts 4: Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness” screens at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Whitsell Auditorium.)

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41st Portland International Film Festival features hidden gems from Tunisia, Spain, Romania

Not every movie worth seeing at this year's PIFF stars Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert

I recently wrote a piece for The Oregonian listing the ten most anticipated films of this year’s Portland International Film Festival. This made sense because (a) people likes lists; (b) the early deadline for the piece meant there was precious little opportunity to actually see the films; and (c) it’s a relatively easy way to concoct a PIFF primer for casual movie buffs.

By “casual movie buffs” I mean folks who might dip their toes into subtitled waters once in a while if the film was made someplace they’d like to visit, but who won’t necessarily be trying to sneak chocolate bars into the latest Polish zombie flick or avant-garde effort from Iran. Don’t get me wrong: anyone who patronizes PIFF (or pays money to see a foreign-language film under any circumstances) is a cut or three above the typical American moviegoer in terms of sophistication.

But Portland’s true connoisseurs of cinema know a couple things that normal people don’t.

First, they know that most of those hotly “anticipated” titles, starring Juliette Binoche or Steve Buscemi or whoever, will most likely be returning to a local arthouse screen at some point in the next few months, whether it’s the Hollywood, Cinema 21, the Living Room, or (shudder) the Regal Fox Tower (a place I always refer to by its full corporate name just to invoke the image of a haughty vulpine monarch perched on the pinnacle of an antiseptic office building).

Second, PIFF veterans know that, quite frequently, the true joys of the festival come from those under-the-radar oddities you only go see because everything else is sold out, or because you lost a bet. It used to be that anything from outside Western Europe, Japan and maybe South America was officially cinema exotica, but these days the borders of middlebrow taste are drawn more along lines of genre than geography. For every familiar, universal story of familial reconciliation from Nepal, there’s a thrash-metal musical based on Joan of Arc. For every potent tale of a mother’s love and dedication from The Congo, there’s a button-pushing story about racial epithet-filled rap battles from California, USA.

With that in mind, I’ve started burrowing through the overwhelming number of advance screeners, trying to focus on the stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily jump out at me. I’m dying to see the final film from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, or the new documentary by the indefatigable Alex Gibney, or the documentary about Mister Rogers, or (especially) the movie based on Willy Vlautin’s novel “Lean on Pete.” And I’ll get to all of them. (To be honest, I would have already watched those last two if they were available, but alas…)

One great example of a film worthy of discovery but at risk of getting lost in the vast ocean of PIFF is Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s fiction feature debut, “Beauty and the Dogs.” It catches the eye with an opening scene at a party that begins with two friends in a bathroom and ends with one, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), leaving with a guy she just met. This all unfolds over the course of one seven-minute shot, as do each of the next eight scenes in the film. The second chapter starts with Mariam and her new friend at a clinic trying to obtain medical certification of the rape she has just endured at the hands of the police.

From there, Ben Hania’s formal gambit pays off as it enhances both the tension and the dread of Mariam’s efforts to report the crime over one long night. “Beauty and the Dogs” depicts Tunisian society’s relative cosmopolitanism as well as its persistent misogyny, and features a powerful central performance by Al Ferjani. Ben Hania’s previous film, “The Blade of Tunis,” was a fake documentary in which she tried to track down a criminal infamous for slashing random women’s buttocks, so she’s clearly not afraid of engaging in critiques that require extra bravery even in the more Westernized parts of the Arab world.

Different in almost every way from “Beauty and the Dogs,” the Spanish animated feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” fairly matches it in intensity despite being a cartoon featuring a bunch of talking animals on a journey. This isn’t a family-friendly romp, though—it’s set in a dreary post-apocalyptic world, and in an early scene our young mouse-eared protagonist’s verbally abusive father accuses him of being on cocaine. But neither is it some Ralph Bakshi-esque exercise in raunchy subversion: there’s real pathos in the quest of Dinki and her friends, a rabbit and a fox, to track down her old friend Birdboy, a reclusive junky and quasi-folk hero who lives in the middle of a vast wasteland. Co-director Alberto Vázquez based this visually original, tonally unique tale on his own graphic novel, which he initially made into a short film that played at the Northwest Film Center in 2015.

For a more conventional experience, and one with at least a little bit less existential foreboding, check out “6.9 on the Richter Scale,” a Romanian romantic comedy (Romromcom?), centered on a seismophobic actor in Bucharest experiencing crises both domestic and professional. He’s terrified that the apartment he shares with his depressed, jealous-minded wife won’t survive the earthquake he’s sure is imminent. He’s playing Orpheus in a stage production opposite a pretty but talentless Eurydice. And then the father he hasn’t seen since he was five shows back up in his life, trailing carnal chaos in his wake. A far cry from the dour films (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) its home country is known for, this wry and charming movie culminates in a bizarre musical fantasia.

These options only scratch the surface, of course, of an event that includes nearly 90 features and eight programs of shorts. But they serve as a useful reminder that in Portland’s annual cinematic cornucopia, some of the most delectable treats can be found almost by accident.

 

“Beauty and the Dogs” screens at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Laurelhurst Theater, and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Cinemagic.

“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” screens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Cinemagic, and at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Empirical Theater at OMSI.

“6.9 on the Richter Scale” screens at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Whitsell Auditorium, and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Regal Fox Tower.

For a full schedule and details, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/piff41/

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:

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