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.