Those who still think of documentary films primarily as infotainment, vessels of variously banal or galling factoids that might once have lived on public television when such a thing existed, would do well to look to Doclisboa, a festival that seeks to challenge rather than reinforce cinematic non-fiction’s formal and thematic boundaries. Now in its 11th year, Doclisboa declares in its very mission statement its intention to use documentary cinema as a means of seeking out new modes of interaction between the aesthetic and the political—and preferably the radical forms of each. Newly a member of the Doc Alliance project, which links it with other notable European documentary festivals, including CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival), FID Marseille (Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille), and Jihlava IDFF (Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival), Doclisboa serves as a site from which to explore documentary’s possibilities, setting work by internationally established makers like Harun Farocki, Wang Bing, Anand Patwardhan, and Mohammad Rasoulof—who was intended to head the festival’s jury before Iran blocked his passage to Lisbon—alongside works by lesser-known and local filmmakers.
This renewed commitment to cinema, especially to films made independently and at home, arises at a time of crisis for Portugal’s independent film industry, which continues to struggle—along with much of the rest of the country—under crippling austerity, the erosion of state support, and the indifference of capital. All the more striking, then, is the recent resurgence in Portuguese cinema evident in recent films by Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues, both present at the festival with new short films, and especially by Joaquim Pinto. His masterful nearly three-hour diary epic What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me)—an ecstatic, messy, erudite, and overwhelmingly heartfelt film about living with H.I.V.—was easily the best of the recent New York Film Festival’s official selection, and the natural film to win Doclisboa’s International Competition. (Watch for its return to New York cinemas in 2014.)
But Portuguese cinema is also bolstered by a number of younger filmmakers whose names might be less well known on these shores. With In Medias Res (No Meio Das Coisas), Luciana Fina offers a cinematic correspondence with the texts of architect Manuel Tainha. Naturally, the film offers the sort of majestic cinematography of inner and outer spaces characteristic of architectural documentaries, but it’s also playful and multiform, drawing upon diverse media of archival material, music, still images, sketches, and scenes from Basil Dearden’s 1963 psychological thriller The Mind Benders. Fina’s film thus skirts the more inert, reverential tendencies of films of its kind, and instead explores architecture’s temporal as well as spatial qualities, contrasting old and new, modernism and post-modernism, the filmmaker’s own point of view with that of her subject. In this way, architecture seems to have more in common with other media after all—walls themselves become mediators, and buildings “an experience of boundaries.”
Gonçalo Tocha follows his gorgeous, intimately epic debut It’s the Earth Not the Moon with The Mother and the Sea (A Mãe e o Mar), and like its predecessor, this new work takes the form of an extended cohabitation with a quiet, remote seaside village. What begins as a chronicle of a long line of robust fisherwomen from the coastal town of Vila Chã—examining old newspapers, maritime documents, captains’ logs and the like—evolves into a portrait of a dwindling community of mainly elderly women and men who live and, with their handmade nets, lines, and boats, still live and work along Portugal’s northern coastline. Dovetailing beautifully with the portraits of imperiled or outmoded occupations by Alain Cavalier, whose remarkable body of work was the subject of a retrospective at the festival, Tocha’s film underscores the fortitude and independence of his subjects, with images of septuagenarian women, waist-deep in seawater amid intensely variable weather, trawling for sargassum. While this new film does not quite achieve the proximity or the scope of Tocha’s prior film, it’s no less mesmerizing in the serenity of its aquatic rhythms and fogbound seascapes. And the filmmaker’s quiet, direct commitment to his subject is touchingly visible in every frame, especially in those full-frame portraits in which Tocha confronts his subjects in close-up—and they stare back.
The camera also takes up an intimate, participatory position in Avi Mograbi’s new film Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti Pa’am Lagan), winner of a Special Jury Award in the festival’s International Competition. Inspired by a dream in which he meets his grandfather, who only spoke Arabic, in their family house in Damascus in 1920, the director begins to learn the language with help from his friend Ali al-Azhari, an internal refugee who has spent most of his life in Tel Aviv with his wife and daughter Yasmin. A simple investigation into genealogies becomes a dialogue about collective rights of return to a lost era of integration, and soon young Yasmin and director of photography Phillippe Bellaïche, and their own narratives and navigations of the Middle East, are drawn into the conversation as well. Traversing borders and transgressing territorial claims, the film culminates in a road trip to Ali’s childhood home in Galilee, from which his family was evicted in 1949, transforming streets, fields, and playgrounds into ambiguous records of a palimpsestic history.
Such vagaries persist in the very recent history as well, as demonstrated in Belgian filmmaker Sarah Vanagt’s masterful Dust Breeding (Élevage de poussière). Taking place almost entirely in and around the Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the film borrows events and myths, testimonies and counter-testimonies, images and analyses of images, multiple translations, media formats, and image resolutions to make palpable the ambiguity of the traumas recounted in an effort to convict former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadić. The accused’s own slippery identity—as monster and martyr, player and pawn—capitalizes upon the insufficiency of these traces, recollections, and documentations, the weight of which gradually bears down upon the spectator. As answer or analogue, Vanagt intersperses the court’s records with scenes of her creating charcoal rubbings of objects and surfaces in the court—featureless and banal ones, like monitors, pleather chairs, faux-wood desks, a microphone—each an ambiguous record of the court’s theatrical setting and material evidence of uncertainty itself.
Philipp Hartmann’s film Time Goes by Like a Roaring Lion (Die Zeit Vergeht wie ein Brüllender Löwe), named for a curious turn of phrase used by the filmmaker’s grandmother, grasps for the more intangible phenomenon of temporality itself. Compendious, deadpan, and unabashedly personal, the film concerns a 38 and a-quarter year-old filmmaker in the middle of his life expectancy, whose fear of passing time leads him on a transcontinental investigation. The blindingly white Bolivian salt flats, the atomic clock in Braunschweig, the hourglass collection of the widow of a clockmaker in Buenos Aires, a train graveyard in the Andes (where, according to some graffiti, “the only thing that happens here is time”): Hartmann’s film explores memory and time’s many facets in ways both topical (concerns about child development and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease) and formal (cinema’s function of marking time through objects and motion). Most of all, Hartmann’s film makes the abstract intimate—through conversations with friends, his mother’s diary entries, and a dream about his father, and through an unflinching process of self-documentation, family photos, and the slow accumulation of little objects on his desk. And the film itself functions as just such an accumulation of styles, narratives, and insights, following philosophical tangents, playing games of perspective, and dipping into fictional episodes and witty reconstructions.
Temporal uncertainties are embedded in the very title of Algerian filmmaker Lamine Ammar-Khodja’s Equivocal Chronicles (Chroniques équivoques), which expresses the awkward burden of writing a history of the present. At the outset of the film, the expatriate filmmaker—“a stranger from the inside,” as he later describes himself—is tasked by a French funding body with travelling to Algeria to “give voice” to his fellow countrymen on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. The film’s wry, half-hearted travelogue of road-works and traffic jams, trash in the water and people walking the streets, most of which is shot from the filmmaker’s balcony, quickly picks up on the urgent dissatisfaction of young people—mostly male—and the ensuing protests speak of a wider context of protests in the Arab world in 2011. But Ammar-Khodja doesn’t leave unexamined the problems of representation—of “giving voice” and translation, of Algeria’s hybrid black-white, European-African identity. What emerges is as much collage as documentary, drawing upon an avalanche of cinephilic associations, from Reservoir Dogs to Buster Keaton to Days of Heaven to Godard. And let’s not forget The Battle of Algiers, which here is curiously intercut with the tale of a young couple pursuing a relationship in spite of the woman’s father’s objections—love as an underground movement. Rife with word and image-play, Equivocal Chronicals invokes a present in irresolvable flux, fragments continually resisting cohesion.
Directed by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of the CAMP collective, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (Kutchi Vahan Pani Wala) makes its own loose structure out of disparate elements. Soon to have its New York premiere in the Migrating Forms series at BAM, the film is the culmination of a four-year project that draws upon the contributions of dozens of seamen on one of many trade vessels in transit around the Indian Ocean, with each cameraman working in a mix of video formats (HD, SD, VHS, and cellphone).The three gulfs indicated by the title—the Gulf of Kutch, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden—describe routes from Gujarati shipyards to ports in the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, and Somalia, seaways that circumvent the pirates and the purview of the World Trade Organization. Ferrying old tires or animals, enduring storms or the occasional inferno, and getting in plenty of fishing along the way, all in tandem with an alternately pounding and wistful found-pop soundtrack, the ships attain legendary status in themselves, their careful and conspicuous naming throughout the film attesting to their importance as floating communities of shipbuilders, sailors, and navigators. That these workers are also the film’s videographers suggests not just a temporary autonomous trade zone, but also a community of filmmaking, trafficking images and narratives outside the usual media circuits.
LEO GOLDSMITH is a writer, curator, and teacher based between Brooklyn and Amsterdam. He is the former film editor of the Brooklyn Rail.