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Review: Portland International Film Festival

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One of the most exciting (and frustrating) things about a film festival is choosing which films to view. With little more than a paragraph and perhaps some prior knowledge of the filmmaker to guide you, decisions are based upon gut instinct, word of mouth or just pure bravado and courage.

My decisions for the 32nd Portland International Film Festival stemmed from a mixture of factors, but nothing played a bigger part than the schedule. There is only so much one can see and do and after making my initial wishlist, I whittled my choices down to seven films. It is always a challenge to find a universal theme to unite all the films and when I first started watching, the word redemption came to mind. Many of the characters (a reformed pimp, an arrogant chef, an imprisoned Irish insurgent, a whole mob of Mafiosos) started out in low places. Some managed to transcend while others plunged deeper. But there is more than redemption to these stories. This is life. This is history. This is the human condition.- David Harris

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Revanche (Dir: Gotz Spielmann/Austria)
Is there any place lower in this world than a brothel? Russian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko) longs to escape her life in an Austrian whorehouse and Alex (Johannes Krisch in a riveting performance), her secret boyfriend, has a plan to get them away from her dangerous pimp: rob a rural bank and hide out in the countryside with his ailing father. Soon, their lives intersect with a sterile policeman and his wife in ways that are at first tragic and then heartbreakingly redemptive. Revanche can be viewed as a film in two parts. The first half is a frank, wrenching look at the Eastern European skin trade. Using graphic and violent scenes, Spielmann damningly indicts this dehumanizing profession, showing it as another form of slavery. As the film moves into its bucolic setting, the story turns gentle and the characters begin to heal together, although no one knows it. “Revanche” has two meanings in German: revenge or a second chance. Both are apt in this beautiful, haunting and touching film.

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The English Surgeon (Dir: Geoffrey Marsh/Great Britain)
Henry Marsh is a British neurosurgeon who makes an annual trip to the Ukraine to help modernize Kiev’s medical practices. Though a deceptively simple portrait of a crusading doctor, Geoffrey Marsh’s documentary has some serious questions lurking under its surface. In our society, we look at doctors as infallible shaman who can rid us of bad health and save our lives. While there is some magic involved in the removal of brain tumors (graphically depicted in the film), doctors are fallible, struggle with their humanity and humility. The English Surgeon shows us, in raw details, Marsh’s fight against death and the devastating effects it has when he fails. There may not be a more heartbreaking scene then when Marsh must decide whether to inform a 20-year-old woman that she will be dead in a matter of months. Using a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The English Surgeon keenly shows us Marsh’s battle with humility, and allows us to share with him the triumphs of his successes and sorrow of his failures.

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Hunger (Dir: Steve McQueen/Great Britain)
Already receiving a heap of buzz before it aired at the festival, Hunger is a harrowing look at the horrific conditions faced by Irish insurgents in British prisons during the Troubles. Director McQueen’s debut feature chronicles the 1981 hunger strike staged by Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison. But this is no In the Name of the Father with a rousing U2 score to accompany a message of hope. Hunger is meant to rattle, to disturb, and that it does. Between alternate periods of graphic violence and terrifying silence, Hunger is probably the least bombastic of any film made about the British-Irish conflict, and perhaps that is why it’s the most effective. Character development is eschewed for claustrophobic, realistic shots of prisoners painting the walls with shit, using food as barriers and eventually starving to death. But as a guard mops streams of urine closer and closer to the forefront of the frame, it is obvious to McQueen wants us to see, wants us to experience such inhumanity, such brutality first hand. “I will not stand by and do nothing,” Sands tells a visitor during a revelatory scene. Can we?

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Gomorrah (Dir: Matteo Garrone/Italy)
The Camorra crime families run organized crime in Naples. Based on Roberto Saviano’s bestselling book, Garrone’s film details how the rotten hearts behind these syndicates are not only eroding their own souls but how that rot is also destroying Italian society as well. Five loosely related stories make up the film. There is the young boy beginning his initiation into the mob, the tailor who defects from his post to help the Chinese make knock-offs of designer clothes, two foolish, Scarface-obsessed young men who decide to take on the local boss, a businessman who is willing to poison hundreds of farmers to earn money and a money-runner caught in between two sides of a gang war. Garrone casts away the romanticism of Coppola and David Chase and presents us with an ugly side of a business where the cost of human life is less than the euro. This is a bleak look at a putrid culture and the way its black tentacles extend throughout Italy. The most frightening thing about this film is that it’s true.

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The Chaser (Dir: Hong-jin Na/South Korea)
Recently, if a film comes from South Korea, you can be assured of two things: its going to be violent and yet also have an offbeat sense of humor. In The Chaser, prostitutes have been going missing and detective-turned-pimp Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim) thinks a competitor is requesting their services and then selling them off. Nothing will prepare him for the chilling truth, however. Part police thriller, part serial killer pulp, part societal damnation, The Chaser is thrilling and endlessly inventive during its two hour runtime. Stuffed to the seams with deliciously weird characters, riveting chase sequences and a few stomach-churning scenes of violence, this is a film that really never loses its grip and allows us to walk away exhausted and satisfied.

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The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab (Dir: Jose Luis Lopez-Linares/Spain)
In the same vein as Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom comes this Spanish documentary chronicling one chef’s preparation for the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition. Light-hearted, comical and, at times, heartbreaking, The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab is just another tale of an underdog trying to achieve the impossible. Spain has never had much luck in a competition that brings out the world’s top chefs to please the Gallic palette and it’s up to chef Jesus Almagro to present something both Iberian and delicious. Though Almagro is a class one narcissist, it is impossible not to pity him as Spain’s top chefs pick apart his test dishes. What is even more fascinating is this sub-culture of chefs who make food into art; it amazes me how seriously they take the work and I cannot help but think of these mini-societies throughout the world that are so intent on one thing. By no means an indelible film, The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab is certainly easy entertainment and a good way to pass an evening before a gourmet meal.

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Fermat’s Room (Dir: Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopea/Spain)
Four brilliant mathematicians are invited to a wooded house and then trapped. The walls are closing in and they must solve not only math problems to keep alive, but figure out why they are being targeted. Don’t bother. The big reveal is ludicrous and the characters are not only boring, they’re stupid. Only actor Federico Luppi (veteran of Guillermo del Toro and John Sayles films) brings class to his limited role. If you want a Spanish thriller that thrills, go seek out Timecrimes.

One of the benefits of attending an international film festival is that is allows me to act as an amateur anthropologist. Cinema provides such a stellar vehicle to venture away from familiar culture and see how it’s done in other places, view the exotic, and take in new and breathtaking scenery. But watching multiple movies from different corners of the globe in a relatively short period of time always leaves me wondering: So what is this crazy humanity thing anyway? Where are the links, the connections, the overlaps? What is it that makes us human? After experiencing this year’s batch of foreign features, the answer that keeps smacking me is simple yet nevertheless significant. All the world over, our greatest work is in how well we know, love, and preserve our families (in whatever form families come), and our greatest fear is in losing them. Nothing new here. But in the rote, and sometimes dehumanizing, routine of day-to-day life, a reminder never hurts. – Sarah Anderson

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Dunya and Desie (Dir: Dana Nechushtan/Netherlands)
Dunya and Desie offers us the story of two best friends from the Netherlands who, in different ways, are welcomed to womanhood by being fucked over by men. Dunya (Maryam Hassouni), born to a traditional Moroccan family, learns that it is time to meet her future husband who turns out to be a loser. The much more promiscuous Desie (Eva van de Wijdeven) finds herself pregnant and alone after screwing her driving instructor, which leads her to wonder more about her own father who abandoned her soon after her birth. The movie takes us from the Netherlands to Morocco as the girls attempt to escape their predicaments and, in turn, find themselves. However, as the movie wears on, Desie’s character becomes more and more unlikeable- she is selfish and stupid- and overall the story comes off as simplistic, predictable and, despite the dancing-on-the-beach ending, unsatisfying. The film brings nothing new to the theme of traditional versus modern. Dunya’s parents express little emotional depth; when she refuses to marry her pre-arranged fiancé, they seem simply nonplussed. That said, I would encourage my teenage daughter to watch Dunya and Desie, especially as a feel-good-to-be-female alternative to the misogynistic crap out there. This fact that this movie won the TeenArenas Audience Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival is telling- just don’t judge it on adult standards.

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Eldorado (Dir: Bouli Lanners/Belgium)
Is it possible to find closure to the most painful event in our lives by reliving them with strangers? This is the question poised by Belgian writer/director Bouli Lanners in his new film Eldorado. The movie opens when Yvan (Lanners also plays the main character) discovers that his modest home in the suburbs of Brussels has been broken into and then finds the burglar (Elie, played by Fabrice Adde) hiding upstairs under his bed. After knocking him down the stairs, Bouli finds himself compelled to care for the at-risk, clueless youth. Soon the unlikely duo embarks on a road trip that takes them across Belgium and ultimately back to Brussels where Bouli, who has been hurting from the recent death of his brother, is finally able to put his ghosts to rest. I am always a sucker for a road trip flick and this one did not disappoint. All of the familiar elements are there: the strange off-the-beaten-path locations, the awkward process of getting to know a complete stranger and his most personal quirks, the home that they hope will be welcoming, but instead turns them away. The most powerful thrust behind it all is Lanners himself, who succeeds at creating a good-hearted, albeit rough-around-the-edges character. The inclusion of a drunk, car-collecting oracle who foresees the second half of the movie dumbs down the plot a little, but overall the film touched me as a tender tale of an average Joe who is given a second chance to do right, and takes it.

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The Window (Dir. Carlos Sorin/Argentina)
Antonio (Antonio Larreta) is recovering from a heart attack in his Patagonian estate, and while his maids, doctor and piano tuner bustle about him, he gazes out the open window and, like many stubborn geriatrics we know, does all he can to break free from his bed rest sentence. Of course, he does, and of course, it ends up badly for him. It doesn’t help that his distinguished son and his son’s fashionable girlfriend are coming from Europe that night. There is much potential here for a rich, poignant story about love, regret, youth, age, and death, but unfortunately, The Window does not fulfill this promise. Antonio’s visions of a matronly woman from his early childhood are hazy and seemingly meaningless, and little is revealed about the relationship between father and son; in fact, little revealed about the main character at all. Other characters are equally undeveloped which frustrates as we see just enough of them to want to know more but nothing ever comes of it. The strength of the film lies is Julian Apezteguia’s cinematography. Apezteguia beautifully captures the elegant and simple interior of Antonio’s estate and vividly brings to life the golden fields and vast skies of Argentina farm country. It is easy to see why Antonio wants to get outside. It is not so easy to understand why we should care.

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In a Dream (Dir: Jeremiah Zagar/USA)
I went into the documentary In a Dream thinking I was seeing a movie about the life and art of Philadelphia muralist Isaiah Zagar. (I have actually seen some of Zagar’s art in person and it truly is mesmerizing- he weaves broken mirror shards, tiles and paint together to create giant, vivacious artscapes in urban streets and alleyways.) What I got was a raw, intimate portrait of a family’s birth, disintegration and renewal told from the clan’s innermost chambers. The film’s director and primary camera man, Jeremiah Zagar, is Isaiah’s youngest son. He takes full advantage of his familial status by brashly questioning his parents about their feelings for each other, his father’s previous stays in psychiatric institutions and other topics that may be off limits for other interviewers. Jeremiah even films the moment in a restaurant when his father tells his mother that after decades of marriage, he is leaving her for another woman. It is impossible to believe that such proclamations (and the emotional aftermath) do not affect Jeremiah, but his camera’s gaze is unflinching and allows us to feel this family’s story is true for us, too. In a way, it is like watching a really arty version of reality TV, but with a soul and people you actually care about. In a Dream serves as a tribute less to his father, whose floor to roof, multi-media murals are plastered all over Philadelphia, than to his mother Julia. It is clear by the end that Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s brother (a struggling drug addict) are like the broken tiles and pieces of colored glass in one of Isaiah’s murals whereas Julia is the grout that holds them all together. The emotional honesty, beautiful mosaics and illustrations and remarkable soundtrack (by The Books) of In A Dream will leave you exhausted, inspired, and with the feeling that you have just experienced true art.

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Mermaid (Dir. Mariva Shalaveva/Russia)
In the vein of other stylized, highly-narrated movies like Amelie and The Royal Tenenbaums, Mermaid brings us the story of a Russian girl whose life begins fantastically and ends tragically. Alisa (Mariva Shalaveva), who is conceived in the ocean during one of her mothers many flings with docked sailors, travels with her self-serving mother and senile grandmother from their shack on the beach to low-income housing in a Moscow high-rise. From here, the teenage Alisa finds work as a walking cell phone, falls in love with a suicidal entrepreneur (Yevgeni Tsyganov), and further tests out her ability to make things happen by wishing really hard. The first half of the film, set by the sea, succeeds in creating a whimsical modern fairy tale that is both endearing and interesting. When Alisa moves to Moscow, I had high hopes for how director/writer Mariva Shalaveva would continue this thread against the backdrop of a highly modernized and commercialized urban landscape. Unfortunately, the yarn falls apart and Alisas motives, as well as her likability, become less clear. Mermaid would float better if Shalaveva had stuck with odd and quirky instead of the weird and disagreeable- at least in terms of the main character.

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Terra Nova (Dir: Alexander Melnik/Russia)
It’s the future. Prisons are overcrowded and a mysterious organization decides to try a social experiment: bring a ship load of criminals to the shores of an isolated, arctic land, leave them with enough supplies to last several months, and observe them through satellite to see what happens. The premise is interesting- kind of a chilly version of Lost with an all male angry cast. But in reality- not so good. Although the movie plays out some interesting theories about social tendencies (the prisoners create a hierarchy and include a large prison as part of their new world) and a solid performance by lead actor Konstantin Lavronenko (Zilin), overall the film is melodramatic and discombobulated (a bad combination). Choppy editing, fuzzy plot points and gratuitous violence make the intriguing premise and stark, yet lovely setting, not worth it.

Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers (Dir: Rithy Panh/Cambodia)
In Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers French director Rithy Panh journeys back to his native Cambodia to examine the lives of modern day prostitutes. Primarily filmed inside one Phnom Penh brothel, Panh captures the girls (for they really are girls- most of them teenagers) in their sparsely furnished rooms talking frankly about their experiences at the hands of violent clients and uncaring madams. The girls spend their days plastering their walls with magazine photos of glamorous models and laying listlessly in piles of clothes. You can almost smell their youth rotting away and in the case of one girl who contracts AIDS, you can see it. There is no narration; the prostitutes speak for themselves in a way that almost seems scripted but is probably just the result of clear direction. Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers functions not just as a social commentary on the unfortunate, desperate women of Phnom Penh, but as a historical memento of the lasting injuries of war. Throughout the film I kept thinking that the next time one of my pre-teen students complains of their circumstances, I could say, You think YOU have it bad. Ironically, towards the end of the film, one of the young prostitutes is complaining about her plight and her mother says you think YOU have it bad, you should have lived under the Khmer Rouge! (Which Pahn did). This served as a reminder not only of the universality of motherly sayings, but also of how much hardship Cambodians have had to, and continue to, endure.

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