LAST MONTH, at a ceremony with very little else to recommend it, Laura Poitras won an Academy Award for Citizenfour, her documentary about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Citizenfour is a movie about two men: Snowden, in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong as he prepares to leak stolen NSA documents, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, as he works on the articles that will break Snowden's leaks to the public.
Snowden and Greenwald were the public face of the story, but Poitras was behind the camera. She's the reason Greenwald and Snowden connected in the first place—she introduced the two after Greenwald blew off Snowden's initial overtures. In his book No Place to Hide, Greenwald describes Poitras as "one of the most focused, fearless, and independent individuals I've ever known."
Citizenfour was a late entrant to POWFest, otherwise known as the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival. And sure, it's been out for a while; you can see it on HBO or at the Laurelhurst. But if you're going to see Poitras' movie, and you should (it screens Sat March 14), there's no better place to see it than POWFest, a festival dedicated to supporting female filmmakers.
That's because, as a festival, POWFest is staunchly motivated by the numbers. Women directed less than five percent of major studio films in 2014, according to an analysis conducted by the LA Times; that's down from a high of 8.1 percent in 2010. POWFest exists to provide opportunities for female filmmakers. There are no thematic constraints, no directive that films must be about women (though many are) or deal with "women's issues" like body image or female friendships (ditto). POWFest's only submission requirement is that the film is directed or co-directed by a woman; this year, that just happens to include some of the most important reporting on government overreach that's ever been done in the US.
Festival opener The Sisterhood of Night (Thurs March 12), on the other hand, is a strained adaptation of a great Steven Millhauser story that takes place in a world that's much like ours, with a few key differences: Teenagers still use Facebook, and no one's ever read The Crucible. When a group of girls in a mysterious "sisterhood" take a vow to stop using the internet, a jealous outcast spreads rumors that the girls have formed a demonic cult. While demonic teen-girl-cults have a ton of promise, Sisterhood is campy without being particularly fun.
The shorts programs are organized loosely by subject—"Quirky," "Dark Tales," animation—and they're predictably hit and miss. Australian short The Real Zombie Housewives (Thurs March 12) is a surprisingly clever reality TV-show spoof; meanwhile, local effort The Punishing Business (Thurs March 12) features a solid cast of Portland actors, but is totally derailed by the regrettable decision to cast one of them as a mentally disabled woman. (Why are filmmakers still doing this? Does anyone not cringe?) People with siblings will appreciate American Gladiators (Fri March 13), a perceptive, understated look at how a brutal rivalry between young sisters is affected when one of them becomes seriously ill.
The closing night documentary feature is a safer bet: States of Grace (Sun March 15) is an earnest film about a prominent doctor rehabilitating after a near-fatal accident; she's cared for by her former partner and the disabled, HIV-positive teenager they adopted together years before. (Unexpectedly, it was novelist Isabel Allende who connected the couple to the opportunity to adopt their daughter; Allende makes an appearance in the film.)
As a post-festival bonus, on Monday, March 16, as part of their monthly Reel Feminism series, POWFest is sponsoring a screening of the charming abortion romcom Obvious Child at the Clinton Street Theater. It's a good reminder that the best way to support women filmmakers is to see their movies all year round.