INDIELISBOA 2008 : index page
SENSES OF CINEMA – full report
TREATS OF LISBON
report from the 5th IndieLisboa: Lisbon's Festival of Independent Cinema
written for Tribune magazine
The 5th Festival Internacional de Cinema Independente – 'IndieLisboa' for short, in practice often abbreviated further to simply 'Indie' – unspooled in the Portuguese capital from April 24th to May 4th this year, bringing an eclectic range of cutting-edge world cinema not only to assorted lisboetos and lisboetas (35,000+ tickets sold) but also to a hefty handful of international press, guests and jury-members.
As its name suggests, IndieLisboa has always put the emphasis on independence: the official aim is "to discover new films and new directors" in what it calls "the universe of independent cinema." And, just like the real universe, independent cinema is a dizzyingly vast, rather amorphous and controversial space – one which contains all manner of planets, comets and assorted heavenly and not-so-heavenly bodies (plus numerous deadly zones of negative energy).
Of the fifteen features I saw in six days at the festival – the vast majority of which were part of my service on the jury awarding prizes in the International and National competitions – four stood out. And, as it just so happens, each offers a very different perspective on a subject which is very often in the eye of the beholder: cinematic independence.
First of the four film-makers, taken in alphabetical order, is Diao Yin'an, born in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, China, in 1969. A director, screenwriter and sometime actor, Diao graduated from the Central Academy of Drama in 1991 and has made two films so far, both of them premiering at the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. The first, Uniform (Zhifu, 2003), was only a moderately promising debut, but his latest release Night Train (Ye che) confirms him as one of the more talented in a particularly large crop of young and young-ish Chinese directors – alongside Li Yang (Blind Mountain), Ying Liang (The Other Half) and Peng (Little Moth).
The majority of these film-makers operate "underground", i.e. they choosing not to run their work past the state's censorship bodies. The chief consequence of this is that their movies can't be shown within China itself, but instead obtain exhibition – and, in many instances, considerable acclaim – on the global film-festival circuit.
Night Train was made with financial help from France and the USA, and while its budget can't have been more than modest, the results (shot by cinematographer Jingsong Dong, whose sole previous credit is Uniform) look at least as impressive as many expensive productions from Hollywood or European studios. Not that the visuals could ever be described as picturesque or pretty: the action is set in particularly grim and grimy corners of western, heavily-industrial China.
This is the suitably dour backdrop for the unsentimental tale of Wu (Dan Liu), a woman in her early thirties who works as a court bailiff. Her duties occasionally encompass executions – the Chinese government remains one of the last holdouts of, and most enthusiastic supporters of, capital punishment. Among her 'victims' is a young woman whose bereaved boyfriend, stunned by grief, tracks Wu down – setting up what becomes a most unusual, ambiguous and enthralling kind of 'relationship.'
According to Diao, "I've been having this recurrent dream, in which I'm sentenced to death for no particular reason. I admit that I fear death… and wish I had a brave heart. There came the idea for this film." He plunges us straight into the chilly world of his lovelorn protagonist, somehow maintaining a mood that's relentlessly sombre and even icy without ever becoming either gloomy or morbid as the story builds to a climax of truly startling intensity. Blessed with rather more plot than many of the current 'artistic' Chinese underground features, Night Train has an outside shot at UK distribution – catch it when, and if, you can.
Whereas Diao is at the start of what looks like being an exciting career, Abel Ferrara is now into his fourth decade as a maker of feature films – his first credit being the irresistible-sounding Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy from 1976, his second being the rather better-known Driller Killer (1979). Since then Ferrara has oscillated between demented low-budget productions and forays into relatively "respectable" studio fare, achieving his greatest prominence with The King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Body Snatchers (1993). His profile in the current century has been rather lower, but with his latest provocation – Go Go Tales – he shows that he's anything but a back number.
A deliciously dark and entertaining comedy set in a Manhattan nightclub – but filmed entirely in Rome, where Ferrara has lived since fleeing his native New York post-9/11 – it's primarily a showcase for a phenomenal performance from Willem Dafoe, who's in white-hot form as delusional, down-on-his-luck club-owner Ray Ruby. Over the course of one truly wild night, Ray's fortunes chart a vertiginous path of ecstatic highs and grinding lows – his unbreakable optimism not-so-subtly mirroring Ferrara's own determination to put his idiosyncratic vision on the screen ("There's a time and a place for everything," notes the maverick auteur: "This film took me so long to make, and there's so much gratification from it. It was something I'd really wanted to do and couldn't but we never gave up on it, and then it came together so beautifully in Italy.")
In a sensible world Dafoe would have an Oscar nomination for his work, and Go Go Tales would be a smash arthouse hit – but the picture has had a very rocky reception since premiering at Cannes (where "everybody hated it", according to one expert witness). As it is, the picture is slowly establishing a copper-bottomed cult following – it's the kind of movie that makes you paraphrase Kenneth Tynan's comment about Look Back In Anger: I'm not alone in saying that I could probably never love anyone who didn't like Go Go Tales.
Finally, a word about two young Frenchwomen, both born in Paris: Isild Le Besco in 1982, Nathalie Mansoux in 1974. Le Besco is, for now, better known as an actress than a director: she's been on screen since 1990, and has notched two Cesar nominations (for 2000's Sade and 2001's Roberto Succo). Her first stint behind the camera produced the hour-long mini-feature Demi-Tarif, which attracted ecstatic praise from legendary documentarian Chris Marker – who just so happens to be Le Besco's godfather. It turns out that Marker's praise was peremptory rather than inaccurate: Charly is a quantum leap ahead in terms of achievement.
Making a virtue of its shoestring budget, this is the video-shot story of a fourteen-year-old runaway and the force-of-nature young woman (perhaps no more than a teenager herself) who takes it upon herself to knock him into shape. If Nicolas (tousle-haired Kolia Litscher, Le Besco's brother) is emphatically feckless, his new amie Charly (a powerhouse turn from Julie-Marie Parmentier) is inescapably feckful: the result is, oddly enough, a Harold and Maude for the YouTube generation, a disarmingly direct and unvarnished miniature which does make room for a handful of haunting, characteristically simple dream-sequences.
Mansoux's Access Road (Via de Acesso), meanwhile, is in-your-face reality from start to finish. Mansoux read Anthropology in her native city, then also studied ethnographic cinema before moving to Portugal to gain experience of documentary work. Her debut feature is the chronicle of a doomed shanty-town, just over Lisbon's borders in the neighbouring municipality of Amadora. The area of Azinhaga de Besouros is an example of what Mike Davis, in his recent, ferociously unignorable polemic Planet of Slums, calls a "peri-urban" development.
And, as Davis notes in his final chapter, the way governments handle such "clandestine constructions" is going to be one of the defining dynamics of the 21st century. Access Road, a rousing example of old-school agit-prop cinema, illustrates how such tricky situations can be clumsily mishandled by over-bureaucratic councils: the soundtrack is full of the robotic, uncaring letters from the council to the residents, baldly informing them that, because of Kafkaesque regulations, most of them are ineligible for rehousing.
The jury was unanimous in reckoning Access Road the best of the five Portuguese films in the National Competition – indeed, from my perspective it wouldn't have been out of place in the International Competition, where only Night Train and Charly struck me as stronger works (my co-jurors disagreed, and in a triumph for democracy the grand prize went to Aditya Assarat's post-tsunami romantic drama from Thailand, Wonderful Town).
Mansoux's DIY approach, meanwhile, strikes me as the most genuinely independent form of film-making on view in the whole festival: "I have never stopped to work during the making of the film," she says. "I'm an independent worker in translations and subtitles for the Cinemateca Portuguesa and film-festivals. So I've bought the tapes and paid the transports with my money. And a students' association lent the camera because they believed in the project. The persons who worked on editing, sound and colour calibration didn't receive any money (they also believed in the project). We used my computer and my house for editing."
There's nothing wrong with independent filmmakers taking finance from funding bodies – or even, as Abel Ferrara shows, collaborating with major Hollywood studios and/or making films in such legendary facilities as Rome's Cinecitta complex. But while Access Road has a rather downbeat conclusion – to paraphrase William Blake (via Mark E Smith), this "road of access" turns out to lead to a modern shopping-mall "palace of excess" – the film shows one very viable way for all those "new directors" which IndieLisboa seeks to discover and champion. In Portugal, and far, far beyond: act local, think global, indeed.
14th May, 2008
O MOPUP :
Alvaro Lapa – Literature /// Endgame /// The Flower Bridge /// The Mother /// The Mugger /// Pink /// Railroad Crossing /// Running on Karma /// Sleepwalking Land
Train of Shadows /// Uprise /// Wonderful Town
alphabetical list of films seen at IndieLisboa 2008
ACCESS ROAD : [7/10] : Via de acesso : Portugal 2008 : Nathalie Mansoux : 81m : NC : seen 2/5 at CL cinema : HR link
íLVARO LAPA – LITERATURE : [6/10] : ílvaro Lapa – Literatura : Portugal 2007 : Jorge Silva Melo : 102m : NC : 29/4 SJ
CHARLY : [7/10] : France 2007 : Isild Le Besco : 94m : IC : 1/5 FL : HR link
ENDGAME : [6/10] : O Lar : Portugal 2008 : António Borges Correia : 77m : 2/5 CL
THE FLOWER BRIDGE : [6/10] : Podul de flori : Romania 2008 : Thomas Ciulei : 91m : IC : 1/5 CL
GO GO TALES : [8/10] : USA (US/Ity) 2007 : Abel Ferrara : 96m (approx) : OC : 3/5 FL
THE MOTHER : [6/10] : La Mère : Switzerland (Swi/Rus/Can/Fr) 2007 : Antoine Cattin & Pavel Kostomarov : 79m : IC : 2/5 VT
THE MUGGER : [6/10] : El Asaltante : Argentina 2007 : Paulo Fendriks : 67m : VT : IC : 1/5 VT
NIGHT TRAIN : [8/10] : Ye che : China 2007 : Diāo Yì'nán : 95m : IC : 2/5 CL
PINK : [5/10] : Roz : Greece 2006 : Alexander Voulgaris : 87m : IC : 1/5 VT
RAILROAD CROSSING : [5/10] : Pas a nivell : Spain 2007 : Pere Vilí i Barceló : 107m : IC : 2/5 CL
RUNNING ON KARMA : [6/10] : Daai chek liu : China ("Hong Kong"/Chi) 2003 : Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai : 93m (approx) : CL : OC (Johnny To retrospective) : 4/5 CL
SLEEPWALKING LAND : [4/10] : Terra Sonâmbula : Portugal (Por/Moz) 2007 : Teresa Prata : 100m : NC : 1/5 CL
TRAIN OF SHADOWS : [6/10] : Tren de sombras : Spain (Sp/Fr) 1997 : José Luis
Guerín : 85m (approx) : OC (Guerín retrospective) : 4/5 CL
UPRISE : [5/10] : A Zona : Portugal 2008 : Sandro Aguilar : 97m : IC/NC : 30/4 SJ
WONDERFUL TOWN : [6/10] : Thailand 2007 : Aditya Assarat : 92m : IC : 30/4 SJ
key to cinemas etc
* CL = Cinema Londres….. FL = Fórum Lisboa….. SJ = Cinema São Jorge….. (VT = film seen on DVD in videotheque)
* all tickets complimentary….. all timings are hand-timed unless otherwise stated
* IC = International Competition….. NC = National Competition….. OC = film shown in non-competitive section
O filme "Wonderful Town", realizado por Aditya Assarat, da Tailândia, ganhou o Grande Prémio de Longa-Metragem "Cidade de Lisboa", no valor de 15 mil euros, do Festival Internacional de Cinema Independente – IndieLisboa, anunciou ontem a organização. O filme "Night Train", de Diao Yian, da China, recebeu uma menção honrosa na competição internacional de longas-metragens. O Prémio Tobis para Melhor Longa-Metragem Portuguesa (5 mil euros) foi atribuído ao documentário "Via de Acesso", de Nathalie Mansoux. O Prémio de Distribuição (no valor de 2500 euros) foi para "Momma's Man", de Azazel Jacobs, dos Estados Unidos. O júri internacional da Competição de Longas-Metragens integrou Chaterine Bizern, Charlotte Garson, Daniel Blaufuks, Jody Shapiro e Neil Young.
He's even able to foresee the fall and of feeling in his skin the profound ruts dug out in the ground. In the same way he can know when a nurse is looking at him even with his eyes closed. He knows that by following that track and once down there, he would only find iron and flesh melted into one. He knows that if he can't spread his arm into the abyss and ransom his mother from there, he can only immerse himself in that underground he has privileged access to because he doesn't know anything else. Lonely yet unwillingly communicant – the zone greets, the zone liberates.