Maybe it’s true that sophisticated cinema has perished, as Hollywood alpha-males Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese recently opined. If so, this year’s Doclisboa film festival – at which over two hundred films were distributed across ten days and four central Lisbon theatres – must have been a gathering of the undead. The niche pictures on show might be financially underpowered compared to the silver screen behemoths mourned by Scott and Scorsese. But were intensity of interest an accepted measure of relevance, the absorbed focus given to these more obscure works could rebuke any claim of film’s plight.
In central Canada, where I grew up, finding curious documentaries meant spending hours searching VHS tapes at the local library. So it feels significant, when nearly every seat in a grand old theatre is occupied for a documentary on Joseph Beuys, or when droves turn out for a film about a little-known philosopher who spent her time transcribing Rimbaud’s letters. Granted, Edmund Cordeiro’s Todas as Cartas de Rimbaud (All Rimbaud’s Letters) (2017) enjoyed a hometown advantage – ‘it’s our Portuguese film,’ said the woman who scanned my press pass, with a cordial pride that melted my adopted Berlin chill. Cordeiro’s subject is Maria Filomena Molder, a professor at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. As the camera follows Molder’s transcribed pages, she moves from Rimbaud through Wittgenstein and Kant, expounding beauty and the sublime. The film is less a stringent philosophy lecture than a portrait of thought unfolding in one mind, and as it does, opening the world.
Throughout Doclisboa, worlds opened in many dimensions – psychological, social, geographical – prompted by a miscellany of circumstances, and with wildly varying consequences. A retrospective of the late Czech director Věra Chytilová formed a kind of festival within the festival, with thirty-three of her works distributed throughout the ten days. In a straightforward, news television style, Where Are You Going, Girls? (1993) recorded female Czech entrepreneurs explaining their work, and the effect of capitalism – newly arrived by way of the Velvet Revolution – on happiness. Generally, their enjoyment of autonomy beats out the stress of free market competition. But the latter lingers in each testimony, portending a future (right about now, actually…) wherein the freedom to self-employ devolves into the freedom to self-exploit, in 24-7 freelance work schedules. Such deceptively loaded films were Chytilová’s forte; so much so that her 1966 picture Daisies, an effervescent romp of desire and consumption, was censored. Its offence, according to Czech officials: ‘Depicting the wanton.’
A shameful admission: reared on the easy dazzlements of Scott’s Bladerunner and Scorsese’s Cape Fear, my own eyeball-cerebellum complex often issued involuntary censure, particularly when viewing more punishingly experimental works. In Ico Costa Barulho’s 68-minute long Barulho, Eclipse (Uproar, Eclipse) (2017), deep blackness is repeatedly broken by five musicians, their grimacing faces, fast playing limbs, saxophones, drums and guitars lit in chiaroscuro white. Listening to their detonating refrain, I twitched involuntarily: a physical symptom of my comprehension of film, evolving in real time. Ana Vidjea’s low-fi short John (2017) was akin to slow, painful empathy-training, following a few days in the life of a maladapted artist-cum-junk shop keeper. Then there was Eric Baudelaire’s feature-length Also Known as Jihadi (2017), about a young man who travelled ‘from France to Syria, and back to France…incarcerated for allegedly joining Daesh.’ Gripping stuff: but all we see are still shots of the land and cityscapes traversed by Baudelaire’s subject, intercut with reproduced juridical records. On the one hand, Baudelaire’s deadening vacancy echoed the generic identities given terrorists by feeble imaginations; on the other, the piece had me silently pleading for a moratorium on this kind of extreme banality in art.
Such compound effects are a necessary side effect of deep-reaching work. But even when Docslisboa tended towards populist tastes, complexity ensued. ‘God that was sad… I mean, man that was sad… I had no idea,’ one viewer sputtered, while leaving Nick Broomfield and Rudy Dolezal’s Whitney Houston biopic, Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017). It may be difficult to feel bad for celebrities in a world so thoroughly impoverished and anguished. Nonetheless, the ways in which Houston was used as an armature for commodity persona, and the manipulations and stresses that pushed her and her daughter to early deaths, are gutting: even more so, when you consider that these are the exploitative circumstances under which black women are granted power in racist America. But though illuminating, Broomfield and Dolezal’s depiction has a discomfiting flatness. Disproportionate attention to debauchery and primary testimony result in an almost fetishistic quality: forfeited is the broader societal analyses which tragedies obligate.
Trenchant, non-conforming films can illuminate the difference between simply knowing about life’s exigencies, and witnessing them. Such was the effect of Nicolas Klotz and Élisabeth Perceval’s The Wild Frontier (2017), which subjected viewers to a four-hour crawl through Calais, France’s shameful migrant ghetto – a Gehenna of desperate tedium, within a film that makes readymade narratives about refugee experience drift to the ground like spent ashes. Likewise in Neta Shoshani’s Born in Deir Yassin (2017), an attempt to understand the 1948 massacring of an Arab village by Israeli troops. Soshani’s lens fixes on the old soldiers’ faces, which in turn show remorse, feigned amnesia, and unrepentant pride. Photographs of the killing, we learn, were long ago sealed in a government archive. Thankfully, we have filmmakers and festival organisers willing to show us these disappearances.