This year's Portland International Film Festival came and went in a blink of an eye. It covers three weekends with movies every single night at various theaters in downtown Portland. This year, they had more theater locations. When I lived downtown, it was so easy to get to more movies, because they start at 6 p.m. during the weeknight. Where I live and work now, it takes at least 45 minutes by bus to get downtown and that left little time to get dinner. So, the past couple of years, I haven't seen as many as I did a few years ago.
In January, I eagerly await the release of the program booklet, which gives a short description of the approximately 135 films that will be shown during the Film Festival. The films are organized by country. I read through the descriptions and make a list of about 10 to 12 films that I would like to see. My preferences are weighted by country (France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Thailand get top consideration) and by subject matter (anything dealing with life in a communist country, anything dealing with a road trip or a journey, anything with spiritual content). The agony comes when I have to narrow down my list to about five. The tickets are $10 per film, so even $50 is a splurge.
This year, out of the five I wanted to see the most, one film (a road trip movie out of Argentina) had not been received by the festival at the time I bought tickets, so I only bought tickets to see 4 films. I could've picked another film that was on my list of 10, but I decided to buy a T-shirt since I love this year's logo (see above). It's the 35th anniversary of the Portland International Film Festival. When I make my selection, I hope that I made the right choice. I've gotten better at selecting at my third and fourth year attending (2009 and 2010). Last year, I did not make such great selections. Here were my choices this year:
The first film I saw was from Brazil, called Por el Camino or Beyond The Road (the actual title for the English release). A Brazilian boy gives a Belgian girl a ride in Uruguay and takes her up the coast. They stop in small towns and get to know each other in bits and pieces. There are adorable scenes (such as a dog being so thirsty that it tries to drink water out of an abandoned swimming pool and falls in and swims around until the young man pulls the dog out of the pool), interesting people (supermodel Naomi Campbell appears in a scene and talks about a fashion designer she refuses to model for because of his not using black models to wear his clothes on the runways of the industry shows. She actually names him, but I don't remember who it was), beautiful scenery, and incredibly soulful music. I want the soundtrack! My favourite moments of the movie are when people gather round to sing songs. There's just something universal and appealing about those moments in life.
The movie is mostly about watching two people get to know each other on a journey, though they don't seem to have much in common. The girl is looking for a man she had a crush on, who lives on a "hippy commune" somewhere. The boy is looking for a new career. Two people searching for a missing part of life and the audience gets to watch it, as though we are watching two people. It is an interesting film, though not a great one. I enjoyed the scenery (I'm a sucker for a road trip), but I loved the music the most. On my ballot, I gave the film 4 out of 5 stars.
The second film was from the Czech Republic, called Identity Card. It reminded me of a Polish film I saw last year. Basically, a coming-of-age story about a young man who dreams of being in a rock band with his buddies. In this one, a group of four boys receive their Identity Card on their 15th birthday, which is symbolic of their becoming members of Czechoslovakian society. In the ceremony, they are called up on stage to receive their passport-like documents, much like a high school graduation ceremony. The boys pull a prank on the Communist official who congratulates everyone with a handshake and later on, their school teacher defends them when questioned about their conduct. The boys hang out on a hillside overlooking Prague, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. They proceed to tear a page out of their Identity Card booklet (I believe it was the oath to the communist party or something of that nature).
This was a long film, but contained so many impressions that I did not want to leave this world. The beautiful, young teacher shows the humanity in spite of the dehumanization of the communist system. When an outraged father interrupts a parent-teacher conference to deliver a notebook of "obscene poetry" that he caught his daughter reading that was given by a boy, he demands that she find out who the guy was and severely punishes him. She tries to be diplomatic and assure him that the culprit will be punished, but in reality, she keeps the notebook for herself and shares some of the passages with her co-worker for laughs. She was truly the coolest character in the film. I love movies that feature unconventional teachers. You know how it'll end, though. No matter what film it is, teachers that inspire the students the most seem to end up losing their jobs because they are a threat to the bureaucratic system, which can't have students being inspired to things greater than being a cog in the wheel. When a little girl witnesses a teacher and a gym teacher having sex on gymnastic mats in the gymnasium and reports it to this teacher, she advises her (and the other girls with her) to not say anything because it will cause problems for everyone. But, the secret got out and she faced a disciplinary hearing, where the two guilty teachers pretend that nothing happened.
Another storyline was about a family where the teenage boy does not respect his father's choices. He believes his father lacks courage to stand up to injustice. The parents excitedly report that they have received exit visas to go on vacation to Yugoslavia's Adriatic coast. The teenager doesn't want to go, but does so and sulks all the way to the border. The scene at the border crossing is fascinating, as every part of their luggage and car is scrutinized and we learn that this family wasn't just planning a vacation. They were hoping to defect and they were busted when extra money was found, along with copies of a resume and letter of a job offer in America were discovered by the border guards. They return to their home humiliated, because such an attempt to defect has devastating effects on the father's career. At a hearing, he faints and becomes a shell of himself. A zombie going through the motions and rarely speaking. It is such a heartbreaking trajectory, especially when the teenage son realizes that his father was trying to get his family out of the life they had to live. The problem with totalitarian countries is that people have to keep secrets and not be honest with one another for fear of being reported by snitches. The snitch in the movie is not trusted.
The movie also covers the various attempts by the boys in getting out of the conscripted military service. Some of it is hilarious, others are sad. By movie's end, the viewer does understand what life was like in communist-era Czechoslovakia. I've always had a positive impression of Czechoslovakia, so I had no idea that it was pretty hardcore communist. Maybe not quite as severe as East Germany (considered to be the most oppressive of the Soviet satellite countries), but still pretty bad. This movie takes place in the 1970s and the boys wear their hair long, like counterparts in the United States. This is my favourite film that I've seen at the Film Festival this year.
The Silver Cliff is the third film that I saw. It is from Brazil and set in Rio de Janeiro. I decided to see this mostly because it was in Rio de Janeiro. However, the way it was filmed, it could have been in any city. There were no familiar landmarks, except for the beach at night. It's about a woman who copes in the aftermath of her husband deserting her. The movie doesn't make sense, though, because in the early scenes, they have some graphic sex. The following morning, they kiss each other with a shower screen door between their lips. The lady goes to work (a dentist) and the husband walks around the apartment naked, gets a drink out of the fridge, and leaves. The lady keeps calling her husband's phone number and getting his voicemail. She grows more and more frantic, to the point where she can't even do her job cleaning someone's teeth and just walks away (how unprofessional).
She cries a lot, then decides to leave her teenage son alone with a teenage cousin and go to a city in northern Brazil where her husband supposedly is. She rushes to the airport and learns that she missed the last flight of the evening. So, she spends an all-nighter hanging out: a discotheque, a beach (where she meets a man through his very friendly young daughter), and the airport. The movie is slow and focuses too much on details of daily life that doesn't make for exciting storytelling. The only thing I liked about the movie was the scene in the discotheque. The scene had a song that I had not heard in a long time: "Maniac" by Michael Sembello. In the movie, the lady dances to strobe lighting to this song and it automatically made me think of the film Flashdance (where the song was originally from). This was likely an obvious nod to that American film from the early 1980s. The movie was boring!!! This was the film that I liked the least and wished I got my money back. I'm sure at least two of the films that didn't make the cut would have been much better than this one. The grieving woman only made me wonder what is wrong with women to be so distraught and attached to such assholes. I wanted someone to slap her and say, "Get over it, bitch!" The movie does not explain why the husband leaves. All we see is the aftermath. The woman is attractive, though. She should hook up with me. I wouldn't leave her like that. The husband seemed like a dick. She definitely could do better.
The fourth and final film I saw earlier today. It is from Thailand and called Eternity. That turned out to be a good title, because it does require your patience. Scenes stretched out for what seemed like eternity. Without dialogue. I feared that it would be just as bad as last year's Thai movie at PIFF: Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, all we see is a wide shot of a field with a hill in the background. Slowly, a man on a motorcycle comes closer and closer towards us, then disappears behind the camera. Then turns around and goes the other direction and audiences watch until he disappears. Then it's repeated sideways (from one side of the screen to the other, and back again). BORING!!!
This is another artsy-style film that believes audiences will be impressed by watching what feels like real life conversations that people have, or real things that people do. Nah, not really. I wish directors would realize this. People have mundane conversations of no consequence. It does feel like we're voyeurs looking in on the lives of ordinary folk. Yet, despite this flaw in presentation, I was still captivated once we got past the motorcycle scene at the beginning of the film. The movie is about a man who has died and his spirit has returned to his family home. Then we see a young man who brought his girlfriend back to his village to meet the family. This part of the film interested me the most, because it brought up memories of my experience in Thailand (granted, I was 3 years old, but my earliest childhood memories are of Thailand). Particularly: a house on stilts that is open to the elements; people eating on the floor; and sitting on a hammock (there's a picture of 3 year old me sitting on a hammock with my mom's youngest brother who was probably 7 years old at the time. His name is Boonme, which was the reason why I saw the Thai film last year).
The film has a slow pace to it, but I wasn't bored like I was for The Silver Cliff. I found it quite meditative, actually. There was true beauty in places and it made me think of some of the best moments in my own life, when I'm not doing anything in particular other than relaxing and taking in the scenery (as I do on vacation sometimes). It wasn't a bad film, but I was hoping for more.
Hopefully, the films that did not make my cut will appear on DVD through Netflix so I can see them eventually. All in all, it was a mixed bag for me this year. I'm definitely going to have to make better choices for next year's PIFF. The best film I've seen at any PIFF between 2007 and 2012 still remains Hipsters, from Russia, which is not on DVD (at least for North America). I want this movie on DVD so much. It represents all that is great about PIFF...a truly surprising and charming film with great music, quirky characters, a glimpse into life in 1950s USSR, and a theme of being true to one's inner desires no matter how conforming the culture. Can't get better than that!