Urgency was the key word for the 10th anniversary of DocLisboa. The urgency of the state of the world around us; the urgency of finding new ways to translate it into moving images; the urgency of showing people documentary filmmaking is essential to understand that world. All noble sentiments. But this urgency to be a festival of its time meant DocLisboa’s anniversary edition lost sight of the bigger picture, resulting in an undoubtedly enticing but sprawling and somewhat directionless program.
For the second year in a row, the festival found itself under “new management” – this time the all-female quartet of Susana de Sousa Dias, Cíntia Gil, Cinta Pelejà and Sara Jordão, veteran members of the festival team. They made a visible course correction, attentive to the popular movements that have risen in response to the current global recession, and to the many possible ways of recording these for posterity. Hence a new sidebar, Urgent Cinema, presenting a series of topical objects shot in many different formats, originally designed to be seen and shared online and through social networks. As usual with DocLisboa, this sidebar made a smart counterpoint to the more traditionally structured main competition, as well as to the lengthy retrospective sidebar United We Stand, Divided We Fall, curated by Federico Rossin. This was a look back at much of the collective political cinema made from the 1960s to the 1980s, combining renowned classics and rarer pieces from collectives such as Medvedkine, Dziga Vertov, Winterfilm Collective, Cinema Action or the Poster Film Collective.
But, as a friend says, programmers may program, it is the juries who choose. And if you wanted to find out about DocLisboa 2012 – whose attendance held steady from last year at 27,500, even in a year of budget reductions and economic crisis – the awards would give you a skewed vision of the event. With Chinese veteran Wang Bing’s tale of Chinese provincial poverty San Zimei (Three Sisters), justly winning the top prize, its more austere take on documentary as vérité portraiture stood apart from a selection rife with formal and stylistic experimentation. Conversely, Salomé Lamas’ first-person testimony of a mercenary’s life, Terra de Ninguém (No Man’s Land), winner of the Portuguese competition, was one of the few daring objects in an otherwise conventional selection. And while both films more than deserved their prizes, these awards seem strangely unrepresentative of the challenges the organisation wanted to highlight, and also sidestep some of the most exciting experiences presented this year.
A good example was the competition entry Vers Madrid! (The Burning Bright), French political filmmaker Sylvain George’s latest attempt at harnessing the energy and urgency of contemporary social protest. Shot during the “Indignados” street protests in Madrid over the past 12 months, Vers Madrid! is the latest iteration of the director’s fondness for “variable geometry filmmaking” – films that he keeps refining and screening publicly until arriving at a definitive edit. The director’s previous work, Qu’ils reposent en révolte, had five successive versions of different lengths (the second of which presented in the 2010 competition), and Vers Madrid!, submitted for consideration in a 75-minute version, was shown in a two-hour edit. Though in many ways it wasn’t yet a finished film, it was a good example of the convergence between formal experiment and topical subject matter the festival has been exploring; a convergence extended this year to the newly-introduced Passages sidebar, presenting gallery works by noted directors Chantal Akerman (also honoured with a retrospective of her documentary work) and Pedro Costa.
On that artistic note, the official competition brought to the spotlight interesting films signed by visual or multimedia artists experimenting with cinema as yet another formal outlet. In some cases, like Louidgi Beltrame and Elfi Turpin’s highly conceptual but stunningly enveloping Franco-Brazilian short Cinelândia, the result is a dreamy, atmospheric essayist mood-piece whose connection to documentary is, at best, tenuous. In others, there is an actual fresh pair of outside eyes that allows the form to be interrogated and reset with a twist. British-based art collective The Otolith Group’s meditation on the Fukushima disaster, The Radiant, works simultaneously as a thoughtful work of art commissioned by the 2012 Documenta and as a self-standing film that quietly questions and deconstructs the public facade of the nuclear power industry.
French artist Éric Baudelaire’s melancholy L’Anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images (The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images) is a conceptually off-centred documentary that works as counterpoint to Terra de Ninguém. Both films explain just how much the traditional ideas of documentary representation repose on a notion of trust between the filmmaker and the viewer that can be very quickly abused by either and asks the viewer to think carefully and critically about what they are viewing.
The Anabasis… applies newly-shot footage to the voiceover telling of the stories of May Shigenobu and Masao Adachi, and their connections to notorious 1970s radicals the Japanese Red Army. She is the daughter of the group’s leader Fusako Shigenobu, who grew up on the run; he is a filmmaker who abandoned his career to join the group as their spokesperson and documentarian. Baudelaire’s work highlights the fact that they are the sole witnesses of the events they’re testifying about, since there is no surviving footage either of May’s growing up or of Adachi’s stay with the group. Terra de Ninguém asks how even the traditional device of having someone tell their story for a camera can be trusted when the truth of what is being told is ultimately unknowable. The film records in a minimalist manner the tale of Paulo de Figueiredo, a former combatant in the Portuguese colonial wars turned mercenary who was convicted and jailed for collaborating with the Spanish death squads of the early 1980s, but whose story cannot be independently verified for truthfulness.
This is, in fact, the same question being asked in João Pedro Rodrigues’ and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s A Última Vez que Vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macao). While Baudelaire and Lamas’ films can reasonably still fall within the traditional category of documentary – at no point they are anything other than records of these people’s views of their life experiences – The Last Time I Saw Macao, made by two filmmakers who have until now worked mostly in fiction, describes itself openly as a documentary of the mind: a fantastical look not at the real Macao, but at the heightened Macao Guerra da Mata invented for himself as a schoolboy living in the then-Portuguese colony with his father, a military officer. Tying a loose thriller plot to documentary footage shot in Macao, The Last Time I Saw Macao was a defying statement as the festival’s official opener, underlining its commitment to new forms and new directions, but its openly uncategorisable nature meant it was always going to be an outlier in the competitive sections of a festival that has mostly preferred its winners more based in reality.
Not surprisingly, some of the most sophisticated projects were presented out of competition – like A Story for the Modlins, Sergio Oksman’s stunning 30-minute tale of movie extra turned mystical recluse Elmer Modlin; winner of the Vila do Conde international competition earlier in the year, it’s another extraordinary example of how the naturally reliable storytelling instincts of the documentary can be twisted to fictional effect.
The fact that some of these films are borderline experimental is not lost in a festival that has always welcomed the stretching of borderlines, with the parallel sidebar Riscos (New Visions) instrumental in exploring the connections between fiction and documentary, art and film. This year, both the sidebar and the entire festival were dedicated to the memory of the late trio of Stephen Dwoskin, Chris Marker and Marcel Hanoun. Dwoskin and Hanoun’s final films, Age Is… (2012) and Cello (2012), were shown, along with the latest works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Ashes and Mekong Hotel), Jay Rosenblatt (Inquire Within), Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) or Jean-Claude Rousseau (Saudade), as well as Pip Chodorov’s charming, enticing documentary introduction to experimental cinema, Free Radicals.
Another trend in this year’s edition was a rise in the number of films interested in recording traditions and ways of life about to disappear. In the Portuguese competition alone there were three such films – Franco-Portuguese director José Vieira’s Le Pain que le Diable a pétri (The Bread the Devil Knead), Cláudia Alves’ Sobre Viver (Living On) and Júlio Alves’ O Regresso (The Return). All three fell prey to an idealisation of rural living as either a primitive paradise we can learn much from, or a past gone never to return, its memory something to be treasured and recorded; none added much to the rather large number of pre-existing ethnography films, all raised many questions about what exactly its directors were aiming at – though Vieira and Alves’ films were undertaken out of personal relevance, looking at the present of the regions their parents came from. Another disappointing ethnography piece in the international competition was Libbie Dina Cohn and J. P. Sniadecki’s much talked about People’s Park, an intriguingly leisurely ramble through a Sunday afternoon at a public park in the Chinese city Chengdu, shot (like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark) as an 80-minute non-stop single-shot. In between some revelatory moments you sense that sustaining the visual gimmick is often the film’s single raison d’être.
The best in this ethnographic strand came from fiction/documentary hybrids, a form with form in the festival’s past. More on the documentary side: in the entrancingly sensory Arraianos, Galician director Eloy Encino Cachafeiro weaves a magical realist universe out of rural traditions meshed with the writings of local playwright Jenaro Marinhas del Valle. More on the fictional side: Mexican director Yulene Olaizola shot Fogo in the namesake Canadian island off Newfoundland, using local non-pros and locations to create an eerie, quasi Herzogian fantasy of quiet apocalypse.
After ten days of stumbling between an almost impossibly rich program (and we’ve not even scratched the surface of parallel sidebars such as the Heartbeat music documentary section, this year the biggest it’s ever been), DocLisboa’s anniversary edition came to an end with the premiere of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Berlin winner Cesare Deve Morire (Caesar Must Die), a stunningly modern example of documentary as a form of its time yet timeless. This look at a staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in an Italian high-security prison speaks to our time without speaking of it, and blurs the artistic borders of both documentary and fiction into one single entity – cinema – without ever losing its distinct affiliation as a record of a moment in the life of its actors/prisoners. That is an ability exclusive to the documentary and one that remains and survives beyond any urgency of the moment – and a welcome ending for a festival that affirmed, as best it could, the importance of documentary to the world we live in.
18 – 28 October 2012
Festival website: http://www.doclisboa.org/2012/