As the final days of the 26th Curtas Vila do Conde were getting closer, feelings of melancholy hovered over most of us. We were near the end of a full week of good short films, exhibits, concerts and riveting talks between filmmakers eager to discuss cinema, gathering around a table after a late screening, amid filmmakers, film critics, aspiring film critics, academics and one medical doctor. We talked movies. We also talked spectacles, Greek mythology, medical nomenclature and grammar, until an interesting conclusion that’ll take for my opening: “Why are we here, for the films or for the people?”
We were at a film festival, so the answer might seem self-evident. Curtas is one of the most reputable in the country, going strong for 26 consecutive years. Portugal’s short films have been punching far above their weight in recent years and the reason is certainly connected with how this competition in a small city in the northern seashore fosters talented voices from around the country. Whoever visits the city’s municipal theatre in early July with a hunger for good movies won’t leave on an empty stomach.
The competition ranges from the best shorts created by first-time directors from around the world, to veterans with prestigious careers, born in walking distance from the theatre. This year, newcomers took the spotlight. Amor, Avenidas Novas was the winner of the student competition, but its vibrant meta-language and great comedic beats should qualify it for the main competition. Where the Summer Goes (Chapters on Youth), another work by a student (from the same school, ESTC - Lisbon Theatre and Film School), not only earned a spot alongside the grown-ups, but took home the main prize.
The programming of the festival makes the argument for films even stronger. There’s no distinction between documentary, animation or fiction. The programmers separate by genre only the experimental and music video sections. So in one session you could watch, back to back, a Refn-inspired teenage pregnancy tale (Sheila) and an inventive animated frame-by-frame film noir about Natália, an office clerk employed by a heart bank (Entre Sombras). After each eclectic session, we gathered outside to discuss the movies. In those talks, tonal and thematic connections between the movies always seemed to emerge, as well as lingering doubt: can a programmer be an auteur? Movies 1, people 0.
Every day the festival scheduled talks between filmmakers who had shared a session the day before. Four or five directors, one or two moderators, and varying-sized crowds. There were wine glasses going around, red, white and port. The conversation—and drinking—started there, but the highlight of the festival is outside during informal talks, amid beers, cigarettes, vape pens and the odd kombucha. Yes, we were also there for the people.
The environment of Curtas was engineered to create and foster connections. It’s located 30kms outside the big city (Porto). It’s scheduled for the first few weeks of July, right as the sun comes to stay, just before the city is crowded by vacationers drawn by the sand, the ocean and egg-yolk berliners. It takes place in one single location (apart from an exhibit rendered in an 18th century building, a few hundred meters away, every film is shown in one single theatre). If you’re in for the whole week, you’ll inevitably rub shoulders with just about everyone making films in the country. You can tell who the newcomers are by how loudly they talk—badly—of movies, unsuspecting that their directors, actors, or technicians are right behind them listening.
The identity of Curtas is shaped around those recurring figures as well as the newcomers whose return is welcome. Miguel Gomes brought his first film to competition in 1999 and left with a prize. He comes back almost every year—as do recent Golden Bear winners Leonor Telles and João Salaviza, as well as Locarno laureate João Pedro Rodrigues. It’s in part because the work of filmmakers is fostered since their first film school shorts all the way to their grown-up work. When the filmmakers present their works they’ll often mention how they feel at home there, part of a family. And you believe them: Movies 1, People 1.
One of those figures was present at the final—and best—screening of the national competition. As I was climbing through the main room a friendly face popped out from the crowd, right next to a prime open seat. I kept up the climb and entered the row to the left. The passage was blocked by a pair of breadstick legs, capped off by two unbudging knees. I look down and see the perpetrator: it was Paulo Branco, infamous Portuguese producer turned international supper villain. Eventually he budged and I managed to seat comfortably for Declive, a six-minute text-film by Eduardo Brito. It was a good start. The second short was Sara F., a nightmarish mixture of quickly edited internet footage, with the life of teenager victim of online bullying. It’s a brilliant take on the omnipresence of communication devices in our lives. Aptly, a phone rings. Someone scurries about and makes the boldest possible move: they take the call, “I can’t talk right now. I’m at the movies,” said a gentleman to my left. It was Branco, of course.
The last movie was Placenta, the brilliant debut of Paulo Lima. In a festival full of daring films, like João Vladimiro’s Anteu or the shockingly eerie animation in Agouro, this was the most daring film I saw. It is a meditative exercise shot in two sets of Portuguese mountains, interwoven with narrative fragments, and full of evocative sounds of nature; wind blowing, birds chirping, frogs croaking, branches snapping and Paulo Branco talking to the person next to him. Not content with taking Terry Gilliam to court and prolonging his quixotic nightmare, Branco brings his reverse-Midas touch to this screening.
So here I am, after more than a week of good short films, exhibits, concerts and talks, sitting alone at a table, writing: “Why were we there, for the films or for the people?” We might be drawn to Vila do Conde for the art, but I dare say we return for the people who gather around movies. Next year it’s for that reason I’ll return, with someone particular in mind: in 2019 I’ll be in Curtas to finally shush Paulo Branco. Movies 2, Branco 1.