Listen, ladies, and all people who love ladies: The Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival (POWFest, for short) enters its fourth year with a range that belies its name. The guest of honor is Aussie director Gillian Armstrong, and the women seen on the Hollywood Theatre screen this weekend hail from across the globe. Here are some of the highlights.
54 Things aren't always what they seem—in fact, for three young Middle Eastern women living in America, things are much, much worse. Virginal Leila (Mercedes Masöhn) has just agreed to an arranged marriage to geeky, God-obsessed Ali. But her romance-novel daydreams sour as Ali quickly devolves into a stereotype of misogynistic Arab manhood—jealous, grabby and dangerous. Meanwhile, Leila's pot-smoking, day-drinking best friend, Nikki (Sheetal Sheth), copes with an awful family secret and devout Amira (Angela Zahra) channels her stifled lesbianism into Islam and a burgeoning friendship/codependency with Nikki. Writer/director Rolla Selbak quickly shifts what seems like a harmless soap opera—fervent makeout scenes, belly dancing—into darker territory, complete with marquee issues like rape and incest. Call it My So-Called Life: The Arab Years. Oddly enough, the appropriately desolate film takes a jarring, unrealistic turn for the sunny side in its last moments. It would've been better to have left its three heroines with broken, but realistically beating, hearts. KELLY CLARKE. 7 pm Wednesday, March 9.
Love, Lust and Lies
63 Little Women director Gillian Armstrong's new documentary, Love, Lust and Lies, continues to follow three women as they age from 14 to 48—it's the 7 Up series Down Under. It's the fifth film in a series of documentaries Armstrong began in 1976, when she filmed the three teenagers growing up in Adelaide, Australia. Despite the film's naked portrayal of working-class Australia, Armstrong's representation of the complaints and confessions of three middle-aged women comes dangerously close to Oprah-style dramatic inspiration, like a First Wives Club with Adelaide housewives instead of three revenge-seeking Manhattanites. None of Armstrong's subjects graduated from high school, and two of them were mothers by age 16. Each time Armstrong visits her protagonists they seem to have more children and new spouses. Starting with a montage summarizing the previous four films and ending with a beachside toast to the future, Armstrong offers a sentimental time-lapse portrait of three women's march uphill. RACHAEL DEWITT. 7 pm Friday, March 11.
Shorts II Showcase
75 The short films featured in the WIF-PDX (Women in Film Portland, OR)-sponsored showcase cover a lot of ground, from Portland's all-female Circus Artemis in Flying High, Standing Tall to the internal battles of a young artist who suffers from muscular atrophy in Grounded by Reality. Some of the shorts have not a drop of humor, like Pussy, where two parents teach a lesson to the boy who's been harassing their daughter. But Three Prayers for June is a very funny tale of a sophisticated African-American woman who tries to sacrifice a rooster in her apartment in hopes that appeasing an African fertility goddess will help her conceive. The most compelling and polished film in the bunch is Amy Adrion's Shoegazer, about a female bartender who looks after a drunk teenage girl found in the bathroom after closing. Shoegazer is Adrion's UCLA film thesis, and contains originality and aesthetics evocative of Miranda July. RACHAEL DEWITT. Noon Sunday, March 13.
Made in India
86 These days, India isn't just answering your call-center queries—it's growing custom babies on a budget for desperate Western couples. Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha's frank, fascinating and genuinely effed-up documentary on the burgeoning international "procreative tourism" industry trails schlubby San Antonio couple Lisa and Brian in their quest for a baby—after seven years of fertility drugs and in vitro procedures the pair has turned to surrogacy, hoping to implant their own eggs and sperm into somebody else's healthy uterus. Trouble is, American wombs are expensive. The U.S. surrogacy process costs $70,000 to $100,000, with nearly $25,000 earmarked for the surrogate mom herself. But half a world away in Mumbai, a destitute, illiterate mother of three Aasia is willing to undergo the same nine-month slog for a fraction of the cost, lying to her own husband and hiding away in a "surrogate house" when she starts to show, in order to sock the money away in a bank account for her own daughter. The filmmakers have garnered a startling amount of emotional access to all parties involved—including the enterprising California businessman brokering these overseas baby deals and the Mumbai clinic performing the medical procedures. But what becomes increasingly clear as Aasia's due date approaches is how easily this complex new industry can become a nightmare for everybody involved—from Americans barred from seeing their genetic children by confused Indian hospital administrators to uninformed surrogates who end up carrying babies and risking their own health for less than $2,000, fleeced by the very people impregnating them. The filmmakers manage to balance their sympathy for these desperate baby-makers and baby-wanters with a bitter critique of an unregulated, predatory business run by people who might care more for dollars than diapers. And don't worry if you don't want to travel all the way to India for your outsourced newborn. We hear Panama is getting into the act already. KELLY CLARKE. 3 pm Sunday, March 13.
SEE IT: POWFest, Hollywood Theatre, Friday-Sunday, March 11-13. Visit powfest.com for full showtimes.