I LOVE THE TIMING of the annual Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival (POW Fest). It comes a week after the Academy Awards, which has seen only four women nominated for Best Director Oscars in the ceremony's nearly 100-year history. (Just one, Kathryn Bigelow, actually took home the honor, for 2008's The Hurt Locker.) Whether you watch the Oscars for the pretty dresses, see every film and place bets on the winners, or do your best to ignore the whole damn thing, it's hard to argue that the winning films represent the best American cinema has to offer. (Shutting down the argument that the Oscars have ever had much authority requires only two words: "Forrest" and "Gump.")
POW is a welcome antidote to the Academy's desperate fêting of what its members still seem to think is the status quo. Demoralized about Jared Leto failing to acknowledge the trans community in his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for a role as a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club? Check out A Self-Made Man (screening Sat March 8), a beyond-heartwarming documentary about a trans man who runs support groups for transgender teens and their families. Glad to see 12 Years a Slave acknowledged, but wish contemporary issues around race got the same eager attention as historical racism? Don't miss Gideon's Army (Sun March 9), a look at African American public defenders working with a predominately black population group in the Deep South.
The documentary offerings at POW this year are stellar. A Self-Made Man is humane, compassionate, and full of hope—the stories we hear about trans people often focus on their struggles, but A Self-Made Man is a reminder that transitioning makes life better, for both trans people and—often—their families. And while it's hard to call Gideon's Army hopeful, it is a necessary look at the criminal justice system, and the underpaid public defenders who work themselves sick to ensure that everyone gets the legal counsel to which they're entitled. Gideon's Army is a rare piece of filmmaking, a perfect pairing of captivating human drama with social advocacy, and should probably be required viewing for all citizens. Also worth noting: My Long Neck (Sun March 9) is a look at a Thai tourist trap called "Long Neck Village," where Kayan women—their necks elongated with metal rings—work in something like indentured servitude. The Australian filmmaker, uncomfortable with her status as yet another gawking outsider, handed the camera to the women who work at the village. The results are fascinating.
I wasn't as enthralled by the festival's opening night film, Redemption Trail (Thurs March 6). Despite being set on a ranch, Redemption Trail is not actually a cowgirl lesbian love story (frowny face); rather, it's a drama about how two women pick themselves up after traumatic events. There are some strong performances, but the film is plagued by hammy flashbacks and writing that often threatens to flatten its characters into caricatures.
The fest also offers several shorts programs—don't miss local filmmaker Alicia J. Rose's captivating The Gift of Gravity (Sat March 8), about a posse of Portland mean-girl teens who cruise around town in their hip vintage Chevy, acting like beautiful assholes until they're forced to confront the reality of a classmate's (somewhat cartoonishly terrible) home life.
POW's focus on female directors means that the scope of the festival is as broad as the scope of women's curiosity and imagination. There's no essentialism, no promise that "women's issues" will be addressed; as far as I can tell, there are no films about red wine and chocolate. It's just a festival where the filmmakers happen to be women. It's easy to sit on the sidelines of pop culture and complain about women's representation in the media. POW is actually doing something about it.