The Portland International Film Festival kicks off today

After 35 years, the Portland International Film Festival is still going strong and shows no signs of stopping. Hosted by the Northwest Film Center, last year’s event attracted more than 35,000 moviegoers to theaters around Portland, showcasing a vast array of films from dozens of countries

After 35 years, the Portland International Film Festival is still going strong and shows no signs of stopping. Hosted by the Northwest Film Center, last year’s event attracted more than 35,000 moviegoers to theaters around Portland, showcasing a vast array of films from dozens of countries.

Nick Bruno, the center’s public relations and marketing assistant, doesn’t see the fest shrinking any time soon.

“[W]e just keep growing it,” Bruno said. “There are additional people [who] keep showing up every year and are so surprised that something of this size and magnitude is happening in the Portland metro area.”

In total, 93 feature films and 43 shorts from 44 different countries will screen at different venues across the city, including Fox Tower, Regal Cinemas at Lloyd Center and the film center’s own Whitsell Auditorium.

Attendees can expect a wide variety of movies, from powerful dramas to dry comedies to unique animated films. Those looking for a common theme among the scheduled films might have a hard time finding it.

“I think it’s not so much about drawing a thread through all the films as much as it is trying to find as much diversity as possible,” Bruno said of the selection process.

Though PIFF casts a wide net that covers an entire world’s worth of foreign releases, one of the festival’s most anticipated and provocative films is homegrown.

Alien Boy: the Life and Death of James Chasse is a documentary about a man who struggled with mental illness and the controversy surrounding his accidental death at the hands of three Portland police officers in 2006.

After more than six years, the incident still haunts Portlanders. With the national conversation about mental health care at its zenith, Alien Boy should prove to be a fascinating
and harrowing watch.

The festival starts tonight with the Spanish film Blancanieves at the Newmark Theatre and runs through Feb. 23. Screenings will be held daily at locations around the Portland metro area. A full schedule is available at

The Vanguard highlighted three films that festival attendees can catch on PIFF’s opening weekend.

The Sapphires (2012); Australia

Photo © Hopscotch Films
Photo © Hopscotch Films

Friday, Feb. 8, 6 p.m.

NWFC’s Whitsell Auditorium (934 SW Salmon St.)

Sunday, Feb. 10, 5 p.m.

Cinemagic Theater (2021 SE Hawthorne Blvd.)

Arguably one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the festival, The Sapphires takes on the traditional musical girl-group movie (see: Dreamgirls) and gives it some substantial tweaks.

Taking place in Australia in the late 1960s, The Sapphires, which is based on a true story, follows a handful of young Aboriginal women struggling to succeed in a world that still seems 95 percent racist.

Instead of taking their soul group act on the road, slowly gaining recognition across the nation and going all the way to the Billboard charts, the group of four and their manager sign up to perform as part of the USO Tour.

Most of the film takes place in Vietnam. It’s a unique setting for the genre: Even if you’ve seen every musical rise-to-fame movie out there, the location provides scenes that would be impossible except in that particular time and place.

Race plays a large role, and the true story behind the “lost generation” of kidnapped Aboriginal children might shock unaware American audiences. These elements are the most interesting things the movie has going for it, but they always take a backseat when The Sapphires take the stage.

Outside of one or two particularly relevant and heartfelt performances, there’s an odd disconnect whenever the film screeches to a halt to deliver a spunky song and dance routine.

Though the musical numbers are competent, The Sapphires shines brightest in its performances. Chris O’Dowd in particular will likely be a favorite. American audiences know him best as the wry cop/boyfriend in 2011’s hit Bridesmaids.

O’Dowd is even better here as the group’s manager, bringing levity to the film while maintaining a redemptive undertone that stretches the role beyond mere comic relief.

The four women in the titular group deliver admirable turns as well: At one point they are categorized, Spice Girls-style (The Sexy One, The Dance Captain, et cetera), but it’s to the movie’s credit that each of them are distinct enough to be memorable in her own right.

The Sapphires is probably one of the most conventional films at PIFF this year. In the end, serious but broad topics like war, race and the sins of the past are glossed over with a feel-good glaze.

Most of it is sweet, but there’s something disconcerting about the aftertaste.

Neighbouring Sounds (2012); Brazil

© CinemaScópio
© CinemaScópio

Saturday, Feb. 9, 8:45 p.m.

Regal Lloyd Center 10 (1510 NE Multnomah St.)

Of the three films highlighted here, Neighbouring Sounds is the only one that’s still under my skin. Something about this quiet, understated portrayal of an upscale neighborhood in Recife, Brazil burrowed inside me without my consent or knowledge.

It certainly wasn’t the plot, as there’s not much of one to speak of: A new security team moves into a nice neighborhood where the worst thing that happens is a car break-in. The thief is kind enough to remove the window and place it next to the vehicle.

Though the new guards seem to make the streets a safer place, there’s no escaping the droning, dreadful feeling that builds throughout the film.

We see the neighborhood through the eyes of a stressed-out housewife, a bored real estate agent with ties to a powerful local family, the security men on the ground and various servants and family members.

Neighbouring Sounds’ conflicts are mostly domestic, from the incessant late-night barking of a nearby dog to people comparing the sizes of delivered flat-screen TVs. Relations between the servants and their employers seem amiable, at least on the surface.

Prosperous as this community may be, its foundations are seeded with anxiety. Citizens of the middle class hold a meeting about what to do with the lazy doorman, complete with incriminating but humiliating video of the working-class man sleeping on the job shot and compiled by a grinning child.

The area thief, a bored and well-off 20-something, grills the security team about an anonymous phone call threatening to end his petty crime spree. These normal human situations range from tepid to truly tense: Several of these moments have crept out from the back of my mind since I first saw the film.

Though Sounds is quite beautiful in an ordinary way, the audio is what you’ll take home with you. The constant whirr of a buzz saw, the rhythmic and aimless yelps of a family pet, the deafening rumble of a washing machine and some rare musical cues all serve to build a palpable uneasiness that becomes almost unbearable toward the end of the film.

The sound design alone is enough to make Sounds feel like something unspeakably awful is just about to happen at any given moment.

Neighbouring Sounds is a film that itches at you in bed at night. Try scratching it, and it’ll only itch more.

The Painting (2011); France

Photo © Blue Spirit Animation
Photo © Blue Spirit Animation

Saturday, Feb. 9, 8:45 p.m.

Cinemagic Theater (2021 SE Hawthorne Blvd.)

There are a few animated films at PIFF, but none look quite as striking as The Painting.

Though the characters are rendered in 3D, each of the brightly colored pastel people are crafted in such a way as to look almost as two-dimensional as the paint-brushed backgrounds that surround them. The effect is startling and works wonders in hiding the low animation quality typical of a low-budget feature.

The Painting takes Toy Story’s inanimate-to-life motif and applies it to artwork: Characters live and breathe inside every portrait and landscape. We begin in an unfinished painting, where the partly rendered characters, known as Halfies, live in shame below a castle inhabited by the phonetic Allduns.

The fully painted look down upon anyone incomplete, whether it’s an uncolored face or a blank patch on a dress; the pencil-drawn Sketchies are even more reviled.

The Northwest Film Center presents
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Feb. 7–23
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Of course, love blooms between two citizens of the disparate classes, as the Alldun Ramo and the Halfie Claire play the story’s Romeo and Juliet.

A somewhat trite beginning takes an imaginative turn when several characters leap out of the painting and into the real world. They explore and even talk to other paintings in search of The Painter, the one who could complete the painting and restore balance among Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies.

What starts as a star-crossed romance evolves into a quest for meaning as the film unfurls in unexpected ways. By the end of the film, we have new questions and perhaps even a new protagonist.

The Painting should be great for any brave kids precocious enough to read subtitles. Some parents might want to know that the film features an impressionistic portrait of a nude woman as one of its characters (though a violent but bloodless scene in the first few minutes is potentially more traumatizing).