Skimming through my many scribbles in a desired attempt to describe what Curtas Vila do Conde means 30 years into its instalment in Portugal’s now ever-growing film festival scene, the word I found I wrote down the most was “sanguine”. Above all else, and now having been afforded the time to let my ideas about what I’d watched marinate, the short film festival nestled in the haven of a sea-side small town close to Oporto, where it is free to confound the very notion of time and place, is synonymous with the punk earnestness that generates when young people begin to see themselves inhabiting the periphery new voices are dragged to. For lack of representation, of course, but not just. Going back to the very first edition and to veteran film critic and essayist Augusto M. Seabra’s opinion piece in the daily newspaper Público in June 1993, rightfully taken by many as the manifesto for what the festival was about to be a signifier of, one verifies the difficulty both audiences and industry still have, decades later, in giving the short film a defining role in film history alongside its longer counterpart. “In top tier film festivals, the short films are always the impoverished relative”, wrote Seabra, after identifying a piece written by one of the jury members at Cannes film festival in ’93, when the reason for there not being two other Jury prizes for short films came down to the fact that the other members had failed to watch the selected short films. Short films have a tough time being validated, Seabra concluded. 

Three decades later, never have short films been so readily available. From YouTube to most streaming platforms, namely Mubi, who do a marvellous curation, short films have gone from complementing the media landscape to being a key component within it. But still, just because they’re there to be consumed does not mean they’re embraced. And it’s ironic to think about the ever-present marginalisation the short film suffers from and then correlate that with the fact that at the beginning, at the time of the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, there was only and just the short film. And it was from there that all else germinated and found its footing. Workers came out of factories and people came out of trains, and all was recorded for posterity. In other words, these monuments of life lived and motion experienced were here to make aware that although all of it was nothing more than an illusion, it was mapping our mortality. Only later, with the conventions of plot coming into play did the object turn itself away from contemplation. Still, when Walter Benjamin called the audience “(…) an examiner, but a distracted one”, he never meant that the audience didn’t know, wasn’t seeking. In the audience lies the truth and cinema as an art form is very much about seeing that truth developing. Arriving into the idea of film as a temple of consciousness, the short film’s welcome proclivity for unconventionality drives its force towards a constant re-birth.

Curtas Vila do Conde 

Now, because it is open, free of structures, genres or rules, and mostly because of its time constraints, it gets side-tracked by the feature film, given the latter’s ease in finding a description and therefore, in being more desired. The feature is about the way the story builds. With the short, what happens is happening, all the time. There is a matter-of-factness to it, which can sometimes lead to it failing in creating the instant impact it so deserves. That and the fact that there is a rare chance even local theatres will programme a short film regularly all add up to where the format stands culturally. I have seen first-hand what drives film students to film school and the short film isn’t it. In that first class, it’s always Goodfellas that comes up, never The Big Shave. News from Home, instead of Saute Ma Ville. And yes, in the midst of a crazed edition of the Venice or Cannes Film Festival, busy and sleep-deprived film critics tend to forego the short film competition. Much like the very vast realm of experimental cinema, the short film is at its most comfortable within the confines of experimentation, another factor for why it’s looked at as a first step, that initial dive into filmmaking. It shouldn’t. It isn’t always that. Few other formats can display or probe the juice of a mood the same way. Now, when it comes to regarding the short film as a calling card, especially at film festivals, it may have announced many careers insofar as it made them flourish, but still this point of view is ignoring the symptoms. The short film plays with the materiality of the film strip and then proceeds into changing its appearance, thus investigating the concepts of vision and spatiality themselves. It does not occupy that space as a premonition for what’s coming. This is it. It has arrived!

Importantly, Curtas Vila do Conde really comes into itself in its programming language. By which I mean, the way the curation is expelled, but more than that the lexical motion it takes on during the course of the festival. Over the years, its garnished reputation for bringing to the foreground Portuguese contemporary treasures – most dominantly in the 1990s with the Geração Curtas (Generation Curtas), a very prolific very talented group of filmmakers (João Pedro Rodrigues, Miguel Gomes…) – has extended that momentary slit of time and applied it to the festival’s all-seeing eye, throughout all its programme’s strands. In 2022, this cinematic stance, independent in its aestheticism, delights itself by continuing to nurture a very polyphonic essence, the same that confronts the fact that because the films may be too dissimilar to mesh together, only a very hybrid being could have found a place for itself at the centre of it.

Across the border, from its competition programmes to its In Focus corner, this year’s Curtas interweaved renowned names of world auteur cinema (Tsai Ming-Liang, Radu Jude, Deborah Stratman or Éric Baudelaire) with those that look at the festival as the space-world where their careers not only sprouted but gained materiality (João Pedro Rodrigues or Sandro Aguilar), assiduous cases like that of Yann Gonzalez, whose films accompanied the festival’s growing pulsating relationship with music overtime, and finally with the new and yet fully robust voices – looking at Carla Simón’s increasing narrative dexterity and at Céline Devaux’s winning nuggets of animation and live action that explore life’s most frustrating ambiguities. 

News from the Past

The Bones

The first two films I caught made the case for such an appraisal. At the heart of both Maria Schneider, 1983, Elizabeth Subrin’s Cannes arrival, and Los Huesos (The Bones), a much-travelled film by the Chilean filmmaking duo Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal Leónburst, are energies that move at an unsettling pace, eventually inducing film as ritual to expunge evil forces at play. In an effort to demand accountability for damage done, both films resort to bones, physical and otherwise, to rewrite history. In the first, such is accomplished through the re-enactment of archive footage and repetition as to inspect the film industry’s mistreatment of a 19-year-old Maria Schneider during the filming of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and thereafter, while the second sheds light on two Chilean political figures, Diego Portales and Jaime Guzmán, and the role they played in the country’s dictatorship’s political actions, by way of stop-motion animation and the revival it can spurt. 

Somewhere between the spectral and the corporeal, departed bodies find themselves reproduced with fervour. Known for experimenting with various forms of filmmaking and pushing them to their limits, Subrin pinpoints the overwhelming violence against women across time and place. Three actresses render the 1983 interview with Schneider post-rape and her spirit and these women’s personal histories erupt through the screen. A very similar though more refined procedure occurs when Cociña and Leónburst give the task of freeing Chile to a masked child who, in children’s play, manages to resuscitate the secretaries of state. Smiling creepily, the exercise screams of bloodshed while it reflects upon the Chilean heritage with gritted teeth. 

Inhabiting the same fabric, that of past’s present time, Antonin Peretjatko’s Les rendez-vous du samedi (Yellow Saturday) joins in the conversation like a rageful quilt of poetic nourishment. Breaking the screen in two, not unlike a sheet of paper, a torrent of images and sounds in 35mm follow the feverish streets during the so-called Yellow Vests protest movement in the city of Paris in 2018 shot by a man we never get to see, that goes by the name of Pierre Bolex. Stealing Chris Marker’s revolutionary breathing in Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge (A Grin Without a Cat), Peretjatko presents us with the continuous and unmerciful viewpoint of the demonstrators fighting in the one place that belongs to both everybody and nobody, and weaves the reality of this art of revolt with the silence that permeated across the world during the Covid-19 confinement periods.

But Peretjatko is not exactly trying to make sense of it all. If we didn’t know better, we could say he’s stuck in the 1970s, shooting women in rooftops with his camera. He wants to tells us he was there; he never missed a Saturday meeting. It’s almost as if he finds that commitment romantic. An affair he had with the world. He wants to have captured the mind’s eye of those who believe in fire as the means to push forward. Preservation ensued by the breaking apart. His act is physical, by use of his body. He holds onto a camera to suspend, to crystallise. Behind a gas mask placed on a man’s head, he who looks straight at the lens, there’s an arrested icon, a visual loudness that stretches to eternity. Peretjatko effortlessly taps into that sound wave.

A Tale of Fire and Water


The dual sight these films command, their combined perception and function, gradually takes on a tinge of red when I find a recurring thematic criss-crossing the Portuguese competition. Not unlike Peretjatko’s footage, fires are ignited by people as a way of referencing the increase in wildfires across Southern Europe during record-breaking summer heatwaves. Narrative-driven As Sacrificadas (The Left Behind), by Aurélie Oliveira Pernet and the animated Garrano, by David Doutel and Vasco Sá, both awaken human desires and strangle even further the people within these confined worlds. With the strength of a match falling on spilled gasoline, the brevity and compression of the short film format charts paradoxical voyages about an old lady, her daughter and a young boy and his horse, and how they’ve come to value their sense of existence. Inside Sandro Aguilar’s taciturn O Teu Peso em Ouro (Worth your Weight in Gold), no escape is to be found from reality’s design. The relationship between a hypnotherapist and its patient and film projection and its spectator somersaults into oblivion. Alongside the unrequited words three distressed people blurt out, Aguilar, a Curtas’ veteran who seems to have come back to the short film to explore the sensuality of his driest aches as a filmmaker, hereby subverts the symbols of reality into abstract fibres, unsurprisingly warm to the touch. Keeping up with titillating platforms of immersion, we find João Pedro Rodrigues in his customary wild gathering of tones, genres and concerns coming from a place of tactility and pure unadulterated eroticism. Fogo Fátuo (Will-o’-the-Wisp) is enraptured with all things picturesque. It calls our attention to the state of things – the pandemic, the crown, the wildfires, and two boys from different worlds coming together – before exerting them in its choreography of human queerness. There’s so much happiness here, so much to live for. No other Rodrigues’ film sums up his body of work quite as well or as much as this one does. 

I Thought the World of You

Celebratory, rugged and yet still delicate enough to weather the telling of story as a swelling matter, enlarging the mundane in all its ripeness, there are undeniable accomplishments in this year’s edition that induce a kind of post-incendiary quietness. To wit, films that touch upon the crisis of climate change and illuminate what stands above us, growing away beyond our control. Hlynur Palmason’s Hreidur (Nest) and João Gonzalez’s Ice Merchants will forever bookmark the year for me. Windows into humanity’s personal gains and losses, these two films vanquish fiction or documentary for the kind of memory-making cinema that recovers the notion of home back to us. In isolated and icy corners of the world, time passes and healing takes place. Three siblings build a tree house over the course of a year while their filmmaker-father records the task, and a man and his young son, sellers of ice, are forced to leave their house on top of a cliff when the ice begins to melt. Whether it is 3D construction or real-life chronicling, nothing else can be said in an effort to measure the great heights these mental landscapes reach. Alongside these two, Kurt Walker’s I Thought the World of You is a luscious balm that sweats over that very same concept. Who is the Canadian musician who recorded a couple records under the pseudonym of “Lewis”? Does he actually exist? Snippets from fans wonder and chase over the myth. Walker also tries to track him down in this film-essay-like-love-story, even though he knows deep down it’s never really about who’s who. It’s the dripping of nostalgia from the search that makes it enticing, the lack of a definite answer.

Speaking of braving the unknown, in my last screening, I discovered the body of work of the much-awarded French illustrator and filmmaker Céline Devaux. Similar to an act of activism, Devaux is completely unafraid in how she tells her truth. Straddling animation and live-action, she believes in hope, and by that, I mean, she completely shies away from performance. In a gist, she reminds us how tiresome (and probably conservative) our families truly are. Which means she won’t stop going there every Sunday. Being upset and loud and angry is a symptom of being sane. Relationships end. No, no one will be fine. No one is fine. Isn’t the world falling to pieces, after all? After much thought, among this tapestry of faces and voices I saw myself in, it finally dawned on me how Curtas continues to bestow defiance on everyone who comes through the door. At this point, I imagine Seabra would say something victorious, resonant of time gone by. But sadly, I wasn’t there from the beginning (I hadn’t even been born back then!). Staring at the passing sea, at all that impossible blueness, and still with my head in Devaux’s pinscreen animated scenes, I stick to what I know and quickly write down before falling asleep on the train back to Lisbon: “the short film is not just alive and well; it is thriving”.

Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival
9-17 July 2022

About The Author

Susana Bessa is a Portuguese film critic and journalist, with a master’s degree in Film and Screen Studies from Goldsmiths College. An alumna of Berlinale Talents, she has written for MUBI, Público, Cinea, The Rumpus, among others. More recently, she became a collaborator for À Pala de Walsh, where she enjoys delving into rare films and all those in need of an urgent comeback. She has a particular predilection for ‘70s American movies and has studied boredom as an aesthetic tool for the longest time.

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