The word "International" is a prominent part of the Portland International Film Festival—but then, so is the word "Portland." While attendees flock to this annual fest to gain a measure of insight into other cultures far removed from our own little world, local director Brian Lindstrom's much-anticipated film Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse (which premieres Friday night and then has a two-week run at Cinema 21 from Feb 24–Mar 7) is a story that took place right here in our own backyard. And it's a very powerful story, indeed; one that has taken almost seven years to reach the screen.
The facts of the case are these: On Sept 17, 2006, James Chasse, a 42-year-old Portlander with schizophrenia, was approached by three police officers in the Pearl District. When he tried to flee, the officers pursued and grappled with him, resulting in his sustaining internal injuries—16 broken ribs and a punctured lung. Chasse later died in police custody. Through interviews with Chasse's friends and family, eyewitnesses, and videotaped testimony from those involved in the incident, Lindstrom presents the viewer with a wrenching life-and-death account of the man about whom Greg Sage, from the seminal Portland punk band the Wipers, wrote the 1979 song "Alien Boy." The lyrics are eerily prophetic, considering Chasse's eventual horrible demise: "Go and grab your gun / Got him on the run / Cause he’s an alien / They hurt what they don’t understand."
Lindstrom collaborated on the film with producer Jason Renaud, a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland (and high school classmate of Chasse), and writer Matt Davis, who covered the story for the Portland Mercury. Lindstrom says his intent with Alien Boy was not so much to vilify the Portland Police Bureau, as it was to put a human face on the victim, a man who went from being a writer, singer, and artist in Portland's late-'70s punk scene to a reclusive and powerless adult ravaged by mental illness. "So many of the people we interviewed still had letters and art from Jim (Chasse) that they've kept to this day," Lindstrom says. "And he had two songs written about him! How many of us can say that?"
Alien Boy will be screened at Cinema 21 on Feb 15 and Feb 24–Mar 7.Alien Boy is a triumph—and an emotional bulldozer. Despite Lindstrom's stated artistic mission, the details of the stonewalling, buck-passing, and misinformation perpetrated by members of the law-enforcement community will undoubtedly inspire anger and confusion. The film is an unflinching closeup of a shocking tragedy, one that could have been prevented at any number of points along the way, if anyone involved in his apprehension had taken a moment to treat James Chasse with an ounce of compassion. Those seeking closure on this terrible incident will likely walk away unsatisfied—but with a great deal to think about.