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44th Portland International Film Festival (PIFF44): Take 1

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

The 44th Portland International Film Festival (PIFF44), my 24th festival, dating back to 1999, kicked off with the Cinema Unbound Awards on March 4. This one is a bit different from past festivals and not just for the obvious reason. There are fewer feature films and way fewer foreign offerings: forty-five features, seventeen international films. That may be in part due to the pandemic's effect on filmmaking, but there were fewer foreign films in the 2020 festival than in previous years. The features lineup is accompanied by thirty shorts, thirteen of them international. Fifty films can be viewed virtually, most of them at any time during the festival, which runs through March 14. Sixteen films (ten features, six shorts) will be screened at the Cinema Unbound Drive-In at Zidell Yards in Portland.

The NW Film Center's promotional campaign has it that the festival centers on both artists and cinematic storytellers who are bold enough to interrupt the status quo, and focuses on those changing for whom, by whom, and how cinematic stories are told. This translates to a lineup with a predictable social and political slant. On the whole, très woke.

I am not comforted by references to changing the "archaic" paradigm of what cinema can be, which appears to refer at least in part to moving away from films in theaters and it seems even away somewhat from traditional features. You know, streaming into home entertainment centers, laptops, smartphones, who knows what else. Or something. This is a continuation of the direction that emerged at the late in 2019 and at the beginning 2020, prior to the pandemic's onset. It is not just a matter of making the best of this year's circumstances. My interests, what makes film important to me, and the film center's mission are diverging both in how films will be seen and in what will be seen. Yes, the world changes. The film center may be doing precisely what it needs to do to remain viable. Perhaps something is gained. Almost certainly something will be lost. Who will notice?

Virtual screenings are better than not at all, but a lesser experience than at Whitsell Auditorium and participating theaters. That part goes beyond aesthetics. I miss my PIFF pals I see once a year at the festival: Bob, Gloria, Nadine, Gwedolyn and Drew, Steve, Elaine, Jane, and others. That too is part of the festival. Maybe next year.

Otac (Father) (Serbia | 2020)

dir. Srdan Golubovic

(120 mins)

Nikola and his family live in abject poverty in a small Serbian town. His daughter and son are taken away from him after his wife sets herself on fire in a desperate attempt to get the factory that let him go two years earlier to pay the remaining salary and severance package owed him.

The program notes provide only this brief description: "When a father is faced with the corrupt social services taking away his children, just because the family is poor, he sets out on foot across Serbia to appeal…" This is a little misleading. What is to be done for children living in miserable conditions where even when Nikola manages to get running water again and the electricity turned back on there is still no hot water, no heat in the bathroom, no food in the refrigerator? Everyone is poor. There are no jobs. Nikola earns what he can as a day laborer. The local center for child welfare is headed by a corrupt official who places children in foster homes with families in his home village, relatives and friends who receive a subsidy from the state for taking them in. The deck is stacked.

Nikola sets out walking to Belgrade, 180 kilometers away, to deliver his appeal in person at the ministry. The miserable trek is lightened by small acts of individual kindness by people he encounters along the way. Even so his quest seems hopeless, with only a faint glimmer of possibility that something good might come of it. Otac is moving but grim. Maybe not a must see, but definitely one I am glad I saw.

More anon.

Yr obdt cinephile

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