Jean-Luc Godard may not have invented the filmic convergence of la grande Histoire and la petite histoire, of the way that art and, especially, cinema can highlight the intersection between personal history and world history. But he did crystallise it in his work in a way few others have, and that is exactly why he comes to mind when thinking of the 12th edition of Doclisboa, Lisbon’s mighty festival of documentary film – a Godard-free edition that honoured the memory of the late film historian Peter von Bagh, who died two weeks before the festival, where he had served as jury president in 2011 and planned to come to accompany his final film, Sosialismi (Socialism).
The intersection between personal and world history that both Godard and Von Bagh underlined was at the heart of the 2014 program. There were the personal histories of Johan van der Keuken, the late Dutch documentary filmmaker subject of a complete retrospective, but also the arc of world history. In the year of the centenary of World War I, this was seen primordially through two central programming strands describing the way World War II changed both narrative and documentary filmmaking: Our 20th Century – Cinema facing History, a collection of films curated around producer Sidney Bernstein’s newly reassembled film of Nazi death camps footage, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and the Neo-Realism/New Realisms retrospective of post-war neo-realist cinema. In both cases, we are not talking of documentary in the strictest sense of the word, but rather of “document”.
Doclisboa made thus the case for film as an art inextricably intertwined with its time and context, and for documentary cinema as a form aligned closely with a certain type of “old-fashioned” (but not fusty) humanist ethics, though not necessarily beholden to a specific institutional agenda. In a moment where political polarisation and media fragmentation seem to be taking over the public discourse, the festival attempted to re-centre both the political and the social within a human, highly personal framework. That was the heart of the Our 20th Century selection, ranging from Andrei Ujica’s Out of the Present (1995) to Marcel Ophuls’ Veillée d’armes (The Troubles We’ve Seen, 1994) from Masa Sawada’s Parole de Kamikaze (I, Kamikaze) to Samuel Fuller’s firsthand account of liberating Falkenau in Emil Weiss’ Vision de l’impossible (The Impossible, 2005).
Blurring the boundaries between testimonial and remembrance, the selection created context and gave background to history, while documenting the many ways film can record and shape such keystone moments for posterity, and creating new and sometimes unexpected connections between them. This was matched with the neo-realist program, charting the initial birth of this reality-infused movement in post-war Italy, with early work from Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica, and then its influences and appropriation in other countries through the following decades (India’s Ritwik Ghatak, Brazil’s Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the US’s Kent Mackenzie, Philippines’ Lino Brocka or Portugal’s own Pedro Costa). In so doing, Doclisboa presented a sort of capsule history of how telling stories about the world changed in the aftermath of WWII. You could pretty much focus exclusively on this “double helix” strand and you would still be at the heart of events. As one of the festival’s two director/programmers, Cíntia Gil, pointed out more than once, Doc has never been designed as a series of separate islands, but more as an archipelago where everything is connected.
For all that, there can be a sense that the festival may sometimes over-reach and bite off more than it can chew. Co-director and co-programmer Augusto M. Seabra noted 2014 was the most artistically ambitious edition in the festival’s 12 years. But the parlous state of arts financing in the country, as well as the contraction in attendance for all events, means that, at a time when an event such as this should have reached cruise control, it still survives on a knife-edge – even though, holding at 26,000 viewers (slightly up from 2013’s 25,000, slightly down from 2012’s 27,000), Doc still ranks among the best-attended documentary festivals in the world.
Even so, ambition isn’t enough to sustain a festival without good material to work with, and this year Doc skimmed again the cream of the crop, with a staggering number of films having either their world or international premiere in the festival’s many strands – a recognition of its growing international importance – and many others traveling to Lisbon from Marseille or Locarno. Some were truly bewildering choices: The Sound Before the Fury, Lola Frederich and Martin Sarrazac’s record of the rehearsals and performance of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues 40th anniversary concert in Paris, is a banal “making of” piece formatted for television, a mere historical record. Canadian filmmaker Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass went in the exact opposite direction, wrapping up an intriguing meditation on the possibilities of storytelling and narrative in a multiple-choice amalgamation of fragments and techniques (somewhere between Stan Brakhage and Jackass) that fails to coalesce as a whole.
The best choices, however, echoed cleverly the “archipelago” concept, with personal and public histories resonating together in projects that meld playfully history and documentary. The single most challenging title was Brazilian firebrand Adirley Queirós’ stunning Branco Sai Preto Fica (White Out Black In), where a late-1980s real-life case of police brutality towards black minorities in the suburbs of Brasília is reinvented as a fight-the-power, us-vs.-them dystopian low-budget spaghetti-sci-fi. Superimposing a fictional overlay over real-life research and events, White Out Black In teemed with the urgency and heartbeat of the best new cinema being made in Brazil, as a “soulmate” to the work of the Pretti brothers, Gabriel Mascaro or Renata Pinheiro.
White Out Black In shared its dystopian sci-fi set-up, in a more diffuse way, with Singaporean director Daniel Hui’s sophomore feature Snakeskin, whose essayistic meditation on the identity and history of that Asian nation-state is reflected through a hallway of broken mirrors that meld past, present and future. Initially presented as a message from the future, Snakeskin becomes a literal collection of nested Russian dolls, a series of Scheherazadian psychogeographic tales that eventually reveal as its real subject the chasm between reality and memory, fact and fiction, history and myth.
The central trio of great competition entries was completed by Éric Baudelaire’s enveloping Letters to Max. The titular Max is Maxim Gvinjia, a former diplomat from Abkhazia and a long-time friend of the director’s; the film records a seemingly disconnected correspondence between Baudelaire and Gvinjia that slowly reveals an entirely different range of power dynamics at work in the satellite republics orbiting Russia. Abkhazia split violently from Georgia and remains unrecognised internationally as an independent state, and Letters to Max becomes a “Schrödinger’s cat” kind of film, debating matters of identity around a country that exists only to those who live in it.
White Out Black In, Snakeskin and Letters to Max would alone make this a banner year for the competitive selection, and tended to overshadow other valuable entries such as Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s laidback portrait La Creazione di Significato (The Creation of Meaning), Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s Loznitsian essay A Dream of Iron or Anna Eborn’s empathetic portrait of a Native American community, Pine Ridge. A shame therefore that the jury headed by film editor Dominique Auvray preferred to award the festival’s top prize to Chinese veteran Wang Bing for Fu Yu Zi (Father and Sons), a contemplative window into the struggles of modern China through two young boys left all day on their own while their father goes out to work. It was the third win for Wang after West of the Tracks and Three Sisters, but Father and Sons is one of his least interesting films, suggesting his observational approach may be reaching a breaking point or requiring a more expansive outlet than just film; it was a safe, predictable choice for top prize.
There was one Portuguese title in the main competition, veteran experimentalist Edgar Pêra’s Lisbon Revisited, a not entirely successful 3D-psychedelic exercise premiered at Locarno matching far-out visuals of the capital to the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. Its presence fit in with the festival’s championing of Portuguese cinema’s most vital contemporary work as defended by the international festival circuit. Gonçalo Tocha’s É na Terra, Não é na Lua (It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, 2011) and Joaquim Pinto’s E Agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me, 2013), both Locarno premieres, won the festival’s top prizes in 2011 and 2013 respectively, whereas the 2012 edition opened with João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s A Última Vez que Vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macau, 2012). But the 2014 competitive selection of Portuguese features was severely lacklustre, more so than in previous years, revolving around either straightforward “art” documentaries that wouldn’t look bad in a television screen or site-specific personal essays, never really engaging the big issues the festival likes to ponder and preferring to withdraw within an entropic cocoon of their own making, recording without really documenting.
Nowhere was this sense of homely parochialism more visible than in the competition’s one standout film, veteran Manuel Mozos’ equal parts frustrating and moving tribute to the late João Bénard da Costa, a critic and programmer whose incalculable importance as head of the Portuguese Cinematheque influenced, for better or worse, a whole generation of cinephiles and filmmakers. Outros Amarão as Coisas que Amei (Others Will Love the Things I Loved) turned out to be a haunting, delicate tone poem conveying Bénard da Costa’s sensibility, more of a sensory biography rather than a conventional historical record. It’s a ravishingly, carefully made picture, a clear labour of love from its makers, but it exists entirely in a bubble separate from the world outside.
As such, it became a rather apt metaphor for the current state of Portuguese documentary filmmaking, running the risk of becoming a mere footnote to a more challenging, if also struggling, fictional production. The irony is unavoidable: the same year the festival was shaken by the public controversy over the growing influence of mainstream television situations in the state-sponsored financing mechanisms for Portuguese cinema, with a number of filmmakers and producers withdrawing from its collegial structures, was also the year with the least interesting local selection in my history of covering the festival.
The eventual winner, João Pedro Plácido’s Volta à Terra (Belonging), was an amiable but very slight look at a rural community seen through the eyes of a young man reaching puberty, unable to transcend being a real-life riff on Miguel Gomes’ Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Our Beloved Month of August, 2008). The most interesting title in the running, Luísa Homem’s and Pedro Pinto’s A Cidade e as Trocas (Trading Cities), premiered at FIDMarseille and was the one Portuguese film where you could actually feel a connection to the world outside. But its curious, observational look at globalisation at work in modern day Cape Verde failed to develop any sort of structure, eventually reducing itself to a mere accumulation of episodes, getting lost either in the “big” picture or the “small” picture but never managing to articulate both.
Ultimately, though, it was in precisely that articulation, that global contextualisation of the personal within the public, that the 12th Doclisboa placed itself squarely, confirming in the process its reputation as one of the most invigorating, challenging festivals in the European circuit.
16-26 October 2014
Festival website: http://doclisboa.org/2014/en/