Over the course of nine years, DocLisboa has grown in stature into one of the key European shop windows of modern non-fiction film. Lisbon’s documentary film festival has become a yearly rendezvous, an opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at the state of the art in the documentary world, with the cream of the year’s crop brought together in one single place.

What has become extraordinary about “Doc”, as it is affectionately known by its patrons, is that the festival has become not only as a professional meeting point (much helped by its pitching sessions aimed at getting projects off the ground) but also as an audience magnet. With an average 30,000 admissions throughout the last four editions, it has become the second largest documentary festival in Europe by attendance, even though this year’s necessarily slimmed-down program attracted only 27,000-plus viewers (according to the organisation’s numbers).

2011 was the first year under new director Anna Glogowski, seconded by returning contributing programmer Augusto M. Seabra, whose fingerprints have been visible since he helped found the parallel Riscos (New Visions) sidebar, devoted to risk-taking, more experimental programming, in 2007. Glogowski and Seabra pursued the programming choices of the last few editions: on one hand, a desire to enlighten and educate its audience on the history of documentary (through an extensive, ongoing retrospective of the work of Jean Rouch, just as previous years showcased Frederick Wiseman or Joris Ivens); on the other hand, the way the films selected seem to speak to and with each other, each one a mirror of the modern world in all its vastness and contradictions.

In effect, the structure of the festival’s many sidebars, all feeding off of and into the main competition, practically demands such cross-currents, especially in a festival that makes a point of being attentive to the state of the world. A good example is the attention DocLisboa has always paid to the Far and Middle East, societies in flux where some of the most fascinatingly challenging experiments in modern cinema, whether non-fiction or fiction, originate. This year, Riscos presented both Xu Xin’s harrowing six-hour testimonial of Chinese state interference Karamay and Wang Bing’s equally harrowing Jiabiangou (The Ditch), his narrative recreation of the Jiabiangou gulag, while Jia Zhang-ke’s ravishing, melancholy documentary on Shanghai, Hai Shang Chuan Qi (I Wish I Knew), was presented as an out of competition premiere screening.

Also out of competition was sentenced-to-gaol Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s sly, poignant film-essay In Film Nist (This Is Not a Film), put into context by the presentation of Fragments of a Revolution, a collective hour-long assemblage of footage shot during the 2009 Green Revolution that led to Mssrs Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s current troubles; and by two films shot in the heat of the Arab Spring events that can be seen as descendants of the Iranian events of 2009. Mourad ben Cheikh’s La Khaoufa Baada Al’Yaoum (Plus jamais peur), about the Tunisian revolution that ousted the military dictatorship, was one of the festival’s special screenings; the main competition welcomed Italian director Stefano Savona’s Tahrir – Liberation Square, a heartfelt video diary of the occupation of the Cairo square that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, a film whose sense of urgency, momentum, and “you-were-there” immediacy render it an important document of a moment in time, more than a polished, great film.

Yet it was from Europe that the strongest “state of the world” film of this year’s edition, presented in the main competition, came: Swiss director Fernand Melgar’s Kafkaesque Vol Spécial (Special Flight), a film surrounded by controversy since its premiere in competition at Locarno, currently at the heart of a vigorous national debate about Swiss immigration policies. The film looks at the illegal immigrants detained in the Frambois prison waiting for a repatriation none of them desires and at the guards that try to remain humane among an inherently inhumane situation, and is a masterful piece of observational structuring and editing that refuses to take sides or reduce the events to easy simplifications. Instead, Melgar trusts his audience to make up their own minds about what they are seeing, even if occasionally he himself is of two minds about what is going on in Frambois.

This is where, I believe, part of the festival’s continuing success lies: the simultaneous reach for a specialist audience that wants to keep abreast of what’s happening in non-fiction film, and for a wider public that may lured in by more accessible or topical work – such as Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, given a one-off showing in the Heartbeat music documentary sidebar before a straight-to-DVD release, or Frederick Wiseman’s cheerful if minor look at the legendary Parisian cabaret, Crazy Horse, selected as the official opener. But DocLisboa’s true importance lies in its constant attention to the latest developments in the non-fiction world.

As such, the festival has been extremely active over the past years in following the more freeform constructs that have been labelled documentaires de création and fictions du réel, definitions that share a common striving beyond the traditional, rigid borders of cinéma vérité or more conventional reportage. The first applies an auteurist point of view by submitting the footage shot to a director’s artistic or creative design, form becoming as much a part of the project as function; the second uses dramatic and editing structures inherited from narrative fiction to construct a plotline or story arc from its real-life footage. Both meld and mix in the competition winner, the most unclassifiable of all entries in the main selection – and the first Portuguese film thought worthy of an international competition berth in five years.

Gonçalo Tocha’s É na Terra, Não É na Lua (It’s the Earth, Not the Moon) is a stubbornly handcrafted, homemade look at the distant Azorean island of Corvo, painstakingly assembled from four years of long-term visits meticulously recorded on digital video. Blurring the boundaries between home movie, ethnographic documentary, video diary, essay film and observation piece, Tocha’s shapeshifting film offers a personal yet universal look at an apparently God-forsaken place where people have found both peace of mind and a reason for living. Premiered at Locarno 2011 where it won a special prize from the Filmmakers of the Present jury, It’s the Earth seemed to be the perfect balancing act between auteurism and tradition: a film that takes its own time in looking for, and finding, its subject, and that looks at the world around it through a distinctly personal point of view.

For better or worse, no other film in the main competition reached the dizzy heights of It’s the Earth, even though some of them tried mightily. In common with Tocha’s look at the community of Corvo, many of them paid close attention to man and his relation with place and geography. German director Christian Stahl’s spontaneous, unfocused debut Gangsterläufer (Gangster Runner), a real-life cousin of Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète, follows three years in the life of a small-time Arab criminal from the infamous Berlin neighbourhood of Neuköln and his family, tracing how the soft-spoken Yehya became enamoured of the gangster life. Pole Jerzy Sladkowski’s Swedish-financed, disenchanted Vodka Factory follows the illusions of a factory worker in dead-end smalltown in modern Russia who dreams of the big city even though she clearly has no smarts to survive there. German Dieter Schumann’s neatly organised Wadans Welt (Wadan’s World) follows a German shipyard’s fall and rise at the mercy of the economic crisis and the ways in which the uncertainty about the workers’ future indirectly affects its hometown. Belgian Sofie Benoot’s smart Blue Meridian is a stylish travelogue of the modern American South, following the course of the Mississippi River all the way down to Venice, Louisiana, and charting effortlessly its uneasy relationship with history and the modern world.

The most interesting example of a geographical fiction du réel came, ironically, from another Portuguese director: first-timer Paulo Filipe Marques, whose A Nossa Forma de Vida (Our Way of Life) never leaves the Oporto flat where it takes place, spending all its time inside with the residing elderly couple who hardly ever go out anyway except to buy groceries. Marques manages to use this microcosm of a few rooms where news comes in only through tabloid newspapers and television to paint a wide canvas that speaks of Portugal as a country and a society, looking from outside in at a world that has passed them by, defiantly hanging on to a mindset that no longer makes sense.

Yet Our Way of Life wasn’t the only film dealing with a refusal to move on with the times. Dutch director Tom Fassaert’s De Engel von Doel (An Angel in Doel) takes as its subject Emilienne Driessen, who deliberately refuses to leave her flat in the condemned Belgian town of Doel, due to be razed to make way for a proposed expansion of the Antwerp harbour. Refusing to let go of the place where she was happy as Doel is slowly torn down around her, Emilienne becomes part popular heroine part heirloom of the past in Fassaert’s stylised assemblage of the key moments in five years of continuous filming. An Angel in Doel can be seen as a sort of passage into death where the stage of denial is never overcome, but Doel isn’t the only “lost territory” of the festival. Belgian director Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd’s Territoire perdu  (Lost Territory) follows the same logic of applying a stylised format to its tale of a disappearing land (Fassaert shot in high-contrast black and white, Vandeweerd uses non-sync sound and grainy footage to look at the Sahrawi diaspora).

All of these belong mostly to the fictions du réel strand. But two documentaires de création put forward more starkly and more poignantly the extent of the upcoming losses to culture and civilisation.

Thomas Heise’s Sonnensystem (Solar System) may look like an oddity in the career of a director hitherto mostly concerned with his native Germany, but it’s anything but. Here he follows the daily routines of the Kolla Tinkamaku, a native community in the Argentinian hinterlands that still lives in accordance with its handcrafted traditions, but one that civilisation is slowly gaining ground on. Heise’s preoccupation with history and memory is very evident in Solar System through his attempt at making the viewer absorb the rhythms and slow pace of the Tinkamaku natives, recorded for posterity before gently yet brutally easing him back into the real world through its lengthy final shot: a static, nine-minute tour de force filmed from the window of a train moving through a suburban landscape that wordlessly explains what it is that we are at risk of losing and what we are about to replace it with.

Marcelo Félix’s A Arca do Éden (Eden’s Ark) is also concerned with preservation – in this case, that of the world’s memory and history, as seen through the fictional metaphor of a Noah’s Ark of plant life escaping an unnamed cataclysm, juxtaposed against the work of historians and preservationists, taking in both those working in the preservation and restoration of silent cinema and the Svålbard global seed archive.

Straining at the borders of conventional documentary, Félix’s film was one of the better surprises of an otherwise middling competition of Portuguese hour- and feature-length films, much smaller than in previous years in accordance with the organisation’s desire to slim down the festival after a 2010 edition that over-reached in terms of number of films and screenings.

The winner in this strand was Aya Koretzky’s charming Yama no Anata, a poetic, moving scrapbook of the director’s family’s move from Japan to Portugal when she was a young schoolgirl. It was a deserved victory in a selection that had a surprisingly large share of disappointments. Foremost among them was Dulce Fernandes’ sincere but disjointed Cartas de Angola (Letters from Angola), a look at Cubans sent to help in Angola’s post-independent civil wars that melds awkwardly two intriguing premises, while the somewhat aimless, TV-report feel of Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra’s Orquestra Geração, looking at high-school teenagers involved in a youth orchestra modelled after the Venezuelan Bolivarian Orchestras, is still an improvement over their previous work, last year’s banal Li Ké Terra, the surprise winner of the 2010 competition.

However, it should be pointed out is that, unlike most international entries that very often involve some sort of television, state or institutional funding, most Portuguese documentary work barely survives. It is mostly made outside the system (It’s the Earth or Our Way of Life, to name but two, were entirely self-financed) and is seldom shown outside the festival circuit, TV screenings being few and far between and theatrical or DVD distribution available only to a select few. That it still exists at all, and that it is able to churn out films as distinctive and as unique as It’s the Earth, now heading into the international festival circuit ahead of a local theatrical release in early 2012, speaks of the desire and hunger for new ways of real-life storytelling that DocLisboa has had such an important role in generating in the past nine years.

20-30 October, 2011
Website: http://www.doclisboa.org/2011/