So, the eighth IndieLisboa – a.k.a. Lisbon’s International Independent Film Festival – took place in the Portuguese capital from 5th to 15th May, aiming “to discover new films and new directors, in the universe of independent cinema” and “keeping its attention on the author’s creativity and independence.”

Your correspondent was in attendance for the fifth time, on this occasion primarily in a staff capacity than a journalistic one – I conducted several introductions and Q&As with various film-makers, and my airfare, accommodation and meals were covered by the festival, for which I have been contributing programming suggestions for the last three or four years.

Given the nature of my “inside” involvement, it would be inappropriate (arguably unethical) for me to offer any overview of its latest edition. But I think I might be able to get away with a survey of my most notable discoveries among those movies I had no hand in programming – with the notable exception of Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae, which I saw for the first time at the Rotterdam film festival back in January, and which I wrote about in effusive fashion on these pages shortly after.

Having expressed my enthusiasm to IndieLisboa’s triumvirate of chiefs, I was delighted when they included the movie – a beguilingly quirky road-movie without roads, following a pair of Russian “ghosts” (permanently clad in phantasmal white sheets) as they trek Spain’s pilgrim-path of Santiago de Compostela to their eponymous ‘end-of-the-world’ destination on the Atlantic shore – within their programme.

And I requested to introduce both screenings of the picture, a belated first feature by the 45-year-old writer/director Caballero, previously best known for his involvement with Barcelona’s innovative Sonar music-festival in his native Catalonia. The audience’s appreciative reactions bolstered my opinion that this is one of the most original and distinctive directorial debuts of the past few years, one eminently deserving of UK distribution.

Given the current economic climate, however, Finisterrae represents – notwithstanding the Tiger award it won when competing at Rotterdam – a tricky sell, as it plays with the conventions of the present-day “art” film and boasts no sellable “name” on either side of the camera, although cinematographer Eduard Grau has previously worked on such disparate fare as Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried, Albert Serra’s Honour of the Knights (Quixotic) and Lindy Heymann’s Merseyside football psychodrama Kicks (next up for Grau: Marcal Fores’ enticingly odd-sounding Animals, with Martin Freeman; and Nick Murphy’s ghostly The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West.)

Finisterrae was the best film I saw at Lisbon 2011, but in terms of actual “discoveries”, my clear pick would be The Lord’s Ride (La BM du Seigneur) by Jean-Charles Hue. Like Finisterrae, The Lord’s Ride provides further evidence that directors who make their feature-length debuts after the age of 40 (see also Joanna Hogg of Unrelated and Archipelago fame and Control‘s Anton Corbijn, among others) are usually worth seeking out.

Filmed with non-professional actors in the Beauvais area some 50 miles north Paris (right under the noisy flightpath home of an airport much used by budget airlines) it might be summed up as My Big Fat Gipsy Damascene Conversion, as it chronicles the unlikely spiritual awakening of an obese, thirtyish “traveller” (Frederick Dorkel as ‘Fred’) whose belated embrace of evangelical Christianity is greeted with bemusement by his colleagues in a car-theft ring.

43-year-old Hue is himself of traveller ancestry, and spent several years getting to know the inhabitants of this particular closed community before developing his story – with results that feel entirely convincing, authentic and organic. The closest British comparison would probably be Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, but The Lord’s Ride is an altogether riskier, edgier, spikier enterprise – diametrically different from the polished, respectable French cinema which so often infests our arthouse.

Of course, not all middle-class French cinema is intrinsically uninteresting, and IndieLisboa served up a noteworthy addition to this long tradition in the form of Mikhaël Hers’ Memory Lane, a likeably sprawling, atmospheric ensemble about aimless Parisians in their early twenties (most of them, it must be said, model-handsome/beautiful), hanging out together in their home district over the course of a hazy summer. The picture has already screened in Britain, as part of last November’s London Film Festival, but anyone who missed it there is advised to keep an eye out for it either as a DVD release or via small-scale, upscale distribution.

Examining passions and insecurities among even younger subjects, the American independent picture Bummer Summer by Zach Weintraub enjoyed its European premiere in Lisbon – a somewhat surprising detail, at it had initially surfaced in the States more than a year before, and given its distinction as a sharply-written, beautifully-shot (by newcomer Nandan Rao, working wonders with black-and-white digital video) delve into contemporary teenage and post-teenage concerns.

Let down only by its excessively on-the-nose title (writer/director Weintraub might perhaps have stuck with the original moniker, Land of the Lost), Bummer Summer showcases a suitably mumbly and self-effacing turn from yet another big-screen debutant, Mackinley Robinson – touchingly raw and green as introspective Isaac, who embarks on an ad hoc road-trip with his brother Ben (Weintraub himself) and the latter’s on-off girlfriend.

Shifting from fiction to non-fiction, pound-for-pound the best documentary I saw was Charles Fairbanks’ 12-minute Irma – and “pound-for-pound” is entirely appropriate in this context, as the Irma in question is Ms Irma Gonzalez, a lady of a certain age who we first encounter hobbling around and out of her Mexico City apartment. By no means as frail as she initially appears, Irma is revealed during this patient, warmly empathetic film to be not only a revered ex-champ of “Lucha Libre” wrestling (as glimpsed via wonderfully scratchy 1980s VHS), but also no mean songstress – the short concludes with a rendition of one of her greatest hits.

Combining film-making with wrestling – Irma is his “Lucha Libre” coach, and he competes in the sport under the name “One-Eyed Cat” – the Mexico-based, 32-year-old Fairbanks, who has (unsurprisingly) studied under the medium’s reigning maverick Werner Herzog, is a likeably unlikely presence in contemporary cinema. And his debut feature, currently in pre-production, will be well worth seeking out; perhaps, even, at a future IndieLisboa…

Neil Young
24th May 2011
(written for the 2nd June edition of
Tribune magazine)