State of the Festival: Back to Basics at Doclisboa

As the world itself struggles through a prolonged reset, three films at Doclisboa return to the origins of cinema to chart a path forward.
Christopher Small

A Kid's Flick

In October 2020, Doclisboa International Film Festival was upended by a rapidly rising tide of COVID-19 infections. Like other international festivals of that unfortunate period, its fundamental identity as a fixed event—let alone one with international guests—was washed away by a devastating new wave of disease and destruction. In response, the festival fanned out across the next six months, becoming a kind of Doclisboa-on-tour whenever the epidemiological situation granted an opening for it to appear. Portugal was battered by the virus in the early months of 2021, but something of Doclisboa managed to survive intact, even if only as glowing embers nestled in a dampened fire pit. In these months, it stayed in the world in bits and pieces, online or in scattered screenings across the city, even as audiences sheltered from the devastation and had little time for movies. Fortunately, we were luckier this edition. In the meantime, Portugal had become the most vaccinated country in the world, all but assuring the festival’s return even if the situation would again start to go south by the late autumn. And here it was once more—Doclisboa in the flesh, unfolding from one day to the next as before.

Festivals have been around all summer, and the more fortunate audiences, critics, and industry types had, by October, already returned to physical attendance since the European vaccination campaign picked up pace at the start of summer. But after such a long period in confinement, such attendance felt a little disrupted, at least to me. It was as if all the ordinary activities and rituals of this highly structured existence were supposed to spring back as before but hadn’t quite done so. Doclisboa took place not in the euphoria of summer, as was the case with Cannes, Venice, or Locarno, but in the last moments of what now—in late November—looks like an oasis of peace. More than anything else, this is perhaps why at the festival I was drawn to films that instinctually returned to the fundamentals of cinema in order to map out a path forward.

There were many notable movies and moments at Doclisboa that would certainly consume much of the space in another festival report but here I will only mention as part of a quickfire laundry list. It was easy to find plenty of excellent work across the sections. These are movies deserving of the highest praise and which will no doubt continue to be seen at other festivals of this scale. Two devastating family portraits constructed with uncommon intelligence and old-fashioned rigor are worth singling out in this respect: Charm Circle (Nira Burstein) and The Blunder of Love (Rocco di Mento). A quick inventory would also have to include festival hits like Gorbachov. Heaven (Vitaly Mansky), as well as Edgar Pêra’s programming of Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010)—one of my most deliriously happy memories of 2021 thus far, surrounded by friends the pandemic has prevented me from laughing with for a long time—the charismatic chickens climbing trees in the pleasantly minor competition film Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47KM (Mengqi Zhang), four new feature films (!) by Vadim Kostrov—the “Narodnaya” trilogy and one entry, Zima (Winter), in his ongoing seasonal cycle—that I will address at length in another text but which suffice to say constitute one of the year’s singular cinematic experiences, as well as dual comprehensive retrospectives of filmmakers Cecilia Mangini and Ulrike Ottinger.


What particularly caught my attention this year were films that dared to return to the origins of cinema—not explicitly so, but rather through a rare focus, idiosyncrasy, and determination on the part of their makers. There is a yearning for renewal that everybody is striving for this year; these films resonate with it. That they seem to have received scant attention after the festival is a shame that I hope we can right here. For one, Jon Lazam’s Higit (Tug) is some kind of a masterpiece, the type of film that feels impossible to exist until you actually sit down in front of it and watch it unfurl before your eyes. Shot on a point-and-shoot camera over a decade ago and completed only recently, Lazam’s film, completely silent and concerned obliquely with the interactions of two lovers spending time in and around urban spaces, takes place in Manila, principally at a fairground but also in bedrooms, at street corners, in pool halls, and so on. It is shot at 10 frames per second in extremely low grade digital, a quality that gives it the sense of having come from the origins of a cinema—of the Philippines but also the world—that has never actually existed.

As Boris Nelepo, a programmer at Doclisboa, astutely pointed out, Higit is far closer to newsreels of the 1890s than to anything being made today. Lazam has the same awestruck fascination with the world, the same drive to record it as if he were discovering how to do so for the first time with whatever meagre tools were at his disposal. In his hands, the shuddering of the images, due to the slower frame rate, is pure poetry, with each new image briefly flashing up on the screen like a captivating fragment from a lost transmission, like the tip of a newly struck match catching the wick of a candle. The film is built entirely from these ephemeral images. There is no narrative to speak of other than that which can be deduced from a succession of moments—a narrative scant in specifics but rich in vivid emotional detail. Lazam’s images are not only unlike anything I have ever seen, but also reverent in the most powerfully romantic way: two lovers in bed, one sitting up and watching the other as they sleep; three boys whittling away the afternoon up in a tree that is wobbling in the breeze; a crash of lightning that becomes something monumental when it only appears in the burble of a few stuttering frames; a Ferris wheel spinning in similar cracked-up motion as its operator gazes upon it languorously from off to one side. Throughout this small but deeply inspiring film, we find such images; images that strike us as if we were seeing them, or really any image, for the very first time.

Vanya at Large

In the first scene of Stasya Korotkova’s Vanya at Large (2021), several people wander the aisles in an IKEA warehouse, pushing a trolley of kitchen basics and flatpack furniture. Korotkova, in her first film, is not going for any fanciness: her low-grade point-and-shoot video camera is only a few steps removed from Lazam’s in Higit, and she is laser-focused on things other than poetry. Her subject, whom she follows with unwavering focus, is Vanya Astashin, a Russian political prisoner. In the opening scene, his sister Anya sits in the trolley while Vanya pushes her clumsily from place to place like they are kids. Soon we find out that Vanya has just left prison after a ten-year sentence for terrorism. At 17, Astashin filmed a Molotov cocktail being thrown at the FSB building in Moscow. He uploaded a video to the internet titled “Happy Chekists Day, Bastards!”, sparking a massive campaign to crush the so-called Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization (ABTO). 

According to the state, Astashin was the leader of this organization, and he was punished with extreme brutality. With this film, Korotkova asks a simple question: After ten years in prison, how do you go about building a life again? “He was a bit like a person from a time capsule,” Korotkova told me when I asked about her interest in Vanya. “He was, for example, very impressed with the map of the Moscow metro. It got three times bigger during those ten years that he missed. It's very hard to imagine what that feels like; I was trying to tune in with his sense of time.” When you get out of prison, you are missing the absolute basics of life; go to IKEA and make sure you have something to eat out of. For everybody else, entering one of their stores means not only to build our homes, pick out and assemble the bits and pieces of our everyday lives all in one place, but also in some sense to journey through a fantasy version of it while doing so. This is a sham domestic world but a comforting one: ferrying through the large store with friends or partners, we imagine something of how our own lives might look if we just find the right stuff for the right corners of a room. For Vanya, these fantasies are reduced to a spoon, a bowl, a simple chair. “When I first saw Vanya, he looked much older than he looks now,” Korotkova says. “He could somehow be 50 years old and then in a blink of an eye switch to looking barely 16, with this very boyish facial expression. The more time he spent out of jail, the more he looked like just a young person.”

That Korotkova was drawn to Vanya as the subject for her first film—after working as a film distributor, researcher, and model for many years—speaks volumes about the kind of cinema she is internally compelled to produce, the kind of minds and bodies she is interested in documenting. Just as Higit promises an alternate pathway for cinema that has thus far never been taken, so too does Vanya at Large shrug off all of the artifice associated with portraits on film, opting instead for a startling kind of minimalism that accrues a severe power on its own. One gets the sense that for Korotkova, Vanya as a human being is of such paramount importance that the drive to film him comes without reservation or artifice. We see him making phone calls at his work at a prisoner’s rights organization. We see him calmly discussing police raids at his office as he works at a desktop computer with a colleague. We see him working out, doing chin-ups on a bar nailed above his door frame. We see him eating simple dinners with his girlfriend in their small apartment. We see him waiting outside court for the public announcements detailing the sentencing of his friends and colleagues.

All is shot with total modesty; Korotkova’s is a kind of cinema that simply bears witness to the life of an unerring human being with the weight of state violence bearing down on his shoulders. Her rejection of so much of what this film could be is not a nihilistic gesture, as is so often the case with films that reject overt artifice in favor of unadorned minimalism, but an affirmative one: it shows that by stripping this to a minimum, one can truly observe a life in all of its banality and all of its myriad struggles. But her work also hints at a fundamental problem of representation. Vanya, after being reprimanded, was tortured by the police into giving a confession so that he could be tried on trumped-up terrorism charges. This is something that cannot be shown, an implicit limit of cinema. All we see is Vanya’s impassive exterior, not his nightmares. Nonetheless, Korotkova’s dedication to what can be shown, what elements of a life have a place on screen, is a gesture that will stick with me for a long time.

Volha Kavaliova in A Kid's Flick

Two of the great discoveries of this year’s Doclisboa are filmmaker Nikita Lavretski and actor Volha Kavaliova, collaborators and life partners from Minsk, Belarus. Their director-performer collaboration is one of the livelier and more interesting in contemporary cinema—a feeling which further research into their body of work has amply confirmed. As director and star, respectively, of the irreverent, unsettling A Kid’s Flick, theirs is a political gesture of the most oblique kind. The film can be summarized thusly: a girl (Kavaliova) goes about her day-to-day existence in what appears to be lockdown-induced confinement in Minsk. In her small apartment, she whittles away the hours on largely menial tasks. At night, she transforms into a warrior dressed in seifuku, complete with pigtails and half-moon dagger, and disappears from the apartment; when she returns, she is bloodied and bruised, marked by the obvious signs of battle. Ultimately, these outside forces—embodied by three shuffling, wailing demons in grotesque masks—break into the apartment and destroy and upend everything in an overwhelming whirlwind of destruction, hogtying her and beating her repeatedly as she lies on the ground. She activates some magic powder, and with the help of three fellow warriors—dressed in similar costumes—the forces are defeated.

The movie’s title ought to be taken literally: this is a movie “shot and cut,” per the credits, as if by a kid. Lavretski shot it with a mobile phone, post-converting the image to grainy, blurrily beautiful black and white or tinted color (a “pixel mosaic,” as the promotional material advertises it). Kavaliova acts in the movie with the masculine gaze bearing down upon her, yet under that pressure—perhaps because of it—she finds a freedom to reclaim the mise en scène as her own. Whether masturbating, showering, dancing, or crying while watching videos on the internet, Kavaliova’s exuberant explosion of the demands of her improvised, ever-shifting role give the film much of its free-flowing energy. Watching A Kid’s Flick is to see her dreaming up one gesture after another in a continuous flow, a way of inhabiting space onscreen that suggests a complete liberation from the rigid demands of a fixed performance. 

As would be the case in the film of a kid, Lavretski allows himself to follow Kavaliova’s lead and his own base impulses both. This is another return to the origins of cinema: the world situation and the political and economic situation in Belarus requires such creative reinventions of the boundaries of the art. He might be interested in a long scene of Kavaliova smoking on the balcony, of her exercising, mopping the floor, doing the dishes. In those wonderfully sleazy scenes of her masturbating, showering, or bathing, the lack of a filter on Lavretski and Kavaliova's part is impressively fearless. It is truly as if we are garrulously watching a film at a sleepover where only the most elemental impulses went into cooking up ideas and putting it on screen for the viewers to revel in. At all times, Kavaliova seems to be playing into, against, and around these trappings, going above and beyond the demands the narrative is ostensibly imposing on her. Only when the invaders break into the apartment is it really possible to grasp the significance of what we have been watching all along: a loungey world of fantasy as its own kind of political resistance, carving out a refuge from a world where real doors are kicked down, real wardrobes are turned inside out, and real friends are dragged off to prison by masked marauders. Only by making a puerile erotic fantasy, Lavretski noted when introducing the film, which he dedicated to “all my friends in prison,” could he begin to speak about such gigantic subjects as politics, resistance, or, indeed, confinement of any kind.

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State of the FestivalFestival CoverageDoclisboaDoclisboa 2021Jon LazamStasya KorotkovaNikita Lavretski
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