The Portland International Film Fest (PIFF) is big. As in "Important." As in "There's nothing else like it in Portland, and every year, it's worth checking out—even when it's not anything to get excited about."
Which is weird, because PIFF should be an enthusiasm-worthy event: The fest offers a truckload of foreign films, all playing downtown, many of which will never get domestic distribution. The Northwest Film Center (NWFC)—Portland's "regional media arts organization" that puts on PIFF—boasts in its festival welcome notes that "the Northwest Film Center's annual showcase of new world cinema" has "134 films from three dozen countries" this year. For any Portland cinephile—and especially those of us whose tastes go beyond Hollywood or New York—PIFF should be an epic event.
The problem is, it's not. It's hard to locate a solid number of Portlanders who even know about PIFF, let alone have any loyalty to the fest. (And here's a fun challenge: Try to find anyone—outside the film geek clique—who even knows what the Northwest Film Center is.)
So, if Portland's a film-friendly town (which it very much is), and if PIFF offers some good stuff (which it can), why is PIFF, after 29 years, still an afterthought for most film-loving Portlanders?
One reason: PIFF's not a real film fest. Unlike a real fest—one with juries, prizes, entries, events, guests, panels/seminars/lectures, and public interest—PIFF's program is almost single-handedly selected and scheduled by one man, the NWFC's long-standing (and, by many reports, atrophying and monarchistic) director, Bill Foster. Entries? Nope. Prizes? Nuh-uh. Visiting filmmakers? Sorry—PIFF is less like a genuine film festival, and more like an extended showcase of Foster's favorite films.
Another reason might be the selected films' targeted audience—in lieu of edgy, buzz-worthy films, late-night screenings, or inventive, non-screening events, PIFF largely aims to please the NWFC's dependable old patrons—their donors and members, the Silver Screen Club. (NWFC doesn't give out age data on its members, but in this case, "silver" has more than one connotation.) So instead of international films that might attract younger, more enthusiastic, or bigger audiences—say, a screening of the much-ballyhooed Russian smash Night Watch before it gets nationally distributed next month, or a showing of Tony Jaa's latest Thai action flick, or Takeshi Kaneshiro's smash Chinese musical, Perhaps Love, or the latest from Takashi Miike—we get festival-targeted dramas and films that've already made the rounds at a thousand other vaguely defined international festivals. (To be fair, there is some lip service paid to fans under the age of 60—last year had Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, shown months before its wide release in the States, and this year PIFF has Chan-Wook Park's follow-up to Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. But largely, PIFF's content with inoffensive populist fare—from Danny Boyle's lightweight crowd-pleaser Millions, which screened last year, to this year's lightweight crowd-pleaser, the Full Monty-esque Kinky Boots.) And all this isn't to say that there aren't a few intriguing offerings at PIFF this year: Nick Cave's (he's a screenwriter now, apparently) period drama The Proposition; the latest from Ghost World's team of Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, Art School Confidential; Werner Herzog's latest, Wild Blue Yonder, a "science fiction fantasy" narrated by an alien.
But do you notice a trend? No? Good, because there's not one, just as there's hardly any other constant in the fest. It's not that a successful film festival has to have a monotonous swath of like-minded films or featured styles, but it should have an identity, a purpose—what it can't be is just a bunch of seemingly random, questionably chosen screenings thrown under a communal banner.
So maybe that's it: With its scattered program and its insistence on having no real personality, maybe that's why it's so hard to get excited about the Portland International Film Festival. PIFF is big, and it's important—which is exactly why it's time to ask why the festival seems content to be what it is to a few, when it could be much more to many others.