The Northwest Film Center’s office is undergoing some changes.
When I visited in early February, some ancient carpeting had just been removed, leaving behind a telltale stain on the concrete. They were working to transform the lobby into a gallery space in time for this year’s Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), when the office will screen a wild, 11-hour omnibus called The Eyeslicer, which jams together the work of 70 different filmmakers, mixtape-style.
“We’re working in collaboration with Movie Madness and First Thursday,” says Amy Dotson, director of the Northwest Film Center. (The Eyeslicer will simultaneously play across town at Movie Madness’ new “miniplex” screening room.) “We’ll be showing a 90-minute version in the Whitsell Auditorium, as well as having a mobile projection unit projecting on the outside of the Portland Art Museum. Without buying a ticket, you can still come around, see new things, be exposed, and have access.”
It’s Dotson’s first PIFF. After 13 years with New York’s Independent Film Project, she joined the Northwest Film Center in September 2019, following the retirement of longtime director Bill Foster, who led the organization for 37 years. Dotson’s inaugural year sees the conjoining of the globally minded PIFF with the Northwest Film Center’s other big annual event, the Northwest Filmmakers Festival.
“We’re taking the best of PIFF, which is incredible international cinema, and we’re taking the best of Northwest Filmmakers Festival, which is amazing voices in Northwest cinema, and we’re combining those.”
“We’re taking the best of PIFF, which is incredible international cinema, and we’re taking the best of Northwest Filmmakers Festival, which is amazing voices in Northwest cinema, and we’re combining those,” says Dotson, who also curates new media for Northwest Film Center’s partner, the Portland Art Museum. “We want to bring the world to the Northwest and the Northwest to the world.”
The melding of festivals means that renowned international films like Brazil’s Bacarau will sit next to Kelly Reichardt’s Oregon-shot First Cow, and France’s animated dog saga Marona’s Fantastic Tale will screen alongside the premiere of Portland filmmaker Jesse Blanchard’s full-length puppet monster movie Frank & Zed—putting locally made work on equal footing with films that have played in festivals around the world. (And on equal footing with mainstream blockbusters, too: This year’s PIFF also includes screenings of Pixar’s latest, Onward.)
This new PIFF is part of the Northwest Film Center’s “Cinema Unbound” rebranding, which encompasses the Film Center’s year-round goals. “What ‘Unbound’ means to me is that cinema can take many forms,” Dotson says, emphasizing the increasingly blurred lines between film, television, podcasting, advertising, and other mediums. “We’ll have a number of events that play outside the boundary of film. It’s something that’s still cinematic in nature, but it might be audio, it might be projection-based, or it might be something that blurs the line between what we thought cinema was and what it can be.”
To that end, this year’s PIFF will feature some medium-agnostic programming, including a six-hour live performance of John Cameron Mitchell’s Anthem: Homunculus podcast, several workshops and panels, and a performance by the Oregon Symphony of Luciano Bario’s Sinfonia accompanied by animation from local artist Rose Bond. There’ll also be the inaugural Cinema Unbound Awards ceremony, with recipients including Mitchell, Bond, Todd Haynes, and more. And of course, there’s a full slate of features and short films, sourced from around the world and the Northwest.
By combining their two big festivals, the Northwest Film Center has ended up with the most focused, concise PIFF lineup in years. Overall, there are fewer films than in years past, and the international scope has been noticeably reduced. (For instance, this year there’s just one film from Africa: the Sundance award-winning This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.) But past years’ sprawl often made navigating PIFF a daunting task for casual filmgoers; this year, Dotson and the Film Center’s mission of making the festival more inclusive is front and center.
“It’s a really interesting time for this organization,” says Dotson. “Next year’s our 50th anniversary. So I think a lot of the challenge is really saying, ‘Okay, [this has been a] pretty amazing place both for our community and our region for 50 years, but what do we want to be for the next 50?’”
The 43rd Portland International Film Festival runs from Fri March 6-Sun March 15. For a full schedule of events and screenings, visit cinemaunbound.org.