An Oscar-nominated local debuts her latest doc, Portland swells with guests from around the world, and I eat way, way too much goat cheese
When I arrived at Vermillion Studios at the edge of the river in Portland I was greeted by a smiling and exuberant Irene Taylor Brodsky. The Oscar-nominated, Peabody and Emmy Award winning filmmaker later tells me that she’s 45, but she certainly doesn’t look it – she’s wearing a bright orange scarf that blends well with her olive skin, and has cat-eye frame glasses that are so cool I want to steal them right off her face. I asked her what she was most looking forward to at Portland’s 39th annual International Film Festival.
“I think one of the best things you can do is just watch as many different kinds of films as possible.” She pointed out that events like PIFF are a great opportunity to cleanse your film palate rather than sticking to what you like, whether it’s animation, horror, or shorts. “Increasingly, forms of films are sort of crossing over; documentaries take on some of the qualities of fiction films and fiction films and commercials are taking on qualities of documentaries – just get your butt in a seat and watch things.”
This opening night feature from Finland’s Klaus Haro is a fictionalized tale based on the true events of famed Estonian fencing master Endel Nelis. Full of tension and history, the story weaves its way through an oppressed rural town under postwar Soviet rule, where parents are carted off to labor camps and children have few outlets for fun. Nelis founds a fencing club, where both teacher and pupils are able to escape their dreary, worry-clouded world through sport, though Nelis has his own demons to hide. The colors of sea foam green, greys and pale yellows are occasionally pierced by red, all working marvelously together to bring us to this period piece.
An Icelandic film from director Grímur Hákonarson, Rams was all kinds of fun and a little sad, making it a perfect blend of bittersweet. It’s an Icelandic dark “dramedy” featuring two bitter sheep farm owning brothers in a stand off against each other, who eventually must team up to save their uncertain future. The north Icelandic landscape is frigid but beautiful, and it’s interesting to see a modern people, descendants of Vikings, with their beards intact but their bodies covered in warm woolen sweaters. It was interesting to see their rural lives and compare them to those of the American West, and was certainly a story full of heart.
Sista in the Brotherhood
A cute portrait piece from Dawn Jones Redstone, Sista in the Brotherhood is a locally produced short that makes great use of Portland’s bridges as a backdrop. Starring a young woman trying to fit in to a new construction career, it reminds us to rely on inner strength rather than bravado, and successfully mocks the old adage “the right man for the job.”
50 Feet from Syria
A truly unbelievable documentary by Skye Fitzgerald, 50 Feet From Syria follows American/Syrian surgeon (Hisham Bismar) who traveled to Syria to operate on victims of the Syrian civil war. It was shocking as a Westerner to constantly hear about the conflict on the news, and listen to the sounds of bombs and shrieks of terror, but to see the horror and atrocities being committed to so many people, even small children, left me without words. In a small hospital on the border of Turkey and Syria, Bismar does his best to make a dent in a void of turmoil. The voices and faces of those affected will stay with me for the rest of my life. After the film, the director came to the stage, with the surgeon, and the entire theater erupted in applause for such modern heroism, followed by a standing ovation.
Open Your Eyes
Although it took place in Nepal, local Portlandian Irene Taylor Brodsky had her Portland premiere of Open Your Eyes, and it was certainly moving. Shot by Brodsky over just three days, it follows Manisara and Durga, an elderly Nepalese couple suffering from cataracts. Brodsky was back in Nepal to teach filmmaking, and was traveling with her colleagues from Seva, a charity dedicated to performing sight-restoring surgeries. Manisara and Durga were presented with the opportunity to gain their sight back, if they could make their way down the mountain and to the hospital for a simple operation. It’s then that Manisara pulled her tiny granddaughter into her lap, touching her little hands, eyes and feet. “I don’t even know what she looks like,” she says. They agree to make the trip, and the journey begins.
After Brodsky’s documentary, HBO hosted a fabulous after party with more wine, beer, and tasty treats. Throughout the festival I quite enjoyed dipping my crisp delicious artisan crackers into all the goat cheese and fig spread I could get my hands on. Elephant Delicatessen served up plate after plate of amazing cheeses and fruits, the wine from Elk Cove Vineyards was fantastic, and although I was having too much fun with the hummus and pepper spreads to snag a Voodoo Doughnut in time, I still enjoyed beer from Sierra Nevada. The Portland Art Museum was a gorgeous venue, and I even made new friends. It was as perfect as any community event could be.
I had a chance to ask Brodsky more about her films, and what she likes to do amid all the film festivities. “I always try to join my parents for at least one or two films because my parents are deaf and they love watching subtitled films.“ When asked how she made the jump from portraiture photography to documentary filmmaking, she told me that very few people have an interest in the senses. “I was about 22 years old – I was a journalism major, I was getting a liberal arts degree – and I think the best advice I got was ‘start with what you know’ – and when you’re 22, you don’t know much.”
Brodsky studied liberal arts and journalism and decided to pursue portraiture photography after graduation. “I wanted to look at deaf children around the world and sort of how they communicate, so I ended up in Nepal.” Brodsky lived in Katmandu for much of the 90s, and after UNICEF caught wind of her project, they said they wanted a film made to focus on the uniquely high number of deaf children in Nepal. When she started making the film, she says she realized it was even better than pictures. “Pictures are one part of the filmmaking process,” she says as she so kindly offers me soda water. “You have pictures you have sound and then you’ve got that narrative that happens when you combine them and the way you combine them is really where the artistry is. I think my documentaries still essentially are portraits. They’re just a little more dynamic – and they move!”
I asked Brodsky how after living and working in New York City and Nepal she decided to settle in Oregon. She says for her, Portland has perfect doses of culture, artistry and nature. “New York had more culture and more artistry than I could ever take in and almost no nature.” She told me that she doesn’t think it’s an unusual choice. “I think a lot of people are moving here just to be here.”
Open Your Eyes will be coming to HBO soon, and in the meantime, Brodsky is back to work. The documentary she’s currently working on has ties to the Portland area as well – Four Walls Around Me centers on ex-cons from Oregon adjusting to life after leaving prison. It centers on life’s crossroads and questions of comfort, and how our life choices and what we’re willing to tolerate can change not only with age, but isolation from society. “You know what you’re comfortable in, you know what those four walls around you are and what makes you feel most comfortable and that’s why the film is called that. We are going to gravitate to our comfort zones and for a lot of ex-cons, that’s right back in jail. Because that’s where they have power, that’s where they have value, that’s where they know how to operate.” It certainly seems like Brodsky knows what she’s doing, and so does the Northwest Film Center.
Open Your Eyes from Irene Taylor Brodsky will be coming to HBO soon.