Wednesday, February 12, 2014


A version of this article appears in the Portland Observer here:

The Portland International Film Festival trudges on through all kinds of weather -- and I found a decent turnout at the screenings I attended on Saturday, though Sunday's screenings were cancelled after emergency warnings went out encouraging Portlanders to stay home.

These interesting films (which I have rated on a 10-point scale) will all screen again during the festival:

"The Apostle" (6.5) is a darkly humorous window into a part of Spanish culture seldom seen by Americans. It's a stop-motion animation story set in a remote Galician mountain village whose denizens are all aged and whose friendliness seems a bit aggressive.

Ramon, an escaped convict, poses as a religious pilgrim as he passes through the village but is really looking for a stash of jewels hidden there years earlier. He's no hero, but he might be when compared to the village denizens, who seem to be up to no good.

The story takes a bit too much time to unfold into its more suspenseful third act, but the film is never boring, and provides a quirky look into a world of spirits and superstition that is characteristic of Galician culture.

The plot probably doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny but is still entertaining, and features a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. (Plays again on Feb. 19)

"Of Horses and Men" (7) is a surprisingly engaging set of stories involving relationships between horses and people in a hamlet in Iceland. It features beautiful shots of the Icelandic countryside and close-ups of the horses that capture their taut grandeur.

The film opens with a proud and fastidious man and his connection to his beautiful mare; he attracts the attention of everyone in the village as he rides her, perfectly erect, through the community to visit his lady friend -- and then he is horrified by an unwanted encounter with the woman's stallion (a particularly stunning sequence).

Other stories unfold involving a man who rides his horse into the sea, on a mission to procure vodka from a Russian trawler; a young Swedish woman who demonstrates that she is the boss of all the horses in this horse-friendly town; and the dilemma faced by a Spanish-speaking tourist who gets separated from his riding group as the sun goes down.

“Of Horses and Men” is never less than arresting, and also captures the quirky, dry humor of this stark Icelandic community. A must see, especially for those who appreciate horses. (Plays again on Feb. 12)

"We are the Best!" (4) is less successful. It focuses on the friendship between two 13-year-olds in Sweden in 1982 who decide to form a punk band even though neither plays a musical instrument. They eventually find a third girl with actual musical talent to join them, and encounter a few trumped up obstacles due to that girl's religious family's objections. Otherwise there isn't much in the way of a plot; instead, we are treated to scene after scene of the girls giggling and complaining about their parents and scheming about their band and playing terrible punk music.

“We are the Best!” quickly becomes tiresome, even though the kids are sympathetic and intermittently engaging. (Plays again on Feb. 12)

I am a sucker for any film that gives a voice to people who have been silenced or forgotten. "A World Not Ours" (8), my favorite of the festival so far, does just that. The director of this documentary, Mahdi Fleifel, grew up mostly in Europe, but has made regular visits all his life to Ain el-Helweh, a Palestinian refugee settlement inside Lebanon. Building on a long family tradition of documenting everything on video, the filmmaker takes advantage of his family's extensive video archive to provide us with a window into the community where his 82-year-old grandfather has lived for more than 60 years.

What we find is a world of forgotten people, consigned to a sort of limbo in which they are not allowed to work or aspire to anything. Watching the light slowly dim in the eyes of the director's grandfather, uncle, and a young friend is profoundly sad and provokes necessary reflection on those left behind in conflicts like the Palestine-Israeli conflict. The film, oddly, gives us almost no sense of the women in this community, but it is a true ministry of presence to the men. (Plays Feb. 14 and 16)

I hope no U.S. filmmaker decides to make a biopic about Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, because it is way more satisfying to watch "Walesa: Man of Hope" (7). The film tracks the 19-year period in which the young Walesa rose from a simple shipyard electrician into the leader of a movement that toppled the Communist system in Poland.

I suspect that the politics here may be a bit too complex to really do them justice, but the filmmaker wisely focuses on Walesa's ballsy personality and his relationship with his longsuffering wife Danuta. The actor who plays Walesa bears an uncanny resemblance to the real hero and the film feels very grounded in Polish culture and experience. Now if this fascinating film can just find an audience here in the U.S. (Plays Feb. 17 and 20)

These films have completed their festival run, but are worth watch watching for on Netflix or a DVD release:

"The Good Road" (7.5) is a depiction of a part of Indian culture that rarely makes it to American audiences. It is set in the rural desert roads of Kutch, a remote region of Gujarat, and features three intertwined stories of journeys gone awry.

The first story involves a middle-class city couple who, en route to their vacation destination, inadvertently leave their seven-year-old son behind at a roadside restaurant. Their ordeal intersects with that of a taciturn truck driver and his assistant, who are embroiled in an illegal scheme. The two end up traveling with the missing boy, and part of the film's charm is watching the boy worm his way into their companionship.

The final story involves a young orphan girl who is trying to get to the city where her grandmother lives, and encounters a strange and lovely community of young girls. The film's handling of the menace underlying this community is interestingly understated. The filmmaker has a delightfully subtle approach to developing these characters and the ominous dangers that beset them, along with the color and the sense of a sort of code that governs the communities in this sparse area of India.

“The Good Road” also features a wonderful soundtrack with acoustic Gujarati folk music.

According to Jon Savage's book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, the concept of youth culture that now pervades Western thought is a relatively new concept that evolved during those years. The U.S. documentary "Teenage" (7) gives us a visual depiction of that evolution, making use of an effective combination of impressionistic archival footage and first-person narratives chronicling the experiences of teens in the U.S., Britain, and Germany during those years. It charts the impact of the emergence of child labor laws in creating more of a divide between childhood and adulthood and documents such movements as the Boy Scouts, the Nazi Youth, and various party trends, dance crazes, and youth movements that resulted in our now very-pervasive sense of adolescents as cultural drivers.

Finally, U.S. filmmakers rarely make historical epics with the moral complexity of "Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas" (6.5). Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen stars in this French film set in the 16th century. Kohlhaas is a successful horse trader who gets into a conflict with a wicked baron which escalates into an all-out war when the corrupt legal system of the time utterly fails to accord Kohlhaas's claim its fair due. A man of conscience who inspires loyalty in his farmhands and community, Kohlhaas refuses to drop his grievances as expected of a man of his class and becomes a formidable foe to the ruling class.

The film is less interested in the battles (a la Braveheart) and more interested in the twisted logic of the church and royalty of the time, which imposes on a man like Kohlhaas a moral obligation to avoid responding to wrong with violence. By that twisted logic, Kohlhaas's efforts finally move the ruling class to give him his due, but also to extract the ultimate price.

Given the cancellations last weekend, it will be especially important to check the Northwest Film Center's website ( for updates to the entire Portland International Film Festival schedule. More to come!

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