A few tranquil days spent at IndieLisboa back in May were for this writer a powerful reminder of cinema’s ability to be truly unsettling, and of the value in encountering a film that places you completely outside of your comfort zone.
That watching strange movies alone in a foreign country where I did not speak the language wound up being the opposite of a traumatizing experience is in large part due to the hospitality, lovely weather and great beauty of Lisbon, which the festival seemed to take into real consideration in the structure of its program.
As morning screenings at the festival were all but exclusively dedicated to short films for kids, I started almost every day exploring the city, basking in the sun and admiring the vistas. Most likely a rather common experience for those who regularly attend smaller festivals such as this, the experience was entirely new for me. More than a simple bonus however, this sense of tranquility and freedom was crucial to my enjoyment of the films I saw in the afternoon and evenings. Freed from peer pressure, both in choice of film and in the demand to form an opinion as soon as end credits started rolling, the setting definitely helped maintain the open mind and patience that these films required and deserved.
A selection of unusual movies that might have been intimidating in a more mainstream and time-sensitive context, there instead felt warm and welcoming, a celebration of original ideas and voices. At no point does IndieLisboa position itself as an exclusive club for the more cultured. Rather, the program feels consciously bent on rejecting such harsh hierarchies. From tribute screenings for heroes of independent cinema to a carefully curated selection of the best in new talent, the festival’s selection is unwaveringly focused on films with a true independent spirit. Indeed, most of the ones I’ve seen strive to break free from the rules of mainstream cinema and its lazy creative shortcuts, instead seeking to achieve the purest form of self-expression.
Andrzej Żuławski’s tortured search for life’s answers On the Silver Globe (1988) was perhaps the most extreme example of this. The film is alive with the wild energy of its director determined to create a work that is both totally unique and absolutely, solely his vision. Within this extremely intense, sometimes baffling but always fascinating fable, Żuławski explores the struggle between an inherent, unique identity, and the self as defined by the outside world and others.
I found the same struggle for personal expression in Angela Schanelec's The Dreamed Path (2016), a film that creates its own language and defies our expectations of what narrative cinema should be from one image to the next. As the translation of the German title—‘the dreamlike path’—might suggest, the film appears to follow a sort of oneiric logic. Every detail of its conception feels motivated only by the director’s pure desire to follow her intuition, regardless of storytelling conventions or audience demands for clear explanations.
If the confusion felt in front of these two films was inspiring and exhilarating, the same cannot be said of my experience watching Paul Vecchiali’s Change pas de main (1975). This porno/thriller fantasy set in Paris aims to overturn the rules of mainstream cinema, mocking the usual tropes of both the thriller and the porno. Yet this type of cynical, parodic treatment wears a little thin and the film grows increasingly irritating and inconsistent. The juxtaposition of unsimulated sex scenes with simulated scenes of sexual violence only reinforces the sense of a disdainful, patronizing irreverence towards subject matter and audience, an attitude ultimately more boring than it is truly shocking. A film that makes a point of parodying other genres should at least have ideas good enough of its own. As it is, Change pas de main seems stuck in a sort of limbo, unable to move from a rejection of the norm and good taste, to actual self-realization.
Like Paul Vecchiali, American filmmaker Jem Cohen had his own retrospective at the festival, and I was lucky to see two of his most recent short documentaries. Birth of a Nation (2017) is a dialogue-free portrait of the people assembled in Washington for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Only visible briefly on large screens, Trump is almost completely absent from the film—but as we all know, so is the crowd. Low camera angles and careful sound editing give a sense of the peculiar feeling of the event; what would normally be a celebration here only sees a few groups of people walking or standing silently, wearing MAGA hats or holding banners. The film tellingly ends with a brief sequence of the conversely very loud and crowded Women's March just a few days later.
Cohen’s satirical humor and warm attachment to communities seen in that moment are expanded upon in his other short, World without End (No Reported Incidents) (2016). Cohen’s portrait of the coastal town of Southend-on-Sea in England is both generous and a little patronizing, in love with the quirkiness and accents of his subjects just a little too much. Yet the film’s efforts to retrace some of the town’s history feel born of genuine care and attention. Perhaps because the film relies much more on dialogue, the visual filmmaking feels more conventional than in Cohen’s other film.
Although rather classic in execution and form, these two short films both question normalcy by highlighting the strangeness of their everyday subject matter. The empty streets for Trump’s inauguration speak for themselves of the absurdity now present in everyday life, while a series of contrasting portraits from citizens of Southend-on-Sea shows the huge difference in perspective between residents of the same town. Like the films previously mentioned, these two shorts look at the ways contrasting identities are constructed, and people’s search for their own selves.
The very conventional documentary Tokyo Idols (2017) took the construction of identity, the knowledge of the self, and the importance of the group as its very subject—this time not through the existential crisis of a man lost on an alien silver planet, but instead with an observation of the phenomenon of Japanese idols. Marketed for their cuteness and supposedly standing as role models for young people, female Idols are young manufactured pop stars whose fans actually tend to be grown men who admire and fantasize about them.
As it lets both idols and fans explains their situation and motivations in their own words, the film proves dizzying on several levels. More dumbfounding than the often-underage girl’s willingness to sexualize themselves in this way, or the middle-aged men who spend all their time and money venerating them, is the overtness of both parties agreeing to display their passion and talk about it so openly to the camera. One particularly shocking sequence shows an underage idol, styled like an anime woman from a manga, singing about how there is no shame in being an ‘otaku,’ a hardcore idol fan. The crowd she is singing to is entirely composed of middle-aged men otakus, many of them wearing shirts bearing her name, close to tears as they sing with her in unison.
Although Kyoko Miyake’s film offers all the explanations for the phenomenon, this somehow only makes it more disturbing, as it paints the portrait of a society where toxic gender roles have an even tougher grip on people’s lives than they do in the U.K. or the U.S.
While the heightened tone of Tokyo Idols, with its unbroken flow of revelations each more mind-boggling than the other, did become a little tiresome, El mar la mar on the contrary worked to reveal progressively and without repetition the many terrifying aspects of its subject: the Sonora desert, where illegal Mexican immigrants try to cross the border to America. Stories told by faceless subjects in voiceover give a haunting sense of all the figuratively invisible people who have and continue to pass through this unwelcoming, arid place.
With the contrast highlighted between the tranquility of the area as it is seen onscreen and the horrendous stories of pain, death and fear told by these people, dread comes to permeate every element of the film, every innocent rock or bug taking on new and unsettling qualities. As the film stretches into long sequences showing the endless desert and its details, time seems to break down and the place becomes increasingly despairing and cruel. It grows to feel as though we will never escape it.
Although artfully constructed, full of breathtaking and poetic images, the film never turns this place into a merely aesthetic project. Rather it tells its story—and the discomfort and horror it creates in the viewer is definitely political. Facts about immigration are already commonly known, and a more conventional documentary about this border might not have given such a strong sense of the cruelty and horror that immigrants experience, and of their courage and desperation.
The few days I spent in Lisbon made me realize better than ever before the value of an unsettling cinema. When so many of the films on general release pander to one mainstream taste, uncompromised and highly personal filmmaking can make us reconsider that which we consider normal, what makes us comfortable, and who we really want to be. Far from being pretentious, narcissistic or alienating, these powerful expressions of identity are always vital reminders of the possibilities and joys inherent to personal and creative freedom.