Portland International Film Festival: A Challenging Global Line-Up in the Pacific Northwest

Portland, Oregon, isn’t exactly known for its diversity, but the old logging town–turned–“livable city” has, for decades, apparently, possessed an unusual thirst for international cinema.

This year, for the 39th time, the nonprofit Northwest Film Center presented the Portland International Film Festival, curating a formidable and compelling collection of 97 feature films and 62 shorts from more than 30 countries.

There are a lot of reasons a festival such as this would thrive in Portland. Besides the efforts of an organization like the Northwest Film Center, which brings some of the best international cinema to Portland all year round, the small city has a reliable and enthusiastic movie-going audience, along with a surprising number of robust independent theaters. And this year, eight unique venues on both sides of the Willamette River—many of them longtime PIFF supporters—signed on as festival partners.

Anchored by a loyal base of Northwest Film Center members and a band of enthusiastic and eclectic sponsors from the private and public sectors, the festival is well-supported, sustained and organized. The Portland-based animation house Laika is a year-round sponsor of both the Northwest Film Center and the festival. A number of foreign consulates, local restaurants, universities, radio stations, publications and foundations are on board. Also, this year (at the risk of having to widen the girth of venue theater seats next year), Portland’s iconic Voodoo Donuts joined the club, and helped advertise the festival with sprinkle and frosting interpretations of participating countries’ motifs.

A spread of Voodoo Donuts at PIFF's opening night

A globally themed spread of Voodoo Donuts at PIFF’s opening night. Photograph by Jason Quigley

Despite all the sugar, a decidedly bleak vision of the world was represented this year. That’s not surprising, as the world has become a noticeably darker place in past few years. This seems reflected in the crop of the most awarded international productions. Some notable examples at the 39th PIFF were The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzman, Chile), an extraordinary, unique and poetic feature-length documentary connecting water, genocide, indigenous history, politics and nature; Magallanes (Salvador Del Solar, Peru) a riveting drama addressing the lasting psychic wounds Peruvians still suffer after the Maoist-inspired insurrection that ripped the country apart—and the ongoing scourge of poverty, corruption and income inequality there.

Federico Luppi (Coronel Rivero)- Damian Alcazar (Magallanes)

Federico Luppi and Damián Alcázar in Magallanes. Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Then there was Court (Chaitanya Tamhane, India), a compelling drama focusing on the suppression of free speech, and a meditation on the dysfunctional, unjust, anachronistic legal system in modern India. Tamhane’s film is a brilliant first-time directorial effort employing nonprofessional actors, including bank employees, government employees, and teachers. Lucky viewers also had the opportunity to see Land and Shade (César Agosto Acvedo, Columbia), winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2015, a quiet, beautifully shot and devastating story of a family destroyed by the environmental and economic consequences of industrial sugar cane farming. And one of the highlights of the festival was the highly anticipated latest film The Lobster from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (of Dogtooth fame), a surreal, dystopian romantic drama that won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.

Land and Shade

César Agosto Acvedo’s Land and Shade. Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

The festival was well-attended, with numerous sold-out screenings this year. (Last year’s attendance, according to organizers, was 40,000). Though the festival claims it “absolutely wants members of the community to see themselves reflected in what’s on offer in the festival,” scarcely a foreign tongue could be heard either at the opening night party or at many of the screenings. With so much to offer the immigrant community, it’s not clear why there is such a lack of audience diversity at the festival: whether it has to do with the price point of tickets and passes, the fact that most people whose first language is not English live farther and farther from the city center, or lack a connection with Portland’s mainstream cultural events.

Another thing: The age of audiences at the screenings seemed almost exclusively people over around 60 years old. It’s not clear here whether the absence at the festival of Portland’s famous young, bearded craft beer brewers, punk rockers or pajama-wearing millennials was due to a lack of interest in international cinema or, again, due to the fact that tickets and passes for the festival are not cheap. Portland is no longer the affordable city it used to be, and it’s controversial that many naked bike riders have to travel much farther to get to the annual event.

Producing an event on the scale of the Portland International Film Festival is a huge, costly and complex endeavor, and it’s crucial that the well-to-do traditional patrons keep attending and supporting it. But introducing this global cinematic menu to the growing number of people who actually speak the languages represented in PIFF’s fare—even if it involves offering discounts or vouchers—could be an investment needed for this wonderful festival to continue to grow half a century and beyond, and also help immigrant communities with limited resources feel more at home in the cultural life of this city.

Crowds fill the theater for PIFF's opening night

Crowds fill the theater for PIFF’s opening night. Photograph by Jason Quigley

If you were in Portland during the festival, and had a hankering to see a powerful story in Basque—a mysterious language, whose origin is unknown and classified in its own linguistic family—you were in luck. You could have seen When a Tree Falls by Asier Altuna Iza, a beautifully photographed, moving drama about the children of a farmer determined to break their ties with the land and move to the city. This is not an obscure, inaccessible movie to which a non-Basque speaker would not be able to relate. In fact, a number of Oregonians wouldn’t have been mistaken if they saw their own story right through the translation. MM

The 39th Portland International Film Festival ran February 11 – 27, 2016.

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