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Virtual, Drive-In, and More Unbound than Ever: Top Picks for the Portland International Film Festival

The Northwest Film Center’s annual festival offers more ways than ever to experience the intersection of art and cinema, March 5-14.

Presented by Northwest Film Center February 15, 2021

A Kaddish for Bernie Maddoff 

The Northwest Film Center (NWFC) and Portland Art Museum’s Portland International Film Festival is a staple of the city’s winter art and entertainment scene—a scene that has gone through big changes due to pandemic-related closures of physical spaces this past year. The NWFC continues to reimagine not just PIFF, but the entire organization as it delivers on an unbound vision of storytelling. Taking place March 5 – 14, 2021, the festival centers on both artists and cinematic storytellers who are bold enough to interrupt the status quo, and focuses on those changing for whom, by whom, and how cinematic stories are told. 

A combination of virtual and drive-in screenings and events will bring the world to Portland—and Portland to the world. Cinematic stories from the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East dominate this year’s lineup of 93 feature and short films from over 34 countries. 

The Northwest Film Center’s second annual Cinema Unbound Awards will kick off the festival on March 4, celebrating artists and leaders who are transforming cinematic storytelling. And throughout the festival, the Cinema Unbound Drive-In at Zidell Yards will showcase independent features and new Northwest shorts exploring what the future can be.

See the full schedule, how to experience the festival and more at cinemaunbound.org

Programmer Picks

For the first time, this year’s programming was co-curated by a mix of local and international artists, producers, curators and programmers. Below, they share their top festival picks. 


Amy Dotson, Northwest Film Center Director and Portland Art Museum Curator of Film and New Media

The Northwest Film Center director recommends the Cinema Unbound Drive-In at Zidell Yards; the Future/future competition highlighting boundary-pushing new cinema from emerging filmmakers; Where There's Smoke, an immersive, interactive conversation about life, loss, and memory from storytelling pioneer Lance Weiler; and Spectral Transmissions: Ghosts of Futures Past, a multimedia event in the style of a 1930s/1940s radio show.

“I continue to be a passionate champion of filmmakers, artists, curators, and undefinable work that is not content to be contained,” says Dotson, who headed programming at the Independent Filmmaker Project in New York before taking the helm at the Northwest Film Center in 2019. “While PIFF continues to retain the awesome boundless creativity that only Portland brings, we’re particularly excited to be a place and space that welcomes everyone—in a space both online and at our Drive-In where art and cinema collide with abandon.” 

The Ritual to Beauty 

Gina Duncan, Curator & Producing Director, Sundance Film Festival

For this year’s festival, guest curator Gina Duncan has put together Cinema//Care, a special program exploring how the independent filmmaking community can come together in this precarious time. The program features four recent independent films and a March 6 discussion with their acclaimed filmmakers—Andrew Ahn (Driveways), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Loira Limbal (Through the Night), and Crystal Kayiza (See You Next Time)—focused on how we as artists and audience members can continue and sustain this care in our new reality.

“Cinema//Care reinforces a commitment to care and community, and how through the programming of independent films at art houses, festivals, we can create and sustain a culture of care right where we live,” Duncan says. 

See You Next Time 

Jim Kolmar, Programmer, SXSW

“It’s always a pleasure to celebrate emerging, innovative filmmakers, particularly when they have the kind of vision and conceptual clarity explored in this year’s titles,” says Jim Kolmar, a veteran SXSW feature programmer with a focus on Latin America and Latinx films. “Despite the strictures of our current reality, these filmmakers succeed in looking outward and considering possibilities beyond the limits of expectation, form and genre.” 

Kolmar recommends PIFF features by Brielle Brilliant (Firstness), Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke (A Machine to Live In), Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi (The Daphne Project), and Emma Seligman (Shiva Baby). Among the short films, his picks include Savannah Reich’s Men Among Men, Shenny de Los Angeles and Maria Marrone’s The Ritual to Beauty, and Brooke Ross’ Feeling Sexual.

Shiva Baby 

Ben Popp, Head of Artist Services, Northwest Film Center

“The Northwest, while small in size, usually produces incredibly large, heartfelt works, and this year is no different,” says the Film Center’s Ben Popp. “From deep dives into the intricacies of relationships between persons, families and whole communities, to the ever standing fervor for animation, and experimenting with form, the selections of films from the Northwest span all of these and more, from new comers, past award winners, and like the hidden faces in the many trees, those who have been there all along, but never recognized.”

Popp’s Northwest picks include features by Portland-based filmmakers Alicia J. Rose (A Kaddish for Bernie Maddoff), Skye Fitzgerald (Hunger Ward), and Devin Fei-Fan Tau (Who’s on Top: LGBTQ’s Summit Mt. Hood). His must-see shorts are Dawn Jones Redstone’s See Me, Karina Lomelin Ripper’s short documentary La Tienda, and Tides of Hyperion from Seattle’s AJ Lenzi. Don’t miss Poetic Cinema and Persona Tales: Three Short Films by Sky Hopinka, featuring a conversation between the artist and Kathleen Ash-Milby, the Portland Art Museum’s Curator of Native American Art.

La Tienda

Shrihari Sathe, internationally renowned film producer and director

“In this particularly isolating time, international filmmakers are continuing to transport us to their regions by presenting cinematic works that transcend form, genre and substance,” says Shrihari Sathe, who directed 2014’s acclaimed 1000 Rupee Note.  “From Mongolia to Mexico, these filmmakers shed a light on the world as they see it and invite you to experience their realities.” 

Sathe’s globe-spanning PIFF recommendations include The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (India), Identifying Features (Mexico), Bitter Love (Sweden, Finland, Poland), and There is No Evil (Czech Republic, Germany, Iran), as well as shorts Entre Tú Y Milagros (Colombia, US), Bittu (India, United States), Tears Teacher (Japan), and Mountain Cat (Mongolia).

Learn more, get tickets, passes, and more at https://cinemaunbound.org/.