Portland International Film Festival

I am continually amazed by the ability of the Northwest Film Center to bring films to Portland that are able to so completely transport a person halfway across the world and back. The Portland International Film Festival serves this purpose particularly well, to the delight of the local, saucer-eyed film junkies.

The festival so far has been a veritable smorgasbord of flickering delights with practically every film serving as a satisfying dish of cinematic artistry. It’s true, I do flatter the Film Center a bit here. Still, I do not overstate, when I say this festival is needed to satiate our appetites for good, well crafted, thoughtful films, after having been spoon-fed Hollywood detritus for so, so long.

If the feature films are, in fact, the main dishes then the Shorts programs are the petit fours, offering bite size, scrumptious morsels for your sheer pleasure and delight. The food metaphor thus ends.

It’s a little after eight in the Guild Theater. It always begins this way – crammed into the uncomfortable seats, wondering if you’ll be able to stand it for two hours, listening intently to the middle-aged women introduce one another one row behind. Then the lights dim and the shorts program, “Short Cuts 2” begins. Within moments your have lost your bearings and are completely absorbed.

The program begins with an animated piece from local animator Bill Plimpton. Though “The Fan and the Flower” covers the familiar bizarre territory that Plimpton likes to transverse – in this case, the unlikely love affair between a ceiling fan and a houseplant – the animation is far more bold, using uncharacteristic dark simple lines to evoke this strangely heartbreaking tale of love.

A film from New Zealand, “Tama Tu” (Sons of War), directed by Taika Waititi, follows. It is a tense story about a group of young men in a Maori battalion in World War I who spend a day on watch in an abandoned house. They pass the time doing things that young men do, belying the gravity of their situation. Their story is deftly told, without words, through the use of facial expressions and laughter. In fact the only dialogue is a prayer, which seems likely to have been quite common during the Great War.

“Drivers Ed” by U.S. director Thom Harp is a lull in the otherwise striking program. Although his short, about a young woman who has failed her drivers test several times due to a certain obsession with her long distance relationship, is quite amusing, it lacks a certain originality in character and includes one of the most overused drivers ed gags known to man – the old abrupt start and uncovered coffee cup routine.

After the drivers ed levity, the shorts program plunges into the madness of humanity at war with the disturbing “Torte Bluma” by British filmmaker Benjamin Ross. The story captures the gut-wrenching relationship between a concentration camp prisoner and the SS officer whom he serves. There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance in this piece as the officer, who is in charge of the extermination of the Jewish people who enter his camp, explains to one of his soldiers that he hopes to offer kindness to others in his short time on the planet, this, while the smoke rises from extermination chambers in the background. Still, he does show a type of kindness to the emaciated prisoner who serves him, it is just, perhaps, not the type of kindness we’d prefer to stomach.

The program stays in the British Isles with “Milk” by Peter Mackie Burns of Scotland. Once again we explore a strange relationship, this time between a young Scottish woman and her grandmother. The two women engage in a convoluted dialogue during the elder’s bath. There are surprisingly tense moments as the two women begin to relate to one another, both more alike than they possibly understand though generations separate them. Filmed in tight shots, this short is an amazingly intimate portrait of family and women.

The fairly sober shorts program is suddenly taken over by the multi-talented U.S. filmmaker John Bryant, whose blood-soaked short, “Oh My God,” has one of the best punch lines I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in a movie theatre. The low-budget production is fluid and unflinching and left the audience repeating its title in disbelief. John Bryant is my new hero.

My guess is that Rob Pearlstein, another director from the United States, has a fine career waiting for him in Hollywood. His film, “Our Time is Up” is perfectly slick with high production values and star power. Still, his characterizations of patients being suddenly helped by a doctor with nothing to lose is hindered a bit by a certain lack of depth. Still, it is very funny and well acted.

“One Minute Past Midnight” by Celia Galan Julve of Great Britain asks the question: What will the future look like? The filmmaker’s resounding answer: A lot like the present. We follow two men from the 2050’s who work nightshift in a convenience store. There is so much going on in this story where nothing much happens. The brilliance of this short is the way one of the characters, Robert, has an incredible relationship with a young woman who works the nightshift through the use of surveillance tapes. There is a brilliant kind of time travel here that makes Julves’ short a marvel of ingenious ideas.

The program ends with the heartbreaking “Birthday Boy” by Sejong Park of Australia. Rendered in exceptional 3-D animation, the film follows a day in the life of a Korean boy during that country’s penultimate war. The daring little boy is fascinated by the war and imagines himself fighting on the front with his father. The trauma of the war is lost to his innocence when he receives a package containing his father’s personal affects, which the boy mistakes as a gift.

When the lights come up in the Guild after a program like this you suddenly realize how much of your comfort relies on your state of mind. Unfolding from the threadbare seats and walking into the night, you can’t help but feeling that you’ve had your fill and are roundly satisfied.