Não then, não then: Michael Pattison’s IndieLisboa 2013 roundup

the modest charms of Culturgest

One of the two festival trailers that took turns to precede each film at this year’s IndieLisboa featured an actress, done up as some peroxide blonde in distress, screaming Não! (“No!”) in various green-screened scenarios evocative of Hollywood clichés. The first time I saw it was on my first night in Lisbon, in Culturgest’s Grande Auditório, and it deafened me to such a degree that in every subsequent showing I had to cover my ears.

Não is a rebellious word, the simplest of rejections. And Lisbon’s tenth International Independent Film Festival opened with No, the Chilean film directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Gael Garcia Bernal that, as the festival’s programme notes put it, “recreates the historic campaign that said ‘no’ to Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite”. Its title doubled this year as a one-word mission statement for the festival itself, which was marketed in conscious opposition to mainstream values (its tagline, alongside cartoon images of, for example, five Rocky Balboas of increasing sagginess, translated to “Hollywood has run out of ideas”).

Explicitly asserting yourself against the big boys (and with Hollywood, it is indeed usually boys) is a bold move, since the question becomes what you’re offering as an alternative. Under the direction of Miguel Valverde and Nuno Sena, IndieLisboa’13 offered eight programme strands and special screenings and events that covered forty-three different production countries and films whose independent sensibilities by no means indicated technical deficiency or artistic weakness. Of course, just about every other high-profile international film festival claims to offer as wide a compass as possible, and more is not necessarily better. Now in its tenth year, though, IndieLisboa’s continuing expansion might indeed be a simple “no” in the face of rapidly diminishing arts funding – and to my eye, attendances seemed defiantly and encouragingly high.

São Jorge amid the hustle and bustle of the Avenida

How, then, does a festival attendee make the experience unique? One obvious answer might be to absorb as many of the home products as possible alongside people for whom such works hold especial significance. There were over fifty Portuguese productions in the IndieLisboa’13 programme; regrettably, however, I saw none of them (catch-ups via other channels are pending). Other rued misses were International Competition winners Leviathan, which I haven’t seen on a big screen, and Da Vinci, a short that I haven’t seen at all; the festival’s Patrick Jolley retrospective; and some of its shorts selections. Some national premieres were skipped, meanwhile, on the grounds that I had already seen them: while others rushed to Spring Breakers and Sightseers, I was happy to go elsewhere.

You can never see everything, of course, but in Lisbon this seems especially the case, since the daily screenings don’t begin until around five in the afternoon (and commonly extend beyond midnight), thus limiting one’s daily itinerary to two or three films. One could spend mornings at the video library to watch some of the 4,000 titles available there (including most programmed films as well as all those submitted works to which the answer was não), but the city and its weather are too lovely for a first-time visitor to invest any more time than necessary into small-screen catch-ups.

On the whole, though, I caught what I had planned to catch. To begin with, I saw (for the first time) all six films in the festival’s Ulrich Seidl retrospective, including his Paradise Trilogy. If this theme-driven triptych boasts wonderful cinematography from Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman as well as the director’s trademark dynamic between symmetrical compositions and naturalistic performances, I found at least two of its entries to be oddly unmoving in comparison to the earlier films selected: Animal Love (Tierische Liebe, 1996), Models (1999) and Jesus, You Know (Jesus, Du weisst, 2003).

One of the festival’s two Mexican productions was the best I saw: Workers, an impressive deadpan comedy about two labourers in Tijuana whose pending retirements are respectively delayed by a beloved dog called Princess and an illegal immigrant status. Writer-director José Luis Valle composes his shots beautifully and his timing is impeccable, not least in the film’s best if most incongruous scene, a fixed-camera take depicting the kerbside interactions between a barbershop owner, sex shop employees and a fast food chef. The other Mexican work was Greatest Hits (Los mejores temas), Nicolás Pereda’s unusual and absorbing drama that establishes its universe before collapsing it, with two different actors playing versions of the same character: the father of Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez), a young lad who has resigned himself to a life selling compilation CDs of famous ballads to passers-by in metro stations.

Cinema City Classic Alvalade (opened 2008)

I caught two of the eleven Brazilian films programmed by the festival. Avanti Popolo boasted the best opening of all those I saw: an immobile establishing shot that turns out to be the point-of-view of a parked car, which thereafter roams the streets at night. The film deals with loss – personal, familial, political – by juxtaposing a father/son relationship against the political turmoil of the 1970s. Housemaids (Doméstica), meanwhile, is a rough and ready examination of seven housekeepers in five different Brazilian cities, and the unique relationship they have with their employers. Heading further south into Argentina (with funding also from France and the Netherlands), Leones repays its formal debt to early 2000s Gus Van Sant with a lifeless march through an unnavigable, purgatorial forest inhabited by five obnoxious teens.

If Leones, one of the ten features that lost out to Leviathan in the International Competition, features aimless wandering in abundance, then Joe Rezwin’s Gazzara is a more focused stroll in the park, through the Manhattan locales that held significant meaning for John Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara. Niall McCann’s Art Will Save the World, meanwhile, is a different kind of biographical documentary, employing a (B. S.) Johnsonian framework to look at the Britpop scene of the Nineties, as experienced by singer-songwriter Luke Haines, one of the trend’s most aggrieved naysayers. McGann’s film was the last I saw in Lisbon, and having previously met the director, I was pleased to hear its many jokes and prevalent wit were as well received by my fellow attendees as were the comical moments in The Unknown, Tod Browning’s 1927 masterpiece, which I’d seen on 35mm earlier that day in the city’s beautiful Cinemateca Portuguesa Museo do Cinema.

Though The Unknown wasn’t officially part of the festival, it screened in conjunction with Messenger From the Shadows (Notes From Film 06 A/Monologue 01), Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s archive montage that reconceptualises moments from 46 films of The Unknown star Lon Chaney’s career. I missed that film, but saw Browning’s (again) in order to fulfil a promise to Jigsaw Lounge prior to travel. Having been forewarned of the Cinemateca’s preference to subtitle only in Portuguese, however, I opted against also revisiting Godard’s Les carabiniers (1963), though having to walk out two minutes into Jacques Doillon’s French-language film You, Me and Us (Un enfant de toi) after realising only Portuguese subtitles were provided offered some karmic realignment.

Had I stuck with Doillon’s film, it wouldn’t have been the first time that week that I had sat through large snippets of français sans sous titres, for there are intermittent chunks in Amsterdam Stories USA in which Dutch-born co-directors Rob Rombout and Rogier van Eck converse with one another in French with only Portuguese subtitles provided. Over the course of this six-hour travelogue through the USA’s cities, towns, streets, cemeteries and people all called Amsterdam, though, language didn’t seem to matter all that much (and most of it was English-language anyway).

Opting to see Amsterdam Stories on the third of my six days in Lisbon was the outcome of a scheduling dilemma, between guaranteed quantity (it clashed with two other appealing screenings, of Ma belle gosse and The Act of Killing) and what I had hoped to be quality (for what it’s worth, I thought its duration flew by). Though the hours passed and the numbers dwindled, the final count of people emerging from the film looked healthy indeed. More strangely, the film had the highest average audience rating of the entire festival – tallied by the out-of-five scorecards handed out before and collected after each screening. Before I saw it, Stories was already up there at 4.36; after I saw it, it shot up to 4.57, and was subsequently awarded the festival’s Prémio do Público prize. (I’d given it a three.)

Amsterdam Stories USA sets its even pace and unhurried tone as soon as its first interviewee speaks: Edgar Oliver, a poet based in Manhattan with a vague resemblance to Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, over-enunciates and elongates his vowels. In fact, he does so to such an extent that I was reminded instantly of the first word I had heard at the festival, as piercingly shrieked by that Hollywood dame: Nãooooooooooooooo!

Michael Pattison
29th April 2013
all photos above by Michael Pattison

links to official site

first dispatch
second dispatch
third dispatch

PLUS: shorts competition analysed, by Graeme Cole