I am interviewing Donal Foreman at the headquarters of IndieLisboa about his entry in the Portuguese extravaganza’s international competition, The Image You Missed. The chat is coming to an end – a member of the festival’s press office has already waved at us a couple of times pointing to another journalist patiently waiting on another couch – when Foreman says he wanted to end his film with a line he eventually cut: “film is the art of conjuring ghosts, not getting rid of them.” I barely have time to write down the quote, let alone ask Foreman to elaborate. I return to my room, in a bright apartment the festival gave me in downtown Lisbon, and begin transcribing the chat.
Ghosts did abound at this year’s IndieLisboa, the 15th anniversary of an independent and arthouse-oriented film festival established in Portugal’s capital in 2003. Not the silent white-caped wanderers of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story or the scream-vomiting ectoplasms hovering above Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, but the memories of people and places belonging to an eroded, irretrievable past. Late fathers and grandfathers, estranged sons and shattered empires, haunted some of the best among the near 250 films screened over ten days.
A few weeks after a TAP plane shipped me an ocean and several times zones away from Portugal, I recall leaving Lisbon still unsure as to what to make of Foreman’s words. I remember squaring the quote with his documentary-essay; thinking how to squeeze it into future reviews; but also, this long after the festival came to a close, I began wondering whether the words could somehow serve as a summary of my first year at IndieLisboa. None of the films that conjured the ghosts Foreman alluded to did so to exorcise them. Rather, they, and especially Foreman’s own wondrous work, all seemed to strive to give those memories a life of their own.
Lucrecia Martel: An Anti-Colonial Independent Hero
If you kept an eye on last year’s festival circuit – especially if you tuned in for the largest autumn rendezvous – chances are you experienced the collective hysteria that swept across critics’ circles as the world of arthouse cinema braced for the comeback of one of Argentina’s most renowned auteurs, Lucrecia Martel. Nearly ten years after her third feature, La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2008), the 51 year-old Salta native returned to the spotlight with Zama, a magnetic adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 eponymous novel, chronicling the nightmare of a Spanish colonial magistrate, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), stranded in a desolate outpost in Spanish-controlled Paraguay. In the space of a few months, Zama world premiered to rapturous acclaim in Venice, picked up more buzz in Toronto and New York, and eventually landed a spot in the five-day retrospective the Film Society at Lincoln Center gave Martel in New York earlier this year.
It was only fitting that a festival so attuned to recent trends in arthouse cinema as IndieLisboa would crown Martel this year’s Independent Hero – a recognition the festival also awarded to Jacques Rozier, but much to this critic’s chagrin, a screenings-packed and four-days-only stay in Lisbon forced me to give his own retrospective a miss. Not that the delightfully rich program dedicated to Martel’s work left much time for sorrow. For someone who was only introduced to her cinematic universe during a Venetian out-of-competition screening of Zama last September, the retrospective offered a unique opportunity to see how Martel’s earlier works predated what felt at the heart of Zama’s struggle – the existential dilemma of a coloniser whose identity is constructed in antithesis to the land he’s both born and mired in.
I am certainly not the first critic to focus on the role colonialism has played in Martel’s canon. From her feature debut La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001), to La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), The Headless Woman (2008) and of course Zama, colonialism has traversed Martel’s oeuvre as a dangerously unfinished business, a cancerous condition treated in the present tense even when framed in its original centuries-old historical setting. Part of the peculiar present-day feeling owes, I suspect, to the way Martel has articulated Argentina’s colonial experience as the identity crisis of an all-white ruling class stranded in a country an ocean away from a colonial mainland that remains forever beyond reach.
The Swamp follows a bourgeois family rotting away in a decadent vacation home in Salta. Humid summer days unfold without much happening: Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) and his wife Mecha (Graciela Borges) lay motionless on deck chairs by a stagnant pool, teenage children wander around a nearby swamp killing animals stuck in the mud, and the native servants watch the family fall apart amid adulteries, betrayals and hangovers. Released at the height of Argentina’s Great Depression, which between 1998 and 2002 threw half the country into poverty, The Swamp feels like the autopsy of a long-moribund bourgeoisie to whom the economic crisis delivered a fatal blow, and ushers in a couple of leitmotifs that resurface in Martel’s later works: a penchant for rundown buildings – an architectural pathetic fallacy, if you like: derelict houses mirroring their inhabitants’ wrecked lives – and a certain fixation on human bodies as physical battlegrounds upon which power relations between characters play out.
A rancid smell of decay reeks throughout The Swamp, but in Martel’s tactile filmmaking and Hugo Colace’s lush cinematography, it is hard to tell whether the stench comes from the putrid swimming pool or the bodies of the bourgeois gracelessly deteriorating around it. Early into Martel’s debut, Mecha cuts herself with some wine glasses, but the alcoholic woman is left lying in her own blood, her family too drunk and lazy to care. One of the kids has a tooth growing out of his palate and must be taken to a dentist to remove it – in an earlier scene, he cuts his leg. A similar sense of bodily decay transpires from The Holy Girl – only here it also takes on a distinct spiritual dimension. Martel’s second feature, entered in Cannes’ 2004 official competition, chronicles a few days in the life of Amalia (María Alche), a devout catholic teenager whose faith is tested after a series of unorthodox sexual encounters with the people surrounding the decadent hotel she lives in with her mother Helena (Mercedes Morán) and uncle Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta). First drawn toward her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), Amalia is eventually groped by a much older man, Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), who later turns to her mother as a new object of desire. Perturbed by the man’s harassment, Amalia embarks on a divine mission to cure the doctor from his sexual depravation, and eventually succumbs to her own sexual awakening.
We are still mired in the same insulated and claustrophobic world of The Swamp (switch a villa and a swimming pool with a decadent hotel), a universe whose all-white cast seeks to exorcise its inevitable decay through a toxic mix of alcohol, sex and violence. Non-white natives do of course exist, but in the eyes of Martel’s delusional bourgeoisie, they are reduced to sexual fixations – as is Isabel (Andrea Lopez), the indigenous maid in The Swamp – or corollaries to old, irretrievable and impossible dreams of grandeur. The distance between the two worlds – whites of European descent vs non-white natives – never feels quite as large as it does in The Headless Woman, which follows middle-class Verónica (María Onetto) as she fights to own up to a crime she may or may not have committed. Driving home and distracted by her phone, the woman runs over what through her car’s grimy window looks like a dog. But when the body of a local boy turns up in a river only a few days later, Verónica’s guilt spirals out of control – and her family conspires to delete the evidence around a death Martel leaves deliberately obscure.
Nestled deep into The Headless Woman is a moral dilemma akin to what Elio Petri had explored in his seminal Indagine su Un Cittadino al di Sopra di Ogni Sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970): once you belong to a power structure that dictates the rules of the game, you can only be condemned to be innocent. White and relatively affluent, Verónica lives in a society which leaves no space for the guilt that haunts her. The people around her seem to be stuck in the same state of cognitive dissonance that plagued the characters of The Swamp and The Holy Girl – white, decadent bourgeois born with a foot stuck in a country that feels eerily alien, and the other in a mirage-like vision of an Abroad upon which they project their failed dreams.
Nowhere is this identity crisis more acute than in the figure of Don Diego de Zama, an americano (an officer of the Spanish crown born in occupied territories) longing to travel back to a continent he’s never actually seen. The leitmotifs of Martel’s earlier works resurface in a tale of Kafkaesque proportions: there’s the emphasis on run down, derelict buildings; Zama’s relationship with the natives ranging from empathy to sexual desire; bodies cut and mutilated, and towering above all other tropes, a man’s need to hang on to a dream-like vision of a place and people whose blood he shares, but where and to whom he may never actually be reconnected. Half way through Zama, the flirtatious Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas) – a Spanish national temporarily stationed in Zama’s outpost – shushes the corregidor with an ominous line: “Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.”
Watching Martel’s four features, which IndieLisboa screened in rigorous chronological order in a retrospective that also featured her short films, I wondered whether the magistrate’s angst could be traced back to the questions haunting the characters populating Martel’s earlier, present-day and Salta-based works. Better yet, whether Martel’s previous characters were all different variations of Don Diego de Zama, americanos born foreigners in a country they refuse to identify with, each stuck in a state of denial masked as a protracted exile, each looking elsewhere for a receptacle of their aspirations and delusions.
“Where the Sky Meets the Earth”: The National Competition
For a festival seeking to establish itself as a go-to rendezvous for Portuguese arthouse cinema aficionados, that fact that IndieLisboa’s national competition should import most of its features from other – much larger – European film extravaganzas speaks volumes of the long road the festival still has before itself. Of the five features in competition, only Bostofrio, Où le Ciel Rejoint la Terre world premiered in Lisbon, while the remaining four were imported from this year’s Berlinale Forum – Drvo (The Tree), Mariphasa and Our Madness – and Rotterdam – Tempo Comum (Ordinary Time). Incidentally, the two best entries in this year’s national competition were both debut features – and one was the section’s only world premiere. André Gil Mata’s mesmerising The Tree and Paulo Carneiro’s autobiographical documentary Bostofrio danced between reality and fiction with nonchalant bravado. Interestingly, both followed characters looking for ghosts.
The ghost haunting Carneiro’s feature debut is the writer-director’s own late grandfather. A bittersweet portrait of Carneiro’s native village, the eponymous remote hamlet in Portugal’s rural north, Bostofrio follows Carneiro as he travels to his hometown and interviews old family members to uncover the truth around his grandpa, Domingos Espada – a man who never chose to openly recognise Carneiro’s father as his son, and left an ambiguous mark on those who outlived him. Amid awkward chats and nostalgic mementos, Carneiro patches together a portrait of a man he never met, and only resuscitates through the stories of those who knew him. But the versions of Espada Carneiro’s family is willing to divulge are as hazy and contradictory as the conflicting accounts in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Interpolating some happy memories (“he sang well!”, “he loved to dance!”, “always bought the first shot!”) is a much darker story of Espada’s relationship with a mentally ill woman, and his refusal to recognise his children until he was legally forced to. Long before Bostofrio clocks its 70 minutes, Espada’s portrait merges with the one Carneiro gives of those who remember him, and of the place they inhabit. Born out of a desire to resuscitate a dead relative but certainly not confined to it, Bostofrio is also a piercing ethnography of a secluded community, a multi-character study Carneiro crafts with a great deal of empathy.
For a documentary anchored on a tale of aching nostalgia and longing, the fact that chuckles abound all throughout it is a testament to Carneiro’s exquisite writing as well as the serendipitous casting of a few elderly interviewees, who wade through his questions with a cantankerous no-nonsense swagger and pitch-perfect comedic timing. When the first old lady Carneiro approaches to ask about his grandpa invites the filmmaker to “go meet him at the cemetery” (“if you didn’t know him then you certainly won’t get to know him now”) the memory jolts back to June Squibb as Kate Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. For his part, Carneiro engages with his material in a myriad of playful ways, allowing the elderlies to speak ad infinitum only to cut to black and skim through their digressions when these blow out of proportion.
Intended or not, the humour makes Carneiro’s debut an enjoyable ride, but it also makes it somewhat ambiguous to ascertain whether or not the director is serious about his quest. There are moments when the 28 year-old’s search sounds more like an ill-thought out prank than a heartfelt mission (as when he interrupts a local concert to ask a dumbfounded village whether anyone knew his grandpa). But there are others when the young man’s questions take on an unmistakably more desperate, endearing tone – as when he asks a relative if his grandpa would be happy “if he knew he was trying to know more about him.” Watching Carneiro revisit his childhood memories, I wondered whether the ambivalence surrounding his nostalgia was itself a way to mimic the elusiveness of Bostofrio – the village and its people. Carneiro’s debut speaks the language of the world it clumsily infiltrates as a perpetual outsider – a remote land regulated my timeless rituals and half-truths, which Bostofrio crystallises with a compelling, assured voice.
Carneiro’s documentary left Lisbon undeservedly empty-handed, as the Jury decided to award the top prize to João Viana’s Our Madness, a hallucinatory epic that looked at the impact of Portuguese colonialism in present-day Mozambique – a film that eventually fell victim of its own ambitions, and turned its dream-like premise into a frustratingly mundane, self-referential exercise. Fortunately, André Gil Mata’s The Tree did not follow suit, and the Portuguese filmmaker – a graduate of the Béla Tarr-founded Film Factory – nabbed the award for Best Director. Filmed in Sarajevo, The Tree feels like a silent and timeless meditation on life, death and memory – a work of mesmerising beauty caught somewhere between a Tarkovsky film and a painting by Marc Chagall.
In a dark, snowy winter’s night, Gil Mata follows an old man (Petar Fradelic) as he wanders around an eerily quiet village, picks up empty bottles along the way, carefully ties them to a stick he carries on his shoulders, and travels to fill them up with spring water. It is a Sisyphean task of quietly epic proportions. Distant explosions and gun shots reverberate all throughout his journey, echoed by the musical clanging together of the empty bottles, but we do not see the enemy, nor explicit signs of violence. The darkness engulfs the old man as he loads the jars aboard a canoe, and sails along a river – only to stop and marvel at a tree standing naked by a bank, and sitting next to it, a kid (Filip Zivanovic). This first, silent encounter between man and child predates a drastic change of perspective that takes place only minutes later: while the old man finally reaches the spring, the camera cuts to the kid’s p.o.v. as he sledges down a hill. It is a transition so oneirically entrancing to make one question the nature of the footage that precedes and follows it, as the camera turns to the kid and chronicles his escape from the horrors of war (again, without there being any direct visual evidence of them, as the sound of soldiers marching through the woods reverberates off screen, while the camera focusses on the kid’s gaze). Is his storyline connected to the old man’s? Is it future, or is it past?
Echoing Béla Tarr’s austere and near-silent filmmaking, Gil Mata is as parsimonious with explanations as his script is with words. At the heart of The Tree’s hypnotic beauty is the way the ghosts of past lives conjured up by the old man and child are allowed to run freely as the ominous words they exchange during their final encounter. Free of any spatial and temporal references, The Tree is a timeless parable, at once ethereal and anchored on a tangible fatigue. A breathtaking shot of the child venturing into a desolated winter night, the fog seamlessly bringing clouds and snow into a misty, otherworldly whole, is one the most stunning I’ve seen in a long time.
Cinema as Reconciliation: The International Competition
Twice as large as its national counterpart, IndieLisboa’s international competition screened ten feature films – all of them landing in Lisbon for national premieres after months of touring festivals around the world. Four – among them the two ex-aequo Best Feature winners, Juliana Antunes’s Baronesa and Gustavo Vinagre’s Lembro Mais Dos Corvos (I Remember the Crows) – were documentaries, including what was arguably the best film I saw during my stay: Donal Foreman’s The Image You Missed.
A deeply personal and powerfully moving documentary essay, The Image You Missed chronicles the estranged relationship between Foreman and his father, Arthur “Art” MacCaig, the late Irish-American filmmaker who climbed to fame after his resolutely partisan, infamous cult documentary on Ireland’s Troubles, The Patriot Game (1979). Exhuming largely unseen footage of MacCaig’s own archive, Foreman crafts the picture of a man he seldom knew through the few times the director visited him and his mother, and whose ghost he nonetheless follows with the endearing gaze of a son less interested in apologies than in rescuing a relationship with his father – albeit posthumously. Working as his own editor, the 31 year-old Dublin-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker conjures up a man who never focused on his own image by highlighting the rare moments in which MacCaig allowed it to show on screen. It is here that The Image You Missed crafts some of its most moving scenes, where Foreman captures MacCaig’s reflection on windows and mirrors, and nails some graciously edited shot-reverse-shots that shift between old and present-day footage of the places MacCaig filmed during his peregrinations in and out of Ireland.
Taken at face value, Foreman’s quest looks similar to Carneio’s own, but the tone in The Image You Missed is unmistakably more dramatic than it is in Bostofrio, and the script markedly more poignant. Relying on MacCaig’s voiceover as much as his own, Foreman crafts a beautifully choreographed conversation between two cineastes stuck in a never-ending diaspora – two men moved by the same wanderlust, but inhabiting different times and spaces. Unmistakably aware of this, Foreman excels at teasing out the distance that separates him from his father in all its temporal, geographical and political dimensions. The Image You Missed does not simply dissect a fragile father-son relationship, but weaves it together with a two-handed portrait of a country the two experienced and filmed in markedly distinct ways: as a man consumed by an armed conflict he embraced as his own, and as a son revisiting the Troubles with the stupor of an external observer; as a partisan who filmed at the height of certain political utopias, and as a youngster who began to do so in the wake of their failure.
Watching The Image You Missed a few weeks after its IndieLisboa screening, I kept thinking about the words Foreman left me with after our chat came to an end. The Image You Missed does not exorcise MacCaig’s ghost, nor does the conversation between father and son end with a cathartic closure. In fact, it does not end at all: Foreman creates an image of his father – an imperfect and second-hand one, perhaps, but an image nonetheless – and hangs on to it with a nostalgic and endearing gaze.
I wonder whether this is the same reason Zama had crafted his own image of Europe – to survive the idea of living a whole universe apart from it.
26 April – 6 May 2018
Festival website: http://indielisboa.com/en