Most film festivals are largely alike; Doclisboa—a well regarded non-fiction film festival in Lisbon, Portugal that just held its 16th edition—does things a little differently. Their focus this year, “Sailing the Euphrates,” for instance, followed a river rather than a specific style of film, country, or creator; whilst Luis Ospina—a revered filmmaker and cineaste in Colombia but hardly a household name in Europe—was chosen for the retrospective. In side-strands, attendees could see a new landscape film (Communion Los Angeles) paired with an old John Carpenter television special (The Gas Station); or films directed by French actor Jean-François Stévenin or by Spanish “anonymous-delirious collective” Terrorismo de Autor, to pick just a few varied examples. Eclecticism was the expectation then, and even the International Competition—a competitive, variable-length section consisting entirely of international and world premieres where traditionally more conventional, audience-friendly fare might be located—was, well, a little off-kilter.
Two of the most straightforward documentaries took long sidelong glances at the subject of war, one after the fact and one during the fray. Francisco Marise’s To War (2018) follows a veteran Cuban soldier as he searches forlornly, three decades after his service, for former comrades. Direct-to-camera interviews present his psychological pain more directly, but the sequences featuring him exaggeratedly re-staging “acts of war”—standing, skinny and shirtless, alone in forests and fields, waving a rifle about or pulling air punches—show the frail state of this trapped, tormented man most effectively.
The Pro-Russian battalion in Aliona Polunina’s compelling Donetsk People's Republic focused Their Own Republic (2018) is met with a different affliction: facing the perils of inactivity and uncertainty more than the burdens of active warfare. Featuring protracted observations of the soldier’s everyday, much of the film sees the battle-starved soldiers lounging around, watering plants, or playing chess, waiting “combat ready,” forever in anticipation of the event. Checkpoints are checked, soldiers report to superiors, and orders are given, but little changes as a result. Stuck in a vague battle governed by shifting dynamics they can’t quite comprehend, they remain in a sort of hinterland, the level of their allegiance to the separatist cause unclear. “This isn’t 2014, it’s 2017, but what difference does it make?” one says, defeated before he has even picked up his gun.
Another more unusual pair of films resembled traditional portraiture, but with skewed perspectives. Diego Governatori’s engaging, exhausting What Madness (2018) has the filmmaker attempting to construct a film about Aspergers in collaboration with his autistic friend Aurélien. “We lack a center” says Aurélien in the opening, “we can’t find direction.” Hyper-aware yet unable to cohere, Aurélien knows what he is feeling but not how to verbalise it, so Governatori uses a metaphor that is clumsy if potent. Placing Aurélien amidst Pamplona’s San Fermín Festival, Governatori visualises Aurélien’s sense of overstimulation and disarray as a psychological “running of the bulls,” having Aurélien orate his dislocation from within the chaos, mixing the sound high and cutting frenetically to fit. Even if words fail, images can be assembled.
Kim Namsuk’s 12 and 24 (2018) is more dialed down. A profile of rising Korean indie-musician Xin Seha, it resembles few other artist doc-biopics. It’s a remarkably rigorous portrait of performance consisting of a series of long-duration, fixed-perspective shots recorded entirely on square-format, early-digital video, in which narrative details about the artist emerge slowly and slyly, eked out as background details in menial observational material otherwise focused purely on his process. A central emotive thread, his mother’s worsening illness, arrives intermittently, revealed through confessional monologues placed pointedly against white screens. The remainder of the film’s austerity makes these moments, in a film with an already particularly severe sense of space and time, all the more powerful.
Two other portrait works selected could be considered ‘failed films’, projects where the filmmaker’s inability to achieve the planned project becomes part of the shape of the story. Yao-Tung Wu’s scrappy, slippery Goodnight and Goodbye (2018) sees him seek a reunion with a man he made a film (Swimming on the Highway (1998)) about twenty years prior. On this return visit, whatever rapport they may have had then is lost; their meeting is awkward and unfruitful. This frustrated filming is interrupted by a troubling event that instigates a new unplanned narrative, forcing Wu to put together pieces of the past to try to better understand his subject, their distance, himself, and his practice.
Ilan Serruya’s Reunion (2018) also involves a meeting, as the filmmaker is reunited with his estranged father, taking a trip with him to a remote island. Long takes in which the two men stare silently at each other are interrupted by shots of the surrounding scenery. After many minutes the father announces that he “messed it all up,” beginning a stunted yet cathartic confession about the source of their separation. It’s a tough watch, but the film’s resolution is more impactful due to its almost comically extended delay. “Anyway, now you know the door is open.”
Most satisfying were several films that experimented with the format of the landscape film. Amaranta Cesar’s beautiful, Bahia set short Mare (2018) matches its rhythm to fit the place it is set, lulling leisurely with the tides of the mangrove, whilst quietly, gently and effectively capturing the community living there. Similarly, Jeff Silva and Ramona Bădescu’s From the Land (2018) traces the architectural and physical contours of modern Marseille. The camera creatively spirals and zigzags along the lines of the land, whilst in the audio, speakers tell the haunted stories of its drastically different past—describing it as it was before radical redevelopment reshaped it beyond recognition.
Ian Soroka’s Greetings from Free Forests (2018) paints a vivid picture of the forests of southern Slovenia, where the landscape is alive with memory. Mixing new material recorded on a mixture of film formats with archival sources, the film’s attractively verdant visuals are layered with a variety of voices exploring the forest’s past and present, with particular focus on its role as a commune for partisans during WWII. The film moves discursively rather than didactically; offering a mixture of perspectives on the landscape’s past and present, rather than the single, authoritative essay voice that is common in similar films. “Nowhere else is quite like this,” one contributor says. Soroka’s film not only effectively conveys what makes this land such strange sanctuary, but also what makes landscape in general such a bountiful resource for non-fiction filmmakers. As the competition’s most interesting film—and maybe its most unclassifiable—it also displayed what was the main strength of Doclisboa’s programming in general: the ability to upend expectations.