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Q&A: Programming the Portland International Film Festival

Tonight marks the start of this year’s Portland International Film Festival (PIFF). Over the next few weeks, audiences have the chance to take their pick of 135 films consisting of 92 features and 43 shorts. As hard as it may be for moviegoers to figure out what to see, it may be even more challenging for the festival’s organizers to choose which films to bring to a screen near you. To find out how they did it, and to get some recommendations for can’t-miss flicks, OPB’s Lucila Cejas Epple talked with PIFF’s Jessica Lyness.

Lucila Cejas Epple: How were the films chosen for this festival?

Jessica Lyness: This is the 36th year for the Portland International Film Festival, and it is one of the longest-running film festivals in Oregon. The director of the center, Bill Foster, is our lead programmer, and programming a film festival comes together in many ways.

First we have a submission system in our website called Withoutabox, a great tool for filmmakers all over the world to submit their films. We have an exhibition team that pours over those entries and watches films.

Programming a festival can be a timely job, so you really have to be paying attention to other festivals, what’s coming out: what films are getting distribution and which ones are cleared by their country. You have to read a lot of industry publications and actually be present at festivals. There are also the relationships that you have with filmmakers and distributors. That is the operational part.

But how does he [Bill Foster] choose these films? You know, Portland is a big film town. We have a lot of film theaters, art house repertory and first-run theatres, and people in art house cinema; all these spectrums give you a big crowd for the International Film Festival.

This isn’t necessarily a market festival. We always try to provide the best films possible. Not the films we think a leading actor can come to, or a film that is up for an Oscar, but mainly the ones we think audiences should see.

LCE: This is an international festival. Why are you hosting a day featuring “Made in Oregon” shorts?

JL: There is so much skill and talent in Oregon that the filmmakers are easily on the international scale. Their work is not only being shown in Portland, but in Germany and Belgium. It is a natural fit. That being said, we also want to really put a spotlight on Oregon filmmakers specifically in the festival. There are five shorts programs, and you can go to any of them and the level of quality is the same as the international ones.

LCE: What do you think are going to be the biggest shows in the festival?

JL: Opening night is usually a wonderful turnout. We are using the Newmark Theatre in the Portland Center for Performing Arts, showing the Spanish film Blancanieves. That is always this celebration, beginning of the festival. That being said, the way we anticipate programming is that films that we put in bigger theaters we think will have larger attendance. Our largest theater is the NWFC Whitsell Auditorium which seats 360, so we anticipate large crowds in the films being shown there.

The Chilean film "No" stars Gael Garcia Bernal.

The Chilean film “No” stars Gael Garcia Bernal.

A lot of the films that have been on the festival circuit and are getting critical praise are noticed by audiences. We will be showing Happy People, a film by Werner Herzog, which is a name people know and they might gravitate towards. We will also be showing No, a Chilean film starring Gael Garcia Bernal. We also have Miguel Gomes, a Portuguese filmmaker, who directed this great film Tabu. So there are some established names who are already getting buzz, like No, which is nominated for an Oscar. There are some art films we are showing as well, such as Renoir and The Painting. Even animated films are getting a lot of attention. We are such a big animation community; we anticipate those films will do really well. With the technology advancements, animation has gotten easier, so you are getting all these different kinds of animation, all these people collaborating together. We think the community will enjoy a lot of these films.

LCE: What would you recommend for someone who is going to the film festival for the first time?

JL: This is a moment to have a shared community experience, so I think that taking a chance with a film is a great thing. I also recommend people go to a shorts program, because you get to see a dozen different films from a dozen different countries, and they are all short narratives or documentaries or animations and you can really get a taste of the festival by doing that.

The Portland International Film Festival runs through February 23. To find out more, visit their website.

Listen to Think Out Loud’s interview with local film critics previewing the festival.

Correction - February 7, 2013: A previous version of this article stated that Ben Foster is the lead programmer. Instead, Bill Foster is the lead programmer of the festival.


PIFF Portland International Film Festival