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Reviewer Darleen Ortega takes look at two movies that lift up unheard voices at this year's Portland Film Festival.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND FILM FESTIVAL - The film 'Powerlands' is a film with great insight into Indigenous ways and thinking, our reviewer Darleen Ortega says, thanks to Navajo filmmaker Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso. It screens Saturday, Oct. 22 at Lloyd Center's east wing venue.

This story is part of our ongoing series on the Portland Film Festival. Click here for more coverage.

Among the multitude of offerings at the Portland Film Festival this year, several films lift up wisdom and submerged stories that deserve an audience. Here are two of them:


"Powerlands" is the work of Navajo filmmaker Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso. At age 19 (just eight years ago), she set out to capture the struggles of her own Diné community's resistance against Peabody Coal, whose approach to mining has devastated the homelands where her people can trace connection going back 85 generations. As Tso began collaborating with others, she discovered astonishingly similar patterns of Indigenous struggle and resistance against corporate power interests — coal, oil, uranium and wind — in Indigenous areas situated in what are currently Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, and Canada.

The commonalities are starkly presented in her award-winning film, much of it communicated through elders and especially matriarchs who lead the resistance and explicate each Indigenous culture's connection of land to culture. The methods of these corporations, focused on profits to be made by supplying power to people worlds away (generally in Europe or the U.S.), are remarkably consistent with the methods used by Europeans upon first contact with these regions hundreds of years ago.

In each case, land is essentially stolen on false promises broken swiftly, with the irony that in many cases the communities themselves are not supplied with any of the power exported. The wind power extracted from Oaxaca especially underlined this point for me; massive wind turbines dot the landscape, supposedly an inspiring practice of developing green power — but at the cost of devastation of the communities themselves, as oil from the wind mills is left to contaminate the water supply and the mills are constructed at a height that devastates the local bird population.

In one remarkable scene in the U.S., power company representatives respond to clearly articulated harms to Indigenous people with a sense of affront that no one has mentioned all the supposed favors the company has done for them. The film makes space for Indigenous voices to explain how even what little compensation they are afforded interferes with food sovereignty, culture, and identity.

Voices in each of the communities depicted articulate clear analysis of colonial dynamics spanning continents and centuries.

The film is a remarkable piece of work, full of insights and respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and keeping faith with insights nurtured over generations. Tso has powerfully enlisted Indigenous voices to help us see the through-line of resource colonization from first contact to the current day.

"Powerlands" screens at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Koerner presents Oregon Shore Crab Theater in Lloyd Center east wing.

Returning Home

Returning Home about the founder of the Canadian Orange Shirt Day movement and the environmental devastation experienced by the Secwépemc First Nations people of what is currently known as British Columbia, employs similar tools of Indigenous storytelling to compelling effect.

Director Sean Stiller, a Secwépemc filmmaker, focuses his beautiful film on Phyllis Webstad, a survivor of a so-called residential school who mined her multigenerational story of trauma and abuse and turned it into a wide-ranging effort to educate Canadian school children in order to close off the exits of ignorance for Canadian people about the harm caused through its residential school system.

With Webstad as our guide, the film enlists her and other elders (again, particularly matriarchs) to illustrate the connections between land and culture, the loss of culture perpetrated through the residential schools and also through the continuing decimation of salmon stocks due to global warming and industrial fishing.

As in "Powerlands," the land itself is regarded as a character; we are offered the opportunity to witness the sweep of the land, the relationship of the people to the land and water, how they interact with the salmon as part of their community life.

Both these Indigenous directors tell their stories in a way that lifts up Indigenous voices and ways of knowing to illuminate connections that are hidden or even deliberately submerged and devalued in colonial cultures. Both films hold the potential to awaken audiences to how Indigenous people can help us understand what we can't see about how to recover more ethical ways of interacting with animals, water, and other natural resources.

"Returning Home" screens at 12:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at Portland Mortgage presents Pacific Rock Crab Theater.

Both films are available to screen at, and may be available through Comcast Xfinity X1 voice remote and Flex streaming service.

Film reviewer Darleen Ortega is a lifelong fan of movies and will be covering the Portland Film Festival for Pamplin Media Group. In her day job, Ortega is judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals.

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