Greetings from Free Forests
“And even if nothing turned out how we'd hoped; it would not have changed what we'd hoped for.”
–Jean-Luc Godard, The Image Book
Two weeks before the opening of Doclisboa, one of the world’s most respected festivals of non-fiction cinema, Artistic Director Cíntia Gil sent out a press release revealing pressure the festival faced from the Ukrainian and Turkish embassies. The former accused Doclisboa of supporting terrorism for programming the world premiere of Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic, a film which takes a pro-Russian battalion in the Donetsk People’s Republic as its subject. It is also a film made with artistry that shows us a window into a point of view our liberal bubble may prevent us from seeing—the sort of expansion of our purview which makes festivals so valuable, especially when we are confronted with positions to which we are opposed. The first screening of the film was followed by a heated, lengthy public debate that was nevertheless sophisticated and open-minded on both sides, particularly with the Portuguese locals in attendance. The Turkish Embassy wanted to suppress the festival’s sidebar, “Sailing The Euphrates,” which through newsreels and other selections (such as the 1982 Palme d’Or-winning Yol) depict the Armenian Genocide and violence towards the Kurdish people.
That Doclisboa faced resistance from nationalist representatives who wanted to censor the expression of filmmakers and the curatorial choices from the programming team, and moreover that these censors felt that was something they could succeed in through pressure, is just one of countless signals going off every day in our world that things are out of balance, that our present is akin to a funhouse mirror. That Gil went public with the press release and did a subsequent interview with Screen Daily is in step with what is a fiercely defiant festival. The visibility of this tinkering cast a strange shadow over the first days of the festival, quickly forgotten amidst the quasi-utopian event Doclisboa is able to create, only for reality to inevitably sink back as the forthcoming results of the presidential election in Brazil grew closer.
Resisting notions of linearity and convention, the festival freely mixes old and new, documentary and fiction, wherein the films themselves take disparate eras as their subject. If there was a chronology, it wasn’t by a film’s release date and ultimately not even consistent within single films. At Doclisboa, history and the present appear in great clarity, as a circle rather than a line. Ian Soroka’s Greetings From Free Forests was one such film. A first feature that took the biggest prize in the International Competition—adjudicated by Agnès Godard, Leo Goldsmith, Mariana Gaivão, Mike Hoolboom, and Yael Bartana—the film is set in a remote forest in southern Slovenia where the Partisan Liberation Front took refuge while resisting the Fascist occupation of Yugoslavia. Using a mix of footage from various old films depicting the struggle, serene shots of landscape, a local tour guide taking the historically curious around and explaining the history, and interviews with current residents of different backgrounds—and most memorably, hunters filling the surrounding labyrinth of trees with animal calls—the film mixes fact, fiction, past, and present, articulating the spirit of a place, its history and the traces thereof which define it. Tactfully, Soroka keeps subjects at a distance in the frame, mostly using off-screen interviews as voiceover, side-stepping both conventional technique and creating a sort of unified disembodied voice of the setting. This forest is a place heavily weighed down in memory, in trauma, and a perpetually confused and oppressed identity. With expressive formal thoughtfulness, the film strikes a beautiful balance between a strategic distancing of the author and demonstrating an awareness of its own construction, marking Soroka as a promising original.
I had the great pleasure of serving on the New Talent Jury—a competition of 10 first features spanning across various sections—alongside fellow jurors Fabienne Moris and Tiago Hespanha. The recipient of our prize was another film interrogating a specific setting and its history: Portuguese director Ricardo Moreira’s Cidade Marconi (Marconi City). In this case the director draws on very recent events, primarily from 2005 to 2016, in a formalist study of a neglected and mismanaged piece of land that has passed several developers’ hands only to remain unused and abandoned. Just outside of Lisbon, it is a space that has been meticulously planned and yet completely discarded in the process of urbanization fettered by corruption of economic duress, leaving it caught in a liminal stage between natural and urban, between utility and utterly uselessness, no longer permitted to simply exist and be open.
Beginning with a mysterious still image of a tower on a hill at night, a narrator tells us he is a musician asked to compose a score for a film yet made based on this frame. We then see him at work in his apartment, experimenting with sounds that will intermittently play a major role in what is to follow. A 360-degree camera pan takes us across the windows of his home studio, the reflections of him at work and the reality outside interplaying, before he gives up and starts flipping through TV stations with brief snippets of broadcast audio taking over the soundtrack and drawing this contained scenario to the world outside. A long drive then takes us to the aforementioned “development,” giving us an understanding of where it’s situated in relation to the city, from a series of static shots alternately scored by the music and by natural sounds from nature and the buzzing of power lines and towers, the film at first seems like it slips into a derivative mode of landscape study. However, the film is structured with several movements and its shifts in form, tone, and pace are seriously compelling. We enter an expository sequence that meticulously details the saga of the real estate projects that have seized and failed it. From there I won't spoil the film’s surprises, but this micro-case study cleverly expands into the macro, as hinted in its early moments.
A film more firmly fixed in the present and truly spontaneous, and in which the relationship between the director and the subjects seems to develop before our eyes, Topo y Wera is the latest from Jean-Charles Hue. Known best for two strands of films, Hue alternates between constructing fiction films with the Dorkels, a Yenish family in northern France, and documentary portraits of Tijuana. Fitting into the latter, the titular characters in Topo y Wera are a young deported Mexican couple, scraping by in total poverty, gambling, stealing and getting high with dubious company. What impresses most is how Hue gets so close to these people and their “lowlife” quotidian experience, and doesn’t try to shape the film in any detectable way, giving us an authentic and immediate impression of their reality and their personalities. With nary a speck of moralism, even when their activity or behavior verges on detestable, the prevailing emotion comes from their resilience and humanity. With its subjects haunted by the memory of their son who was taken away by authorities, Hue doesn’t play up the obvious notes here, making the film’s final passage, literally and figuratively in rubbish, all the more devastating.
Back to retrospection and introspection, DocLisboa premiered the latest entry in the Cinéma, de notre temps series initially produced by Janine Bazin and André S. Labarthe. Directed by Laurent Achard, the subject in this latest entry is the controversial French filmmaker, Jean-Claude Brisseau, known for his pulpy erotic dramas but more recently infamous for a sexual assault case involving his questionable casting practices. Composed of just two shots from two cameras offering two different positions and scenarios from fixed spots in Brisseau’s living room, Brisseau – 251 Rue Marcadet is ingeniously simple. The first setup, and the more interesting one, features Brisseau alternately in conversation and silent solitude as the shooting is ostensibly being set up for a staged afternoon of beers and talking cinema, but the camera is constantly gazing at the voyeuristic Brisseau, as he sits and waits and pounds back his drinks at a more rapid rate than his peers (fairly frequent edits in which full glasses become near emptied while the others remain full are a nice touch of humor). The importance with this sequence is that there is no direction or pressure to converse or to stay on topic, so Brisseau meanders, bringing up random anecdotes, ideas about movies, including one incredible story when he escaped death as a child. At the age of 13, when he was standing in front of a garage—the address of which gives the film its title—and he said goodbye to a friend, Brisseau was struck with the thought, “wouldn’t it be funny if this garage exploded,” and declared to his friend, “Hey! The garage is about to explode”—only then for it to actually explode with Brisseau barely at a safe distance while several other children were “sliced in two.” He also takes jabs at Bergman, Pasolini, and Visconti among others, though Hitchcock appears to him to be unimpeachable.
The second camera setup is more straight-forward but at this point he’s a bit buzzed and several hours are edited into a consistently compelling, 55-minute discussion, even if Brisseau isn’t so generous at sharing the mic. When it comes to the topic of women, sex, and actresses, the elephant in the room isn’t directly addressed, and few will find evidence here to let him off the hook, but at the very least he’s honest about how his films fetishize the female body. “For me the female body was a symbol of attachment,” and he goes on to explain, “there’s no reason to film it as anything other than beautiful.” 251 Rue Marcadet is slyly reflexive, avoids hagiography while clearly admiring Brisseau and his work, and prioritizes giving space to the director to articulate himself, whether consciously or unconsciously. He is quite simply a dying breed of filmmaker, extinguished in an era of growing P.C. reactionism, irrespective of his conduct in his personal life, and one wonders how many more De Palmas and Brisseaus we will see emerge in cinema, if any, and the overt sexuality and desire work such as theirs expresses and shares.
Premiering in the International Competition, Serbian filmmaker Želimir Žilnik’s The Most Beautiful Country in the World is somehow disappointing and refreshing at the same time. A docu-fiction made with non-actors, the film follows the plight of several refugee characters in Vienna negotiating between their identities, ties to their families and troubled homelands, and the new culture that has welcomed them. Endearingly amateurish, Žilnik has no interest in creating a polished or sophisticated narrative, basing the film’s scenarios on real stories and giving the subjects agency to inject it with their emotions. There’s a warm casualness and pleasure here that resists the hot button capitalization we see elsewhere. At the same time, the almost banal simplicity of the story and the characters who are left stranded between being themselves and realized people are rendered as cardboard figures in a schematic “Refugee Crisis 101” project that viewers who do more than skim headlines will gain little insight from. Žilnik’s approach with the film might be inherently flawed and there needs to either be greater authorial incision or documentary openness to address it shortcomings. No one would accuse The Most Beautiful Country in the World of having its heart anywhere except in the right place, but such benign harmlessness may not be the most advisable aim.
From the short film programs, one that stood out for its curatorial strength was packaged as “Forensic Images,” bookended with two genuine curiosities. Credited to “Chesterfield Police (PC Saunders)” in 1935, Evidence was the first piece of filmed footage submitted for evidence in court, leading to the conviction of several criminals involved in an illegal bookie ring. This silent piece of “non-directed” work of surveillance from the U.K. has an intense underlying suspense as we observe a group of sketchy men gathered around the same marketplace over the course of several days. The democratic frame allows us to play Where’s Waldo, picking out recurring faces, determine suspects, invent a narrative, and fill in the blanks of this bare, shapeless work. And yet, when the bust occurs, a most peculiar decision is made by the man behind the camera, who films this incident in its entirety as it unfolds, as each of the targeted crooks are restrained and stuffed into the back of a paddy wagon—here we have a real climax to this supposedly undirected, non-narrative piece of archival material, and yet in the end that hardly seems the case.
Toronto-based filmmaker Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives was the main event of the program and one of the strongest films at the festival. Culled from photographs and exchanges on reddit following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, the film chronologically depicts an engrossing real-life narrative in which anonymous users become armchair sleuths, picking apart publicly available surveillance footage, annotating the images, tracking suspicious figures and trying to crack the case wide-open from their far-flung laptop screens. It’s hard not to get completely sucked into this open crackpot investigation, the Blow-Up-like combing for truth through blurred images, and the tactless piecing together of timelines and details, even as it reveals prejudices and maliciousness in the process. Quickly, the “detectives” do more harm than good when their activity leads to false accusations, the tracking down of wrong suspects on Facebook, and even death threats and harassment. The seeming contained state of the Internet and its illusory detachment from reality are broken down, and in transferring this computer screen-based material to 16mm Kennedy connects the intangible and tangible, problematizing and challenging notions of Internet-age freedom and responsibility.
At a festival so rich in retrospective programming (James Benning, Mike Hoolboom, Philip Hoffman, Kidlat Tahimik, Bruce Conner, and more), the main focus was on the internationally under-represented Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina. After graduating from UCLA in the early 1970s, Ospina was associated with “Caliwood,” a film movement that grew out of Santiago de Cali, along with friends Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo and has been prolific ever since. My obligations prevented me from delving into this complete retrospective, my one piece of sadness from the festival. However, I did get to see one film of his: Ospina’s first feature, and one of two anomalous works of fiction. Known as the first Colombian vampire film, Pura Sangre (Pure Blood) (1982) takes real news stories and channels them through a subversive take on the genre. Openly a B-movie akin to Roger Corman, Ospina’s intentions within this pulpy mode are deathly serious. A dying sugar tycoon is bed-ridden, depending on continual plasma transfusions to survive. Intent on keeping him alive, his son blackmails three employees into acquiring the necessary blood from innocent victims, in this case, the young and poor. So this sort-of-Dracula rests in his castle, interacting with the outside world only through his TV screen and the stock section of the daily newspaper, unaware that he “sucks” the blood of a younger generation to keep drawing his worthless breaths, exploiting his workers and draining hope from the future of Colombia. A portrait of a society completely separated by class and yet somehow united in immorality—casual racism also runs as a pointed undercurrent—the working class henchmen are remorseless killers preying on children as if the irresponsibility and lack of regard for the dignity of others among the ruling class permits the society to run amok. As police try to track down a serial killer they dub “the monster of the valley,” an unexpected televised confession plays as a bone-chilling puncture of reality into fiction, making Pure Blood as much a documentary as any film at Doclisboa.
Several days later, the film’s highly politicized nature would crystallize in light of the democratic election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the world’s continued movement toward the (extreme) right, of fascism overtaking democracy, terrifyingly by electoral choice, celebrated in the streets side by side with riot police anointed as their admired soldiers of intolerance. At a time when democracy is threatened and the siloed left eats away at itself in the face of a broad but united right, the free-thinking space of Doclisboa becomes vital, in which radical and disparate forms and points of view are not only welcomed but facilitated, engaged with, and supported by public conversations that don’t shy away from taboo or tense topics.
The festival not only suggests a way in which to take cinema seriously and to consider alternative forms of expression and lines of thought, but also suggests a way of talking to one another and breaking through borders. On the film’s closing night, Cíntia Gil gave an impromptu speech ahead of the awards ceremony, commenting on the coming election which was then a night away, and the struggle to put on Doclisboa. “We’re cheap,” she declared to a full house at Cinema São Jorge in the Sala Manoel De Oliveira, and “we hope we continue to do this,” implying that the opposite possibility looms. The global story of gentrification and displacement is no stranger to Lisbon, which has faced a dramatic spike in housing prices in the past few years, making it a struggle for the average person to live in what was once considered one of the cheapest major cities in Europe. As Doclisboa clings to survival, to at least remain operational in the city of Lisbon before potentially considering alternatives or god forbid shuttering its doors, the festivals stands defiantly—and not only for itself, but all those it welcomes. As a cinephile, sometimes an especially good festival, with new discoveries and inspiring work, can leave you with your passion and love for cinema renewed, as pure and stalwart as when it first seized hold, but I left Lisbon with much more than that which just concerns cinema. In this darkest of moments, to care more than ever and against all odds is to have something resembling hope.