Portland True to Its Audiences: "Joe" and "Harmonists" Take Prizes
By Jeff Winograd
"This is not a festival for the industry, this is not a festival for the press," Festival Director Bill Foster proudly proclaimed. "This is a festival for the local community." Many festivals are a chance for filmmakers to be seen and make deals, but a few remain true to their audiences. The Portland International Film Festival (Feb. 12 - 28) is dedicated to its audiences and makes a concerted effort to serve them well. Foster doesn't even like to think of the festival as its own entity. To him, the festival is just another part of the ongoing programming of the Northwest Film Center. (The Center offers classes in film production, seminars for the filmmaking community, and runs a year-round program of films.)
The 22nd Annual Portland International Film Festival included 62 features and 30 short films with sections for first time directors and a special section this year, '2000 Seen By,' which focused on the coming of the year 2000. The overwhelming focus, however, was international films. "American films never play as well for us as the foreign films," claims Foster, though he isn't exactly sure why. It isn't for any lack of quality; Sundance favorite "Three Seasons" screened as did the Sundance competition film, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole," Hal Hartley's newest project, "Book of Life," and the much-acclaimed Paul Schrader film, "Affliction." Programmed by Foster, the festival is "more than 90% invitational," so it is imperative that Foster keep his ears open for films that play well at other festivals around the world.
Several awards were given out as part of this year's festival, the most prestigious prize, the Blockbuster Audience Award, was shared between Ken Loach's "My Name is Joe" and "The Harmonists," directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, which tells the story of a singing group during the rise of the Third Reich. Tony Bui was again praised for his work on "Three Seasons" with the New Director Award. The prize for Best Short Film went to Daniel Greaves' "Flatworld."
At Portland, however, the focus remains on the audience. When directors are asked to participate, it is so that audiences will have an opportunity to interact with them, (and not to merely promote their films.) In attendance this year were "Fishes in August" director Yoichiro Takahashi, Tod Williams of "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole," Tony Bui from "Three Seasons," as well as Mweze Ngangura of "ID." Several distributors sent representatives to the festival, but nothing like the circus that can erupt around such events as Sundance or Toronto. "There is no acquisition buzz to contend with," said Tod Williams, who prefers the environment at a festival like Portland. "It is all about the movies."
All the way from the Republic of Congo, Mweze Ngangura is not terribly selective about festivals, because he feels that each festival offers him "de bouche à oreille," meaning word of mouth. The Portland fest, like the many other festivals around the globe, according to Ngangura, helps build an awareness for his films all around the world. "ID" is the story of an African King who goes to Belgium to find his long lost daughter. Although the story is very place specific, its themes have a universality that stretch far beyond Belgium. His was just one of the excellent films from Africa to be shown at this year's festival. Others in attendance included "Life on Earth" from Mali, "Bent Familia" from Tunisia, and the brilliant "Commedia Infantil" from Mozambique.
It is always difficult to summarize the supposed best of any festival. The crowd in attendance this year had tastes that varied greatly. "I Stand Alone," the disturbing film from France's Gaspar Noe, led many people's list of favorites and yet others, including a local critic, chose to walk out of this dark melodrama. "The Powder Keg" from Yugoslavia and "Innocent" from Turkey both inspired similarly divergent reactions. Two films from Great Britain, award winner "My Name is Joe," and "My Son the Fanatic," written by Hanif Kureishi, were both widely appreciated. The powerhouse documentary, "Photographer," which tells the story of the Holocaust ghetto through a collection of color slides taken at the time, was also praised. Other strong showings included Erick Zonca's "The Dreamlife of Angels" from France, the Russian parody "The Outskirts," directed by Peter Lutsik, and the beautifully told "Tomas et Juli," directed by Ildiko Enyedi.
The four shorts programs were generally quite strong. As is often the situation in these showcases, there were some films with little to offer, while quite a few used the medium well. David Fourier's "Majorettes in Space" manages to satire the Pope, sexuality, puberty, all the while making a potent statement about AIDS. Dario DeLuca's "La Lettera" is a beautiful adolescent love story told brilliantly through strong black and white photography and creative use of the camera. Elizabeth Schub's "Cuba 15" tells the story of a Cuban girl having her "quincenera," (her socially important fifteenth birthday) and the changes this brings to her life. Director Matthew Harrison had a nice showing with his humorous look at a film set interruption in "Bystander From Hell."
Interspersed with the intensely human shorts were quite a few animated pieces. Most of these showed great technical prowess and were intensely interesting to look at. Unfortunately, this year's animated shorts were mostly devoid of any sort of strong story. Even the award-winning "Flatworld" seems to rest more on look than substance.
Some audience members complained that they weren't able to see every program. Some wanted the festival to run more programs in a day. Though everyone can't be pleased, one of the most notable elements was the camaraderie created by audience members. At each screening, festival regulars would gather in the aisles before showtime, compare notes on the latest screenings, and discuss upcoming schedules. Portland is a unique environment and Bill Foster creates a strong program that offers something for everyone. For director Tod Williams, watching is all that matters, "Even if I lose everything, even if I didn't make a penny on my film; festivals would be an opportunity to have someone see my film." And watching film is the only thing that matters here in Portland.
[Jeffrey Winograd is a writer/director living in Portland, OR. He recently co-created and directed the Sundance Trailers for this year's festival.]