Portland International Film Festival
Can you trust a film festival that’s over 30?
by Bill Gallagher

The man who runs the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) admits he hasn’t seen the film that recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

In case you missed it, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the film in question. It’s a foreign language film, but it’s directed by San Francisco-native Clint Eastwood.

Bill Foster may not have seen “Letters,” but when he talks about Eastwood’s accomplishment, he could be talking about his film festival.

I suggest that Clint Eastwood must have a “film festival sensibility” in that he’s willing to take a chance on subject matter that may not appeal to most moviegoers. Foster says, “No, it’s not a film festival sensibility, it’s a personal sensibility. He’s not in a room with a bunch of other guys trying to figure out what the lowest common denominator is. He’s not doing that, but most of his Hollywood brethren...that’s all they can think of.”

Before Foster tells what it’s like to run the PIFF as it turns 30 years old this month, let’s cut to the chase. Foster reads BrainstormNW. So I ask him to predict which films featured this year a fellow reader might enjoy. Here are his recommendations:

“The Lives of Others”
This is the big opening night feature. Foster says it’s a “great East German thriller.” The German government agreed and submitted it as the country’s Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film.

“Days of Glory”
Foster seems especially excited about this Algerian/French film that shows what happens to Algerians who fought for the French in World War II and were treated like dirt afterwards. This film caused such a stir in France that the government addressed gross inequities in veterans’ benefits for non-French members of France’s armed forces. “Anyone who’s interested in war and the military and history would come out of ‘Days of Glory’ and say, ‘That’s great.’” It is also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

“Hear and Now”
This is a documentary made by a Portlander, Irene Taylor Brodsky. It’s showing at the Sundance Film Festival. “Hear and Now” is about her parent’s decision, after 65 years of being deaf, to have delicate surgery preformed to install cochlear implants.

“12:08 East of Bucharest”
Talk about an unlikely topic for a comedy from Romania. On the anniversary of the fall of the Ceausescu regime, a radio talk show host entertains wildly contradictory versions of what happened. “It’s a comedy,” says Foster, “that gets into the meaning of social change and revolution. You get differing versions of what happened, and then there’s the question, ‘Has life changed?’”

“Hula Girls”
This Japanese film sounds a little bit like “The Full Monty,” or at least “Brassed Off.” A town whose economy is brought to its knees by a switch from coal mining to oil drilling attempts to revive its livelihood by creating a faux Hawaiian village complete with Japanese hula dancers. I never knew the Japanese had it in them.

These are just five of the 81 full-length feature films that will run at PIFF this year. Another 25 short films will be shown.

“At the end of the day,” Foster says, “I’m the one who’s the ultimate arbiter or curator of the festival. And I have seen all, or at least a majority, of everything.”

Talk to Foster for a while and his ways of wielding that kind of clout become clear as he describes the series of calculations he makes in putting together each year’s program.

First he considers the crowd. What kind of people show up each year, and what are they expecting?

“With something like PIFF, you really want it to be diverse, so it’s got some very esoteric things for film buffs, and it’s got some accessible things for more casual filmgoers, and it’s got historical things and exotic things and touches upon the issues that are out there that people are interested in,” Foster says.

And, “most people are looking to us and an event like this as a way to make a kind of distillation of interesting things that are out there.”

After the distilling is done, here’s how Foster figures the line-up breaks down, “About a quarter, 20 to 25 films, will definitely play at Cinema 21 or the Fox Tower. Hopefully they’ll have an audience that’s seen them (at PIFF) and gives them good word of mouth.

“Then there’s another third or so that are films that are kind of floating around, that are playing film festivals but haven’t found an American distributor. Some might, but it’s unlikely they’re going to get that opportunity.

“Then there’s another third where there’s really slim to no chance that they’re going to show up again in these parts. They may not even get DVD distribution,” Foster says.

Some will argue with his choices. Others will wonder why PIFF seldom attracts the really buzz-worthy, red carpet blockbuster for opening night. (And how about bringing more movie stars to town?) But it’s hard to knock what Foster’s done to establish a consistently interesting, financially stable, cultural benchmark for Portland. I haven’t had the books of PIFF audited, but the general outlook for finances sounds solid. Without going into details, Foster tells me he has a budget of about half a million dollars to spend on films for PIFF. Sponsorships and ticket sales cover that cost and then some, with proceeds from PIFF helping to support other programs and festivals at the Northwest Film Center.

Then there’s the other kind of success. “We’re not necessarily trying to get the maximum number of people through the door as the index of success. But hopefully, and actually, with the film festival we manage to hit that place where we can get the maximum number of people to see something they’re not going to see normally,” says Foster.

You don’t have to be a film snob to get something out of the Portland International Film Festival, running from Feb. 9-24. (For more information go to www.nwfilm.org.) I’ve gone the last three years and seen about half a dozen of each festival’s offerings. That’s considered pretty casual film going. I’ve been disappointed once, pleasantly surprised 12 times, and blown away five times.

Now, you may ask, how you will know if you’re going to like one of the films at PIFF? You won’t, until you go.

Oscar Predictions
The Academy Award nominations were announced just as this issue was going to press. So here, in a hurry, are my Oscar Picks:

Best Picture: “Letters from Iwo Jima”
Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed”
Best Actor: Peter O’Toole, “Venus”
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, “The Queen” (This is the lock of the night.)

The Oscars will be awarded Feb. 25.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes the monthly movie column for BNW.

BrainstormNW - February 2007

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