When Nick Bruno, Publicity and Promotions Director for the NW Film Center, introduced the opening night of the Portland International Film Festival by describing the nearly month-long event as a “survey of the best in contemporary world cinema,” I got the sense he’s had plenty of time to hone those words. Now in its 40th iteration (cue “XL” puns), PIFF is still figuring out what it’s supposed to be.
Every year, I contact Bruno with the same questions, and every year he does his best to try to give me anything but the same answers. This February, intuiting a different kind of joie de vivre in the festival air, I asked Bruno to offer his mission statement for PIFF, full stop. He responded appropriately:
I’m sure I’ve said it to you in past years, but it bears repeating: Our goal is to gather the best films that we can get our hands on from around the globe. If there’s a year with no French films that we feel are up to snuff (for the record, there were MANY French language movies present this and most years), we won’t include one. So it becomes a programmatic balance between covering as much of the globe as possible and keeping the quality of what’s offered at a certain level.
PIFF has shown obvious growth—this year roping in Valley Cinema in Beaverton as a venue for such festival highlights as Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, providing some wider regional coverage for suburban pilgrims—but has balanced that expansion with an eye for quality, notably showing their “PIFF After Dark” selections (scheduled by Bruno) on the massive 4K screen at the Bagdad Theater, in SE Portland’s bustling Hawthorne neighborhood.
“I tend to think that SE Portland is where the audience for the late night stuff is concentrated,” Bruno said of his success in convincing the Bagdad to participate. “Portland can be such a sleepy town, so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to have the After Dark shows in a neighborhood where there’s already some street traffic at night on the weekends.” Weekends at the Bagdad are typically reserved for audiences looking to have their senses obliterated by blockbusters and tentpole flicks (right now, for example: Logan), not a mean-ass, psychotically graphic disturbance in the time-space continuum like We Are the Flesh.
Back at opening night, February 9th, Bruno was welcoming us to a viewing of I Am Not Your Negro, one of many Oscar contenders shown at the festival. There’s little I can or should add to what Shannon Houston already wrote about the film, but in having it at the head of the festival—an urgent and insistent call for self-reflection and re-evaluation of the responsibility of “seeing” (especially in such a place as Portland, which, for all of its progressiveness, continues to price out predominantly POC communities and condone a police force with a sterling reputation for murdering mentally ill homeless people)—felt calculated beyond just giving Portlanders the chance to catch the Oscar nominated documentary a week or two before it gained wider distribution.
When Bruno and his colleagues at the NW Film Center —our regional “media arts resource and service organization,” founded in 1971 and offering weekly film retrospectives (of such hard-to-see titles as Chantal Akerman’s D’Est) as well as film classes—scoured the global for the 125+ films they’d show at the festival, they had no underlying thematic plan for how the lineup would manifest. They, as always, simply wanted to bring the best films to Portland that Portlanders would otherwise only hope to find on VOD, as theatrical distribution ’round these parts is severely lacking, to say the least. This includes chances to check out other Oscar nominees like Land of Mine and My Life as a Zucchini before the ceremony, but mostly they wanted to give local cinephiles the rare chance to see these movies the way they were intended to be seen—i.e., not within the confines of one’s home.
Yet, having watched the majority of the festival films (an occupation no attendee could ever hope to accomplish), Bruno offered some perspective: “PIFF felt more politically charged than in past years to me, while also covering a significant amount of ground in terms of the political subjects and the strategies by which they were dissected cinematically. We live in the time of Brexit, Trump and political uncertainty, and it feels like a lot of those tensions are suddenly jutting out in films being produced around the world.”
Bruno was referring to I Am Not Your Negro, of course, but also to the bevy of incisive, heart-unfurling documentaries PIFF presented. One was another Oscar nomination, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, an imagistic grasp at a few months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, 100 miles south of Sicily and the first glimpse of land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. With no voiceover and little context, the Italian director juxtaposes the lives of men, women and children barely sustaining themselves on the fringes of society, of humanity, with the everyday, mundane existences of the denizens of the island—both those who devote their lives to helping the refugees and those who work or play or eat big mounds of spaghetti without one thought for the deluge of sad souls passing over their home turf. In long takes and cinematography that aches with the need to push beyond the boundaries of the screen, Rosi indulges in the rhythm of that juxtaposition, daring us to move on from one atrocity after another in order to understand what moving on takes: a lot of boring afternoons and silent plates of spaghetti.
Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick begins his very personal documentary Buzz One Four—which premiered at PIFF—with an astounding shot of a nuclear mushroom cloud from above the clouds, a droning ambient soundtrack roaring to a fever pitch as the cloud takes explicit shape. From there, McCormick narrates the story of his grandfather, one of the U.S.’s select B-52 bomber pilots burdened with flying world-clearing, 4-megaton nuclear weapons on marathon missions over North America, staying ever-ready to drop them on Russia should the Cold War come to a disastrous head. The film’s strength is its wordless, practically impressionistic sense of gravity when pouring over so much found footage and assorted documents from the time, detailing just how much of the world’s destiny was shaped by human beings as susceptible to error—to the failings of the human body—as any one of us. I admittedly wish that McCormick had, like Rosi, avoided narration altogether, so lucidly do his images speak for themselves.
Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz works similarly to the aforementioned D’Est, but simpler, lining up ponderous, motionless shots in black and white of tourists crowding into the grounds of former Nazi concentration camps. It’s arresting despite what it actually contains: low-contrast, dadcore panoramas of Millennials taking smoke breaks or flirting with their tour guides while behind them nuclear triads of Middle American white families listen to anecdotes about assassinating Hitler and wear Jurassic Park promo gear, all of this in the bleached white sun on the grounds of a compound that not too long ago housed incomprehensible horror. Loznitsa, a Ukranian director who’s spent a good share of his career at Cannes, and DP Jesse Mazuch use unbroken takes of tour groups and families wandering around half-dehydrated, positioning the camera eye-level to drag the viewer through cycles of engagement—first curiosity, then boredom, then attention due to discovering a vast array of cultural signifiers and unintentionally offensive t-shirts and inane conversations, then curiosity and boredom again—finding countless ways to lull us into accepting the yawning banality of evil.
Which seemed to be what many of the films at PIFF begged we eventually accept: Evil is trite. Suffering is common. So it went with After Dark picks The Eyes of My Mother, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and We Are the Flesh, which Bruno remembers as the one PIFF film that most required a setting of expectations:
The directors of the short film Judy (which was paired with it that night) and I faux-apologized over and over again from the stage for the feature being shown that night. It was funny AND had the desired effect of prepping the audience for the completely bizarro film they were about to experience. I’ve certainly made the mistake of not fully setting the stage for films that are aggressively courting audience reaction before. It’s not always a pretty scene. Our lil’ pre-show song and dance number set expectations properly, and ended up eliciting some of the best post-screening discussions that I’ve had at PIFF in some time.
Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter’s debut film dredges up revulsive tremors in even the retelling, but the plot synopsis hardly readies one for the experience of watching it. Relentless in its incest and cannibalism and countless rending of every taboo imaginable, We Are the Flesh is a post-apocalyptic nightmare in which two siblings meet a nefarious hermit who convinces them to do unspeakable things in exchange for food and shelter. Minter seems hardly satisfied in forcing an audience to reflect on why cinematic carnage is so accepted, or even celebrated—he wants so much more. He wants to implicate the viewer in mortal sin.
Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV doesn’t require so much of the viewer’s digestive fortitude, but it is still pretty gross, and would probably make for a solid double-feature with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Both gain a lot of narrative footing from separating, with intimate and studied detail, the squishy flesh from the person trapped inside. In the case of Serra’s opulent historic bio-drama, that person is Jean-Pierre Léaud—noted personification of boyish youth-become-man in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films—who happens to be playing an infamous French monarch dying miserably, slowly and painfully from gangrene. Serra peels back sheathes of existential layers—of class, of patriarchy, of history, of scholarship and science, and then with casting Léaud, of fame and finally of the flesh—to reveal what’s ultimately beneath: nothing. If any of these films are drawing a line, it’s a feeble one and it demarcates the pointless difference between existing and not.
A beloved entry at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, The Death of Louis XIV joined other historically based award hopefuls at PIFF, such as Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows, South Korea’s overstuffed but well-executed martial arts epic and submission for the country’s Foreign Language Oscar, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, Juho Kuosmanen’s downright lovable piece of handsome minimalism and the Finnish submission for the same Oscar. Neither were nominated, but both find exciting ways to redefine what would be prototypical awards bait, Shadows imagining historical melodrama with the urgency of a genre flick (casting the always welcome Song Kang-ho, who must be South Korea’s Samuel L. Jackson, because he is in everything there), and Olli Mäki synthesizing the boxing film into a mild-mannered story about a guy who doesn’t have the “fight” in him to be a great fighter—and doesn’t seem to care.
Less refreshing is Atila Till’s Kills on Wheels, Hungary’s Foreign Language Oscar submission, in which a wheelchair-bound young man (Zoltán Fenyvesi) with aspirations to be a comic book artist insinuates himself into the good graces of a paraplegic mob enforcer (Szabolcs Thuróczy) recently out of jail. Till never turns disability into anything that should be pitied, but he never aims for anything more than a loose moral either, with a twist in the film’s dénouement that re-casts all of our protagonist’s chutzpah into the kind of thing that should be pitied.
The more one picks through the trove of available films at PIFF, the more it seems as if embracing a truly progressive stance on the current state of cinema doesn’t mean exploding the limits of taste—as, say, We Are the Flesh and Eyes of My Mother do in order to emphasize the triviality of tragedy—but by exploring banality through sexuality. In The Human Surge, Eduardo Williams depicts aimless Millennials engaging in unsimulated, listless sex acts to make a few bucks online, framing and lighting such scenes with the energy of a half-asleep high school student studying for finals. In Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues’s oddly hilarious The Ornithologist, a sexy bird scientist (Paul Hamy) undertakes a transformative, psycho-sexual spiritual journey through the jungle, which involves but is not limited to: having sex with a shepherd who may be Jesus Christ; getting really turned on by two Chinese pilgrims (who want to castrate him) stringing him up like a sadomasochistic Voodoo doll; and transubstantiating into the director himself in order to provide a blood sacrifice to the twin brother(?) of Jesus, who also becomes his lover. Williams and Rodrigues never once question the appropriateness of or indulge in the exploitation of such frankness on screen, instead turning all sense of judgment on the viewer: If this makes you uncomfortable—why?
In a mostly empty showing of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, a woman a few decades my senior sat a row away from me, coughing uncomfortably throughout. She cleared her throat upon the first full-screen close-up of female genitalia—which Guiraudie films with almost clinical curiosity—and then again during a full-screen close-up of a live birth, and then again during another full-screen close-up of the same genitalia, but with more pubic hair to (brilliantly I think) show the passage of time, and then again, loudly, upon a full-screen close-up of a man’s genitalia stroked, and then finally during a full-screen close-up of a pair of male genitalia, mutually fondled. The woman did not make a sound when the film’s main character (Damien Bonnard) wields a comically monolithic boner to literally fuck an old man (Christian Bouillette) to death. Guiraudie frames this assisted suicide “climax” in the same way he frames all anatomical showcases in the film: gently and concisely, as if gender fluidity is a given and omnivorous sexual hunger a sign of life.
But perhaps the film at PIFF that got to me the most—though I still can’t admit whether I accept the film’s final moments or not—is Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song. It’s about Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grief-stricken mother, and a schlubby, no-nonsense occultist (Steve Oram) going through a long, meticulous, painstaking ritual in order to communicate with her dead son. Gavin lays out the ritual specifically and physically—over the course of months of isolation, Sophia undergoes tests of endurance and humiliation, never quite sure if she’s participating in an elaborate hoax or if she can take her spiritual guide seriously when he promises her that he’s succeeded in the past. Paced to near perfection, A Dark Song is ostensibly a horror film but operates as a dread-laden procedural, mounting tension while translating the process of bereavement as patient, excruciating manual labor. In the end, something definitely happens, but its implications are so steeped in the blurry lines between Christianity and the occult that I still wonder what kind of alternate realms of existence Gavin is getting at.
A Dark Song thrives in the monotony of uncertainty. Sophia may hear phantasmagorical noise coming from beneath the floorboards, but then substantial spans of time pass without anything else happening, and we begin to question, as she does, whether it was something she did wrong (maybe, when tasked with not moving from inside a small chalk circle for days at a time, she screwed up that portion of the ritual by allowing her urine to dribble outside of the circle) or whether her grief has blinded her to an expensive con. Regardless, that uncertainty is the stuff of everyday life, and by portraying Sophia’s profound emotional journey as a humdrum trial of physical mettle, Gavin reveals just how much pointless work it can be anymore to not only live the most ordinary of days, but to make it to the next.
If anything ties all the films at PIFF together, it may be that: The personal is now irrevocably political—and all of it is a lot of thankless hard work. Which may be reading too willingly into a huge batch of very different films, but the fact that I can take the NW Film Center’s “survey” of contemporary foreign cinema and come out of it with a notion of some sort of through line in the way that artists all over the world are approaching the difficult, mind-bogglingly connected lives we all currently inhabit, that’s a luxury any film lover has to embrace.
PIFF XL once again proved itself indispensable, capturing this moment in international cinema and giving it to Portland as a wonderful gift. The festival may have ended a few weeks ago, but the best will always be yet to come.
Dom Sinacola is Sr. Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.