The Portland International Film Festival Has a Slew of New Offerings Beyond the Big-Name Screenings

NW Film Center director Amy Dotson isn’t shy about dubbing year 43 of the event “a new day.”

(courtesy of Portland International Film Festival)

The annual Portland International Film Festival has long offered scores of intriguing titles from around the world. Now in its 43rd iteration, that backbone remains.

But the list of firsts in 2020 is extensive: new workshops, new panels, guest curators who specialize in distribution, new awards for PDX film heroes and newcomers alike, a Pixar blockbuster, and a six-hour podcast performance.

In the inaugural year under new NW Film Center director Amy Dotson, PIFF turns up the volume on events and screenings that both face the future and push boundaries. Though she says the quality benchmark for festival selections is as high as ever, Dotson isn't shy about dubbing year 43 "a new day."

"It's important to open the doors a little wider for our audiences," says Dotson, who took up her new post last September. "We want people to expect the unexpected."

Conceptually, this means changing the perception that the festival highlights only a few dozen prestigious features. There are plenty of notable titles on the schedule, but this year's lineup also includes video-mapping artists Fernanda D'Agostino and Sarah Turner illuminating the Portland Art Museum, John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame) staging his podcast Anthem at McMenamins Kennedy School, and Portland animator Rose Bond performing an immersive audio-visual piece with the Oregon Symphony.

"We're trying really hard," Dotson says, "to reimagine what cinematic storytelling could be."

From another angle, PIFF aims to strengthen its local relevance by creating an import-export relationship between international and Portland cinema. Notably, the NW Film Center has blended the annual Northwest Filmmakers' Festival into PIFF for the first time. So alongside the latest documentary from Chile's Patricio Guzmán or dark-hearted crime caper from China's Diao Yi'nan, audiences can see several thoughtful, women-led features by Portland filmmakers: Thunderbolt in Mine Eye (co-directed by Sarah Sherman) or Clementine (directed by Lara Jean Gallagher). There's also a meditative local immigrant story, Borrufa, from Roland Dahwen and some truly unbridled puppet gore in Frank & Zed, from Jesse Blanchard, not to mention the multitude of  Northwest-made shorts.

Sophie Jones is one example of a local feature that probably wouldn't have received the full PIFF treatment in past years. Now, its world premiere Friday represents a homecoming for its cast and crew. It's such a significant event, in fact, that its star and co-writer, Jessica Barr, a Portland native who's been acting locally since age 9, says she considers it her de facto college graduation.

"It's a really special thing to premiere [Sophie Jones] where it was born," says director Jessie Barr, Jessica's cousin.

A study of a high-schooler scraping for any emotional or romantic foothold after her mother's death, Sophie Jones captures Portland with matter-of-fact docu-realism. Nearby landmarks like the Bridge of the Gods and Latourell Falls create a cathartic backdrop, but the movie's best quality is in reaching for universality and an intensely natural lead performance by Jessica Barr.

"I hope [Sophie Jones] and Clementine and Thunderbolt in Mine Eye show more and more that Portland is a place where you can make things," the Portland State University senior says. "It works to your advantage that we have so many beautiful things."

Mapping how Portland creatives can access a constantly shifting film industry is another goal of the revamped PIFF. Replacing more legacy-conscious program categories like "Masters" are new accolades like the Future/Future Competition for new voices, judged by Brandon Harris of Amazon Original Movies and Emily Woodburne of Janus Films.

Even more front and center are the first-ever Cinema Unbound Awards, given out last week to Portland film luminaries like director Todd Haynes, costume designer Amanda Needham, documentarian Julie Goldman and several others.

PIFF audiences may also notice "Cinema Unbound" is the festival's central slogan this year, as well as the URL for its new website. Though unconfirmed, the suggestion of a larger rebrand seems to hover.

"We shall see," Dotson says. "It's year one, and our 50th anniversary is on the horizon. A streamlined PIFF brings our festival in line with industry standards. We're packing a big punch through these 10 days and trying to embrace what Cinema Unbound really means."

SEE IT: The Portland International Film Festival screens at various venues; visit Showtimes vary through Sunday, March 15. $350 for a festival pass, $200 with student ID. Individual ticket prices vary.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.