43rd Portland International Film Festival (PIFF43): Take 1

The 43rd Portland Internal Film Festival (PIFF43) kicked off with Friday's opening night films and festivities. The festival has been a highlight of my year since I discovered it in 1999, my first winter in Portland. PIFF is the handiwork of the NW Film Center. The film center and its international film festival are among our city's shining jewels.


I passed on opening night, as is my wont, so am unable to comment on that. I attended once and found it a tad zoo-ish for my taste. That is merely one of my idiosyncrasies, of which there are several. Many, many people get into the opening night gala, hence, zoo-ish. It's not for me. There are all sorts of ways to enjoy the festival. I found mine.


This year brings dramatic changes to the festival format. PIFF43 is five days shorter than its predecessors. There are markedly fewer films on the program, and of those films, my subjective impression without making a count is that there are more American films, with emphasis on Oregon and Washington films, fewer foreign offerings. Advance preview screenings open to the press and members of the Silver Screen Club at the director level and above were reduced from thirty to fourteen.


This year's festival includes an expanded array of events, workshops and panels, and other features that, like the new focus on regional films, are promoted as an enhancement while coming as a trade-off at the expense of foreign films and the opportunity to attend advance screenings that drew people to support the film center as Silver Screen Club members.


Promotion of films and filmmakers in the Northwest is part of the NW Film Center's mission. Longtime supporters I spoke to, and others I overheard grumbling, are all for promoting regional cinema. Their objection is using PIFF as a vehicle when the consequence is that the international aspect of the international film festival is diminished. As far as I know none of this has been acknowledged by the film center in its public promotion of the festival or in communication with Silver Screen Club members.


What we have gotten by way of communication is the center's Cinema Unbound marketing and fundraising campaign, which features heady rhetoric about pushing cinema's boundaries. The festival program touts PIFF as "more than just a gathering of film lovers":


PIFF elevates unique voices. During PIFF, audiences and artists forge new connections through events that push cinema's boundaries. From this stage, PIFF strives to act as a platform for underrepresented voices and serves as a catalyst for cultural appreciation, conversation, collaboration, and community building.


I want to stress that I believe Cinema Unbound reflects the good faith judgment of new film center director Amy Dotson and her staff about the course the center needs to take so that it can fulfill its mission and flourish. Perhaps many will find these developments exciting and welcome pushing boundaries in ways that may well appeal to younger, hipper, and more woke sensibilities than mine. For me, the focus appears to be less in line with my interests. If it plays out as I suspect it will, that will be my misfortune, my loss. As my old friend Brooklyn Judy used to say, sometimes things just be that way.


I do not want to belabor these points, but I do feel that they should be mentioned when reporting about PIFF43. Now, on to what we are here for, the films themselves. I have seen some good ones.


Advocate is a riveting documentary about Israeli civil-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, who for more than fifty years has represented Palestinians and their families in Israeli courts. Tsemel is a remarkable character, irrepressible, cranky, cantankerous, indefatigable, and a maestro of colorful language. She never wins. Her clients are, after all, Palestinians on trial in Israeli courts. When a journalist asks what is her title, she replies at once, "Loser lawyer." Questioned about defending terrorists and their families, she does not back down one inch, telling the interviewer, "Israelis have no right to tell Palestinians how to struggle." The Israeli public, she explains, has gradually promoted her from "devil's advocate" to "human rights lawyer." She describes herself as "a very angry, optimistic woman."


The film includes photos and video of Tsemel throughout her career and interviews with her husband, son, and daughter. Her husband is also an activist. They met as students when she was a member of a left-wing group. He first saw her during a confrontation between her group and angry counter-protesters who questioned how they as Jews could support Palestinian causes. She was a beautiful, "fashionably dressed woman" in a "mini mini mini" using expressions he'd never heard, curses. A week later he joined the group. He says he does not know if it was the ideology or her legs that drew him in.


Years later Tsemel's husband was arrested when an organization he was associated with was accused of publishing PLO propaganda. His interrogator was brutal and fearsome. When he told his lawyer, Lea, she had to get him out, she pointed out that the same interrogator had used the same tactics when he interrogated one of their colleagues fourteen years earlier. She told him, if you can't stand up to someone who has had the same job for fourteen years without a promotion, you are not worthy to be my husband. He tells the interviewer this was what he needed to hear.


I overheard two women remark that they found the documentary difficult to watch because they are Jewish and they consider actions of the Israeli government so awful and the situation so hopeless. One questioned Tsemel's approach, saying that her participation in the judicial process is an acknowledgment of its legitimacy. Interesting perspectives.


This is one of my favorites. Perhaps it will make it to theaters for a regular run. Catch it if you get the opportunity.


Advocate (Switzerland/Israel/Canada)

dir. Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones

(114 mins)

PIFF43 program notes & trailer

Again Once Again. What would an international film festival be with an existential-crisis film? Romina, played by director Romina Paulus in what the program notes say is a lightly fictionalized version of herself, is not exactly separated from her boyfriend, father of her three-year-old son Ramón, but they are not exactly together either, when she and Ramón move back to her hometown and in with her mother. She is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants her life to be. What sense we get of the boyfriend is gleaned for the most part through phone calls. He seems to be admirably able and willing to go with it while Romina figures things out.


Not much happens by way of action. Still photos are flashed on the screen as Romina relates her family history. She is of German ancestry and the family still spoke German at home when she was a child. There is a lot of conversation, some of it amusing, with some nice takes on contemporary mores and culture. Romina reconnects with her best friend, who tells about her father showing up for his 70th birthday party wearing a dress, or rather, she came as a woman. It was very brave, says the friend, and very annoying because he did it in front of the children. Romina speculates that children understand perhaps better than adults there are all kinds of different people in the world. Is she pretty? Romina asks. You remember my father's broad back? the friend responds humorously. Imagine a flowery dress and what do you see?


Romina goes to a party. She and her friends, all other young women, drink and dance. She gives German lessons and flirts with a young fellow studying the language in preparation for a trip to Germany. Later she fools around with her friend's younger sister when the girl makes a pass. Romina and her mother play with Ramón in scenes that can be cute and entertaining but tend to run on pointlessly.


Scenes where characters speak directly into the camera or engage with each other in intellectual study and discussion are reminscent of Jean-Luc Godard's political films of the late 1960s, except that the rhetoric is feminist instead of Marxist and Maoist.


In the end Again Once Again is a slight film that is almost considerably more. Too much feels like filler in a film that is not overly long (not that I am inclined to complain about a film being too short). Even so, I find it in some sense intriguing, maybe one of those films that become more interesting upon reflection afterward than while watching it. On the one hand, the film is rambling with too much that contributes little; on the other, I would kind of like to see it again and pay close attention to the dialogue. The final scene could have been gripping, but what led to it was not quite strong enough for it to come off as it might have. It is possible I missed something.


Again Once Again (Argentina)

dir. Romina Paula

(84mins)

PIFF43 program notes & trailer


Fire Will Come was shot in a remote village in the spectacular mountains of Galicia. The film opens with the return home of Amador, a middle-aged man who has served two years in prison for arson. He lives with his mother in an old farmhouse and helps her tend to her garden and three cows.


The villagers seem to accept Amador's return even though the fire he presumably started threatened to burn down the town. I say presumably because nothing is revealed about the fire, how or why he may have started it, or even if he might have been falsely accused.


Fire Will Come is another film where for the most part not much happens. We are drawn into the characters as they go about the pedestrian routine of daily life. Amador is not the communicative sort. Nothing indicates he is given to reflection. Yet there is something okay about him that comes across. He seems a decent guy.


Amador's mother, Benedicta, tries to find him work with a group of men who are restoring some old houses that they hope to rent to tourists. A woman vet, new to the village, meets Amador when she is called on to tend to a sick cow. She is a little bit taken with him even after she learns from others about his past. Then comes a harrowing climax with a forest fire that leads to a stunningly abrupt ending. Fire Will Come may not be to everyone's taste. I liked it.


Director Oliver Laxe starred in The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are not Brothers, where he played a young Spanish filmmaker directing a film being shot in Morocco. The Sky Trembles screened at PIFF 2016 and is as bizarre a film as I have encountered in two decades of attendance at the festival. The conclusion of Fire Will Come called it to mind.


Fire Will Come (Spain/France/Luxembourg)

dir. Oliver Laxe

(90mins)

PIFF43 program notes & trailer


More anon. Signing off for now,

yr intrepid cinéaste

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David Matthews

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