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44th Portland International Film Festival (PIFF44): Closing It Out

The film festival exceeded my modest expectations. I saw eleven films in virtual fashion. The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (India), Slalom (France), and A Son (Tunisia) are outstanding. Others range from passable to pretty good. Nothing was truly bad.

A Rifle and a Bag (India, Italy, Qatar, Romania | 2020)

dir. Cristana Hanes, Isabella Rinaldi, Arya Rothe

(90 mins)

Program notes: Somi and her husband met and fell in love while fighting alongside the Naxalites, a communist guerrilla group that has been fighting since the '60s for the rights of the tribal communities of India. After a decade of armed struggle, the couple deserted the movement and surrendered to the police. Ever since, they have been striving to forge a new identity, educate their two children, and eventually reconcile their violent past with the fervent desire to integrate into the hostile Indian society.

The Naxalites are an armed Maoist rebel group that have been fighting the Indian state for the rights of tribal people for the last fifty years. The government considers them the biggest threat to India's internal security. Under the government's surrender policy individual Naxalites are granted a pardon in return for deserting the movement.

Somi and her husband are ensnared by the intricacies of government bureaucracy and the caste system when they try to enroll their son in school so he can have an education. For the this they need the father's tribal caste certificate, which he does not have. The certificate can only be issued in his tribal village, where he risks being recognized by the Naxalites and killed if he returns. As they try to find a way we learn a bit about their background, why Somi and others joined the Naxilites, and why they left the group, and the desire shared with parents everywhere for their children to have a better life.

Interesting and informative, with insights into a culture and way of life far removed from my own.

Alberto and the Concrete Jungle (US | 2020)

dir. Chris Shimojima

(105 mins)

Program notes: Alberto Buenaventura is that increasingly common breed—a digital nomad living on the road, unattached. But not much else is common about him. He’s not only a successful photojournalist; he befriends strangers and gets involved in unusual whimsical adventures. Then just as quickly, he’s off to the next place, following the spontaneous current of life. Leaving NYC, however, proves to be a different type of beast. Al’s attempts to find a way out lead him all over the 5 boroughs, forcing him to deal with various groups of colorful characters that complicate the process and in some cases, make him re-examine his lifestyle… Will he escape the lure of the city? Filmed guerilla-style in the middle of real street life, Alberto subverts, deconstructs, and transforms the adventure genre into something Kafkaesque.

Al's plan to split New York for Cluf-Napoca, Romania, is waylaid when he falls into the clutches of an evil magazine publisher who threatens to frame him for cocaine possession or even murder if he does not sign on to a year-long project taking photographs of the woke for a series to run in the magazine. Desperate to move on, Al hopes to buy his freedom by photographing the mysterious, elusive street artist known as Z. His pursuit of Z leads him to a former girlfriend who is mightily ticked off because he left, a laundromat where he is wrongly accused of assault by the owner, then assaulted by a young man mightily ticked off when he learns Al has been to see the former girlfriend, and Marina, a freelance writer and like Al world traveler, who is herself trying to track down Z for a story.

Al and Marina team up with reluctance. Their quest takes them back and forth across the city's five boroughs, to assorted bars, coffee establishments, and the Essential Bunch, a cultish writer's group and self-help community. In the process Al's compulsion to leave, to always be going somewhere else, runs up against a growing realization that he is lonely. Of course Marina has something to do with the latter. The set-up is stereotypical. They do not hit it off at the outset, constantly bickering and trying to one-up each other with their globetrotting exploits. A growing attraction plays out in bittersweet fashion as each reflects on what the heck they are doing with their lives.

Alberto and Concrete Jungle is lighter fare than anything I have seen thus far at the festival, and maybe a little lightweight, but entertaining and good for some much appreciated laughter.

The Invisible Father (US | 2020)

dir. Thérèse Heliczer

(57 mins)

Program Notes: In the 1960s, beat poet and experimental filmmaker Piero Heliczer helped shaped New American Cinema, and was enmeshed with iconic filmmaker Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground at the very start of their careers. Through interviews with family and friends, found photos, and archival footage, Piero’s daughter, Thérèse, explores the artistic legacy and life of a man she never knew. This intimate documentary explores the promise and perils of leading an authentic, creative life, and the impact that it can have on the people you leave behind in the process. Can you make peace with never knowing your father if you can find a connection to him through his art?

Nicely done and unexpectedly moving documentary about an obscure figure on the countercultural scene during the second half of the twentieth century. The film is as much about director Thérèse Heliczer's search for the father she never had as it is about Piero. Thérèse was nineteen when they met. Piero was drunk, disheveled, and not coherent. He suffered from mental illness and in the 1980s lived at times on the streets in New York.

As a young man Heliczer attended Harvard, where he was booted out after stealing a statue from the Fogg Museum, putting it on his mantel at home, and waiting the authorities to show up. He knew Beat writers in Paris in the 1950s. There are photos of him with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, interviews with Anne Waldman, Gerard Malanga, John Cale, Piero's sister, and Thérèse's mother, archival footage of Piero's mother, and recordings of phone conversations between Piero and Ira Cohen. Fragments of poems read by Piero and others are interesting enough to merit delving into further.

Piero Heliczer was born in Italy in 1937 and died in a motorcycle accident returning home from a poetry reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1993.

And that wraps it up for my PIFF44. Next year to the theaters!

Yr obdt cinephile

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