Scour the Earth 

The Vision and Obstacles of the Portland International Film Festival


BILL FOSTER, director of the Northwest Film Center, had just received a letter from the Chinese government when he and Ted Hurliman, the organization's exhibition program assistant, met me for coffee. I had contacted them to learn more about the curatorial process of the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF)—to find out why the festival (which this paper has historically greeted, at turns, with mourning and criticism as well as support and enthusiasm) is what it is.

The missive—demanding that Foster assure the Chinese government in writing that PIFF would not be showing any films about or in support of Tibet this year—is indicative of the complications inherent in pulling off a festival of this size and complexity. In this instance, at stake is a threat to retract permission to screen Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death—a film that, ironically, dramatizes human rights abuses suffered in China during the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" at the hands of occupying Japanese forces. Foster is feeling uppity about complying; PIFF isn't showing any Tibetan films this year, but that's just a coincidence. He doesn't want to look like he's capitulating to their demands. Then again, as he says, "It's a good movie."

But outside of the odd postal pas de deux, perhaps the largest looming factor in PIFF's existence—and likely the underlying root of complaints about its habitually hodgepodge offerings—is the fact that in its 33rd year, the festival is still just one of the many arms of the Northwest Film Center. Under the Film Center's umbrella exist a film school, youth outreach programs, and a calendar of programming that includes other major events like the Northwest Film and Video Festival and the Reel Music Festival. Foster readily admits that stand-alone festivals are better able to apply themselves year-round to defining their focus, and one imagines they would also be better able to get out ahead of the distribution and logistical hurdles that the average filmgoer rarely has cause to consider—but which, together, form a picture of what PIFF's organizers are up against.

Money, of course, is an issue, especially now, when corporate funds are drying up (Hollywood Video, long a major sponsor of PIFF, is off the table this year and "demising as we speak," says Foster). Downtown's Guild Theater, which was once the Film Center's primary venue, has been sitting unused since, as Foster tells me, the Pastini restaurant next door moved in and discovered during remodeling that the Guild's bathrooms were technically in its space. The Film Center doesn't have an extra million lying around to jump in and resurrect the perfectly good (but bathroom-less and therefore functionally useless) old theater, so the festival now splits itself between the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium, Broadway Metroplex, and Cinema 21, breaking up the walk-able downtown trifecta of yore.

While there's a burgeoning filmmaking scene in Portland, it's not enough of a filmmaking hub that studios are particularly interested in premiering films here, nor is there any particular urgency for films to be shown on opening or closing night (Coraline, which debuted last year as PIFF's opening night film, was a notable exception). This year's opener is I Am Love, a stunningly sensual and bombastically melodramatic Italian film directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton, chosen primarily for its broad appeal and star power, but other hot tickets, like the American political documentary The Shock Doctrine and the Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aren't given any particular hype (or even screened by PIFF for Portland critics). One problem is that the festival is put into the somewhat awkward position of wanting good press for the festival in general—which serves as an entry point to the Film Center as a whole—but is under pressure from studios who don't want the local media shooting their load now on the great films that will come back for wider release later in the year.

What this all adds up to is a little more work for the fans: We're lucky in that Foster and his staff are working year-round, in tandem with planning for their other events, to cull the best films from festivals and submissions. Every year, there are a good number of films well worth seeking out. Foster and Hurliman's personal favorites this year include the mafia drama A Prophet, the British hard-luck hiphop character study Fish Tank, American documentaries The Art of the Steal and Sweetgrass, the vibrant Russian musical Hipsters, and South Korean action-adventure comedy The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which Foster describes as "a spaghetti Western set in Manchuria."

More than just an opportunity to see good, hard-to-come-by movies, PIFF is an environment in which you can do so with a community that shares a passion for the global perspective vicariously accessed through international film. It's as much about being ahead of the curve as being in the thick of early buzz. See the films, yes—but talking about them afterward is perhaps just as important. As Hurliman succinctly says, "Your opinion's kind of moot until you share it."

For the Mercury's take on this year's PIFF offerings, see Film Shorts.

Speaking of...

A Prophet
Rated R · 150 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard, Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit
Producer: Martine Cassinelli and Antonin Dedet
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Antoine Basler, Gilles Cohen, Farid Elouardi, Sonia Hell and Pascal Henault
Police, Adjective
Rated NR · 115 min. · 2009
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Writer: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cast: Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu and Serban Georgevici
The Wedding Song (Tunisia)
Rated NR · 100 min.
Director: Karin Albou
Writer: Karin Albou
Producer: Laurent Lavolé
Cast: Lizzie Brocheré, Olympe Borval, Najib Oudghiri, Simon Abkarian and Karin Albou
Gigante (Uruguay)
Rated NR · 90 min.
Director: Adrián Biniez
Writer: Drián Biniez
Cast: Horacio Camandule, Leonor Svarcas, Ignacio Alcuri, Fernando Alonso, Diego Artucio, Ariel Caldarelli, Fabiana Charlo, Andrés Gallo, Federico García and Néstor Guzzini
The Art of the Steal (2009)
Rated NR · 101 min. · 2010
Director: Don Argott
Producer: Sheena M. Joyce
The Warlords (Hong Kong)
Rated R · 110 min.
Official Site:
Director: Peter Ho-sun Chan
Writer: Tin Nam Chun and Junli Guo
Producer: Peter Ho-sun Chan, Andre Morgan and Huang Jianxin
Cast: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Xu Jinglei
Rated NR · 105 min. · 2010
Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash
Cast: John Ahern, Elaine Allestad, Lawrence Allestad and Pat Connolly
The Girl on the Train
Rated NR · 105 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: André Téchiné
Writer: Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset
Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Émilie Dequenne, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Michel Blanc and David Barbas
I Am Love
Rated R · 120 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo and Luca Guadagnino
Producer: Luca Guadagnino, Francesco Melzi d'Eril and Marco Morabito
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Pippo Delbono, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Diane Fleri, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson and Waris Ahluwalia
Terribly Happy
Rated NR · 90 min.
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Writer: Henrik Ruben Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, Lars Brygmann, Anders Hove, Jens Jørn Spottag, Henrik Lykkegaard, Bodil Jørgensen and Peter Hesse Overgaard
October Country
Rated NR · 80 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher
Writer: Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri
Producer: Michael Palmieri
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Rated R · 120 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Writer: Ji-woon Kim and Min-suk Kim
Producer: Jae-Won Choi
Cast: Woo-sung Jung, Byung-hun Lee, Kang-ho Song, Ji-won Uhm, Kyeong-hun Jo, Kwang-il Kim, Cheong-a Lee, Dong-seok Ma, Dal-su Oh and Seo-won Oh
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)
Rated R · 148 min.
Official Site:
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Writer: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg
Cast: Peter Haber, Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, David Dencik, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Köhler, Lena Endre, Per Oscarsson, Ingvar Hirdwall and Gunnel Lindblom
Mid-August Lunch
Rated NR · 75 min. · 2010
Official Site:
Director: Gianni Di Gregorio
Writer: Gianni Di Gregorio and Simone Riccardini
Producer: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Calì, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi and Petre Rosu
Garbage Dreams
Rated NR · 82 min.
Director: Mai Iskander
Writer: Mai Iskander


Now Playing

Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for A Prophet, A Shine of Rainbows (Canada/Ireland), About Elly, Bluebeard (France), Charlie Haden: Ramblin Boy (Switzerland), Cooking History (Czech Republic), For the Love of Movies, Garbage Dreams, Gigante (Uruguay), Heiran (Iran), Heliopolis (Egypt), Hipsters (Russia), Home (2008), I Am Love, John Rabe (Germany), Learning from Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei (US), Lourdes, Mid-August Lunch, Music on Hold, My Year Without Sex (Australia), October Country, Police, Adjective, Protector (Czech Republic), Reporter (US), Short Cuts I: International Ties, Short Cuts II: International Ties, Small Crime (Cyprus/Greece), Sweetgrass, Terribly Happy, The Art of the Steal (2009), The Girl on the Train, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden), The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Letter for the King (Netherlands), The Reverse (Poland), The Warlords (Hong Kong), The Wedding Song (Tunisia), The Wind Journeys, Through a Glass, Darkly (Norway), Welcome (France), or Window (India)

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