With this year’s edition of the Portland Film Festival kicking off tomorrow, we spoke with co-founder and executive director Josh Leake about what to look out for at the ninth edition of the spirited Northwest fest.

Running from October 30 to November 5, 2017, PDXFF 2017 will screen 152 narrative and documentary features at the city’s iconic Laurelhurst Theater, among other treasured venues. Riding the wave of Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s recent official declaration that Oregon is the State of “Independent Film,” and Mayor Ted Wheeler’s that Portland is the “City of Film,” PDXFF 2017 is set to showcase an increasingly diverse pool of moviemakers and stories that reflects its inclusive indie community. In the conversation below, Leake gives a taste of what’s to come at this year’s fest, and gives some insight into its newly expanded regional programming, educational initiatives, and more.

Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Of all the highlights of this year’s Portland Film Festival, which are new additions to the fest, and what was the reasoning behind those new additions?

Josh Leake (JL): We have a couple of new things, like The Portland Lens. In years past, we’ve screened Portland films but, we haven’t made that our large focus, so we felt that this year we should curate some really good Portland films. If we don’t, there’s really no other organization showing Portland films. We’re not going through and just screening a film because it’s from Portland. We’re going through and we’re curating the cream, and giving some Portland filmmakers the opportunity to screen their films. It’s kind of cool that we’re screening a Portland film, one or two, every day of the festival. So it’s very, very local.

Another thing that we’ve added this year, since our festival was in November, which coincides with Native American heritage month, we found a lot of indigenous films in our submissions, and we thought, “Why wouldn’t we screen a track of indigenous films?”

MM: What were the most interesting observations you made from a programmers’ perspective when you noticed that uptick in submissions from indigenous moviemakers? 

JL: That’s a good question, but I should say first off that our festival is volunteer-based—we’re all filmmakers. I’d say this year, between 95 and 97 percent of all the films we’re screening were paid submissions. We don’t curate a lot of films. In fact, the only films that we tend to curate are our revival films. This year, we’re screening a couple of films that have anniversaries, usually because they were filmed in Oregon, or there was some sort of Oregon participation. But in general, we curate very little and we focus on submissions.

That said, when we saw an increase of indigenous submissions, it’s not only indigenous filmmakers, but indigenous stories. It’s one of those things where once you start to look at four or five or a couple thousand of these submissions, you start to see patterns. Some of those patterns are things you don’t want to highlight, but some of those patterns are amazing. And this indigenous tract, to me, is a unicorn for a film programmer, because it touches on so many things that are hitting our society today. Our whole team—Brad, and Molly and the many pre-screeners we have—did an amazing job this year.

MM: The number of festivals whose entire programming is focused on indigenous films and filmmakers seems to be growing year over year. It’s a fantastic opportunity for folks to facilitate a dialogue, establish common ground, and share and compare narratives with similarly resonant themes. 

JL: That’s a great thing. Those are some voices that haven’t been heard in popular culture. And the voices that we have heard from them have been, in many cases, damaging. It’s about time that some of these stories don’t pigeonhole. We all are familiar with the racist portrayals of indigenous people in Hollywood history. Any time we can right a wrong we should. We actually have several Native Americans who are volunteers on our staff. There’s probably not an event for film that doesn’t have a volunteer with someone of diversity. This year, 56-58 percent of our films were directed by women, and 80 percent of our staff are women.

MM: Was there ever a discussion your team had internally about whether or not there should be that level of representation of female voices? 

JL: Definitely not. That wasn’t a conscious decision. In fact, we didn’t even know what we programmed until we were done. I didn’t even find out about it until we were sending out submission acceptance letters. We were playing the better films that were submitted. Now there were still tons of other great films, we just didn’t have room to play every great film. We tried to play the films that we thought played best to our audience.

MM: Through your partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Portland, you’ve shown the shorts playing at your fest to kids aspiring to be future filmmakers, to help them make their own films. What is the nature of the conversations had during those educational initiatives? Are kids attending screenings simply reacting to the films? Or is it geared more toward giving them tips on the technical side of things?

JL: We’ve done all of the above. In fact, in years past, we always screen movies outside schools, we’ve done it at homeless shelters. We try to go out in the community and meet people in their own environments, and then introduce films that may have some voice or impact in their lives. Our festival started and grew out of a group of people that met once a week to watch a movie, and then talked about it for about an hour after. We call it the Portland Film Club. This festival was started five years ago by the 2,800 members that belong to this group, and what we saw was that this is a great exercise for kids—not only to work on their own self-confidence, but to improve their ability to empathize with other people. Those are things I think that we lose in our everyday lives. I think that empathy is really missing a lot in our popular culture and in a lot of the big-budget movies. They’re losing subtlety. That’s the thing that you can get from going to a film festival versus just going to a big buck theater.

A participant in PDXFF’s Future Filmmakers program puts her future in focus. Photograph courtesy of Portland Film Festival

MM: What were some of the standout questions, statements or reactions from the kids during those screenings? What ideas were they working through as they’re coming to understand films and filmmaking?

JL: Well, it’s just like adults. I remember I was at a screening at SXSW and someone asked the director how much it costs to make a movie, and Janice said “Shut the fuck up, you can’t ask that question.” Obviously we did not follow that model she gave us, but kids are interested in the same things adults are in the same thing adults are: “How did they make that? How much did it cost.” But to me, the most intriguing thing is when they start talking about a film like, “That guy really bullied everyone,” and they start to empathize with these characters in the films, and relate them to their own live. To me that is much more interesting than telling kids that they can go out and get a Canon camera and shoot with it. Obviously education on making the film is important, and that’s something we’re doing with them, but I think that film has so much more that it can do for people and for kids. You can teach a kid to use a camera, but if you can teach a kid to empathize, or see a story in a different light, that’s a person that will be much more educated and helpful in society overall. Especially with the whole political fever we are living in today in our culture, having empathy, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

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