I am flicking through the notes of my second year at IndieLisboa, and sensing a pattern. Writing from Portugal a year ago, I remember praising a handful of documentaries, hailing one (Donal Foreman’s The Image You Missed) as the edition’s best. Much to my surprise, a year later, the three best things I saw at the 16th IndieLisboa were, again, three documentaries. Anyone mildly familiar with the European festival circuit will probably associate the words Lisbon and docs with DocLisboa – the city’s October rendezvous with the world’s best in the medium – and less with IndieLisboa, the capital’s international independent film festival. And yet.
And yet, come to think of how rapidly the fest has grown since it was founded in 2003, the surprise should feel a tad unwarranted. An early May cinematic bonanza and strong addition to the continent’s festival circuit, IndieLisboa now welcomes over 270 titles, several hundred industry professionals, and thousands of cinephiles (this year’s total number of attendees reached a whopping 42,000, making the 16th IndieLisboa one of the best editions in the fest’s history). An eighteen-strong programming team, including among its ranks the governing triumvirate (festival directors Carlos Ramos, Nuno Sena, Miguel Valverde) stashes the festival’s lineups with some interesting findings, whether they land in Lisbon after bowing at other prominent extravaganzas across the continent, or celebrate their world premiere in Portugal.
And while IndieLisboa 2019 was hailed by many colleagues – Portuguese and foreign – as the edition boasting the strongest national competition program in recent memory, I was happy to realise the three works I find myself coming back to – now a few weeks after I left the city’s azulejos tiles – all hail from different sidebars. Competing in the national competition, Tiago Hespanha’s Campo received the award for best directing. Miguel G. Morales and Silvia Navarro’s De Los Nombres de las Cabras (On the Names of the Goats) was given the coveted Grand Prize “City of Lisbon” for best international feature, while Paulo Lima’s Memória e Dicionário (Memory and Dictionary) competed in the Portuguese shorts lineup – which it sadly left empty handed. Markedly different in form and settings, what unites Campo, On the Names of the Goats and Memory and Dictionary is a similar mission: to shed light on remote places (and the people stranded therein) as they struggle against processes of cultural and epistemological assimilation – and to serve as vehicles where such struggles can be expanded, documented, and shared.
The National Competition: Tiago Hespanha’s Campo
Tiago Hespanha’s hypnotic documentary ventures into the 7500 hectares of barbed-wire land east of Lisbon: the Field Firing Range of Alcochete, Europe’s largest military base. It’s an ethnography of a place and the creatures living therein (animals and men, soldiers and civilians), and opens with a brief reflection on the title’s semantics: campo – field – comes from the Latin word capere, to capture. But the field Campo encompasses neither captures nor contains; Hespanha’s documentary is not a work that zeroes in on, but grows outward. Singularly titled as it may be, Campo is a documentary of multiple, interlocked fields. There is the geographical, physical terrain that encompasses the several thousand hectares bordering the river Tagus’ natural reserve, a land of swamps populated by cattle, wild deer and partridge. There is the military base proper, the battle-field where Portuguese and NATO soldiers train and stage imaginary clashes, a campo de batalha that echoes the etymology and function of Ancient Rome’s Campus Martius – the space outside the city walls where the legions would train and exercise. And finally, the more symbolic, ethereal stage where the tales Campo harkens back to unfold, crisscrossing between the myth of Prometheus and man’s journey to the moon.
Each field has its inhabitants; each exists in a dialectical relationship with the other. Gods and myths shape man’s path on Earth – after all, as Hespanha reminds through voiceovers, it was Prometheus who “gave fire and intellect to men,” and there is plenty of room to read Campo as its own version of the tale, a critique of man’s bellicosity that never loses sight of the myth’s grim ending, where the only thing left of History was the rock the god was chained to, made inexplicable by life forgetting itself. And humans too, in their turn, exercise power over the place that hosts them – both through its physical destruction (men chopping down trees, soldiers bombing fields) and through subtler practices of enumeration and control (possibly Campo’s most peculiar characters, Hespanha dedicates ample screen time to a beekeeper worried the swarms may be losing their radar, an ornithologist counting birds around the Tagus, and a herpetologist wading the swamp in the dead of night fishing for frogs to study).
And it is an ethnography that proceeds skyward. From the poetic establishing shot – a group of soldiers watching as fellow comrades fall from the sky, the parachutes gliding silently against the dawn like dandelion seeds – this is a film punctuated with people looking upward. And it is curious to hear two stargazers Hespanha lingers on argue whether the universe is expanding or destined to shrink again. Campo’s narrative scaffolding too is caught in a state of flux, concurrently stretching and shrinking. With its dislocated narrative, a gaze that seamlessly jumps from military training grounds to living rooms, from swamps to astronomical observatories, and characters caught in a state of protracted waiting, Hespanha’s documentary stands in contradiction with the definition it starts from – the idea of campo-field as something that contains, a finite space where things are kept, confined. Anchored on a geographical site but gradually sprawling into something more ethereal, otherworldly, Campo speaks to what Michel Foucault referred to as heterotopias – those contradictory and disquieting sites that lay bare and defy the limits of what can be known, and how knowledge can be processed.
It is a confounding, perturbing text that leaves one in a state of aporia. Linguistically, Alcochete is a babel tower where Portuguese teems with English, and the polyphony of languages spoken by NATO soldiers amplifies the feeling of disorientation. Nominally a documentary, Campo criss-crosses between truth and fiction to an unsettling extent. The missions soldiers carry out inside the base are drills, of course, but when Hespanha trails behind an allegedly wounded trainee surrounded by medics struggling to stop what really does look like bleeding (a suspicion amplified by the man very convincingly whimpering “when my father hears about this, he’ll shoot himself”) Campo further smudges the boundary between what is real and what isn’t, prompting questions as to the nature and scope of the medium that conveys it. Echoing Andrea Bussmann’s latest ethnographical work, Fausto – with which Hespanha shares a seesawing between man and myth and a rhizomatic narrative – Campo exists as a space of resistance: to venture into its labyrinthine narrative is to embrace a work of confounding beauty, and to be prompted to find new ways to depict and articulate the bafflement.
The International Competition: Miguel G. Morales and Silvia Navarro’s On the Name of the Goats
A similar perturbing sentiment runs through Miguel G. Morales and Silvia Navarro’s On the Names of the Goats – only here it takes on a far more explicit anti-colonial dimension. Goats is a work of absence, in the very literal sense that the subject it homes in on are the now extinct Guanches, the aboriginal people who lived on the Canary Islands before the Spaniards conquered the archipelago in the 15th century and proceeded to wipe out the indigenous folks. And it unfolds as a meta-archive. It follows the footsteps of Luis Diego Cuscoy (1907-87), a Spanish-born, Canarian-adopted archaeologist who spent years trying to patch together a portrait of the defunct population through the anecdotes and memories of old shepherds living in the islands. And it merges footage of the man’s own research into a 62-minute portrait of the Canaries that draws from over 30 film archives and a tapestry of photos and audio footage spanning the decades between 1920 and 1970.
A far cry from a tourist-friendly postcard of the islands, Morales and Navarro depict the Canaries as a universe of prehistoric, timeless wonder – a rugged, eerie world of cliffs and rocks jettisoned out of the ocean, and whose many caves the Guanches had turned into homes. The symbiosis man-nature that premised the Guanches’ relationship with the islands seems to animate the shepherds’ too, and for a while Goats follows Cuscoy as he sits to interview old goat herders, teasing out the parallels between the syncretism that underpinned the Guanches’ cosmogony and the herders’ own. This is where Goats offers some of its best material, shedding light onto a people who worship Christian saints but understand them as inextricably tied – and to an extent, secondary to – Nature itself. In one eye-opening segment, a particularly loquacious goat herder confesses that, as much as he may pray to the Canaries’ patron saint, the Holy Virgin of Candelaria, “no saint’s blessing can cure us” and that “there is no other god than Moon and Sun,” before musing on the Guanches as a people who didn’t need a justice system because they simply “never hit each other.”
This second-hand portrait of the indigenous pre-Hispanics as a syncretic, peaceful and benign people is juxtaposed to a strident effect with the colonial discourse that continued to craft them as savages and barbarians centuries after the islands were subjugated by Spanish rule. Among the rare and unseen archival footage that pepper Goats, glimpses of a black and white period piece chronicle the islands’ surrender to Spanish conquistadors in bilious, revoltingly racist terms – the white man landing on the islands to bestow upon the natives “a [new] culture and God.” It is a crucial juncture that marks a shift in focus, as Goats pivots away from Cuscoy’s interest in the Guanches to zoom out and encompass the Canaries’ ongoing struggle with the colonial legacy of continental Spain. And the subjects of study change, too. If Cuscoy had turned to the islands’ herders as entry-points into the Guanches’ world, in Morales and Navarro’s own archive, interviews and interviewees take on a far more urgent tone, as the shepherds effectively become the Guanches’ surrogates: custodians of a world and traditions on the brink of extinction themselves.
What makes Goats’ critique so perceptive is the way it pivots on the Guanches’ fate to draw a history of continuities. An excursion into the relationship between islands and people extends from an ethnography of a defunct folk to the Canaries’ ongoing struggle against exoticisation and cultural assimilation. Crucially, Morales and Navarro do hint at the ways previous archaeological research effectively contributed to the colonial project. Physical analogies between Cro-Magnon skeletons and the Guanches’ own anatomy led to a flourishing of studies on the islands’ people – and it is impossible not to cringe at the old footage zeroing in on the island’s women as “fine examples of the primitive race”. But while it is curious to see Cuscoy’s own research spared from the same degree of scrutiny – to what extent the archaeologist’s own ethnographies might have been liable of similar exoticisation is a question Goats does not ask – an early voiceover has the man claim he “never took archaeology as an end, but a means,” and Morales and Navarro heed the call. Theirs is the kind of work that prompts one to think of archives beyond their role as repository of memories, and as sites of resistance in their own right.
The Portuguese Shorts Programme: Paulo Lima’s Memory and Dictionary
Harder to be slotted into the same taxonomical category of Goats, Paulo Lima’s Memory and Dictionary may not be an archival film tout-court, but much like Morales and Navarro’s, it’s an act of exhumation that unearths a defunct world, a long-gone era conjured up through accounts and anecdotes, but never photographed onscreen – the whaling industry in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. Once the islands’ key asset and source of income, the proliferation of mineral and synthetic oils plunged the Azores’ whaling industry into a protracted crisis, culminating with the practice being outlawed in 1984. Memory and Dictionary is an excursion into a lost practice and a lost generation, the Azores’ last surviving whalers, old men who used to helm and hunt aboard the islands’ seven boats and now struggle to remember their adventures, looked after by relatives and caretakers at home.
Nostalgic as it may be, Lima’s documentary never turns into an apology of whaling, nor does it ever wax lyrically over the infamous industry. Sure, the elderlies the director sits and listens to do remember those days as “the best time [they] had,” but this has much less to do with the hunt for whales than with the wealth and prosperity the practice guaranteed the island, ensuring “streets full of people” and a vitality that stands in stark contrast with the silence that engulfs the islands today. They are men marooned between a present of solitude and past anecdotes of biblical proportions. Take the first one, the one Lima’s documentary opens with: a former whaler struggling with old age is trying to recount the twelve-hour-long fights he waged against sperm whales, when his daughter asks him to describe an accident that allegedly happened to him at 30: a whale he’d harpooned dragged him underwater, deep into the ocean, until it suddenly changed its mind, and brought the man back to the surface. “It wanted to save you,” daughter tells her father – but the man is too old to remember, let alone to confirm any of it.
To be sure, nowhere is the whaling industry hashed out as an idyllic marriage between man and nature, nor are the old sailors celebrated as some Hemingway-like heroes. Even when the men are invited to elaborate on their former job antics, Lima strips the memories and re-enactments of any heroism, and pits them against the backdrop of a world that’s changed dramatically, wherein those practices carry neither the social significance or the economic weight they once enjoyed. In one key juncture, one former whaler jumps aboard a replica of a boat he used to hunt on, now parked inside a shopping mall, and remembers the death races with sperm whales – harpoon in one hand, the other held akimbo – opposite a Zara store. It’s a juxtaposition that serves to underscore the distance between past and present, a distance that, as my mind was jolted back to the other islands-set documentary I’d seen, felt as large as the one that separated the Guanches’ past from archaeologist Cuscoy’s present. It is fitting, in this light, that Lima would choose to close in a museum – a place stashed with artefacts and small scare replicas of the whalers’ equipment – simulacra of an epoch that’s long past them.
Memory and Dictionary percolates with the sadness of an irretrievable past. With the practice being banned, the scarce intergenerational exchanges between elderlies and younger folks take on a subtly tragic aura – this is no wisdom that can be passed on, no teachings that can be emulated, and the memories at sea will only last as long as those who remember. Much like Morales and Navarro, Lima’s interest seems to lie on the island’s struggle to defend its insularity, and its soon-to-be-forgotten traditions: a microcosm that opens itself to the world but is ill-prepared to withstand its influence. Here again, an excursion into an old practice swells into a reassessment of an island’s relationship with the outer world. Here again, the documentary doesn’t limit itself to capturing a place as it struggles to defend its identity and past, but prompts questions as to how such fights can be won, and whether documentaries of its kind can help in the feat.
That Campo, On the Names of the Goats and Memory and Dictionary all stir such interrogations is a testament to their complexity and allure – and further evidence of the space for debates IndieLisboa opens up and nurture, in an 11-day cinematic feast which, despite its young age, has already consolidated its reputation as a go-to event for discerning cinephiles across the continent.
2–12 May 2019
Festival website: http://indielisboa.com/en