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April 20–30, 2006

What exactly defines “indie cinema” these days? Its subject, its mode of production or of release, its format, its budget, some indefinable melding of all the above? We could hang around for ages trying to discern the finer points of the argument but I’m reasonably sure that the team behind IndieLisboa, Lisbon’s rapidly growing Independent Film Festival, have already done so at great length. That would explain why this year’s selection successfully navigated the dodgy traps of the “indie” definition, presenting an enthusiastic sampling of contemporary cinema from all over the world. And 28,000 people (the total attendance for the festival’s ten days of screenings) can’t be wrong — a drop in the ocean of Harry Potter’s box-office that may be, but there’s nothing “indie” about it. Only in its third edition but expanded to six screens (twice the number for the maiden edition), IndieLisboa has established itself as a local audience magnet, and also as a friendly, homegrown festival with that atmosphere of genuine love for cinema that you can only find in smaller festivals, run with the courtesy and professionalism you would expect from a more established event.

This wasn’t necessarily a given; the organisers were aware 2006 would be Indie’s decisive test, being the first edition with a proper one-year setup period, with a lot more films (almost 300 in all, shorts and feature-length) and more programs on offer. As usual, the competitive selection restricted itself to first- or second-time shorts and feature directors; helmers past their third film were showcased in the Observatory section, with the children’s section IndieJunior and the Director’s Cut sidebar of restored lost classics making welcome returns along with the Independent Hero retrospectives, this year honouring Michael Glawogger, Jay Rosenblatt, Nobuhiro Suwa and local director Edgar Pêra. Main additions for this year’s lineup were the Laboratory, aimed at presenting more challenging and experimental work, and IndieMusic, a selection of music documentaries. That Indie 2006’s ten days passed smoothly, successfully and without any major glitches, with over a third of the close to 200 screenings sold out, is a credit to the organisation.

The “indie” definition, then. It should reflect here some sort of will to escape the boundaries of “classic” filmmaking conventions and search for new ways to tell stories. Many of the films presented, whether in competition or in the main parallel sections, were shot mostly on the inexpensive digital video that has become the de rigueur format for startup filmmakers, and dealt with the progressive dilution of the borders between documentary and fiction to create a hybrid “something else”.

Cases in point: Canadian film critic Denis Côté’s debut Les États nordiques (Drifting States, in competition) is a fiction about a guilt-ridden man escaping his past in Montreal, wrapped around a documentary on the remote Quebec town he eventually ends up in and on the sense of community such isolation confers. It’s a brave and challenging, if flawed, attempt to film a documentary from the point of view of a fictional character; in its study of remote isolation it shares common traits with Hakan Sahin’s forgettable Snow, the other Canadian entry in the official competition, an opaque Lynchian knot about an oil worker’s day off in a remote Alberta small town.

British photographer Perry Ogden’s Irish entry Pavee Lackeen (The Traveller Girl, also in competition and predictable winner of the Amnesty International Human Rights Award) is a documentary-like fiction on the life of the marginalised Irish Traveller ethnic group, feeding on real episodes from its non-professional Traveller cast’s own life. But it begs the question: wouldn’t it have been equally affecting — and probably a lot more honest — to just do it as a real documentary? Or is Ogden just underlining that all documentary filmmaking, since it mediates reality through the camera eye and editing choices, is no more than reality-cautioned fiction?

That the questions are being raised at all is to be welcomed, and that there are yet no definite answers is to be expected. German director Valeska Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, in competition) and French veteran Alain Cavalier’s Le Filmeur (Laboratory) suggest different approaches. Le Filmeur follows ten years in Cavalier’s own life by editing together highlights from his self-filmed video journals — a combination of (s)elective memory and autobiography creating a loose narrative thread from real-life events, with a surreal, heightened-reality quality at work. Documentarian Grisebach’s debut feature-length fiction, highly praised at last February’s Berlinale, is an awkward attempt to use documentary tools to tell a fictional story — a provincial love triangle where the man loves both women equally and is unable to choose between them. The plot mirrors the film’s inability to choose between documentary and fiction, since Grisebach captures wonderfully the daily smalltown routines, but becomes cold and dull every time she moves to the fictional love story. It suggests that documentary and narrative fiction need a stronger directing hand to meld accurately.

The First on the Moon

That stronger hand could be found in Russian Alexei Fedorchenko, presenting the delightful The First on the Moon in the Laboratory section, and Romanian director Cristi Puiu, whose harrowing Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) was by far the best of the dozen films in competition. The First on the Moon is fiction passing itself off as documentary, going to great technical lengths to look like lost surveillance and news footage of a pioneering 1930s USSR manned space program; it is presented in the old square 1:33 aspect ratio, with the fake footage shot in b&w, aged and intercut with actual newsreel footage of the 1930s. Fedorchenko makes it work both as retro-futuristic nostalgia of an earlier, innocent vision of space conquest and as a cautionary tale of Orwellian revisionism, made twice as powerful by its clever usage of documentary conventions.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a fictional narrative shot in a fly-on-the-wall vérité style, in very long handheld takes that only heighten just how much documentary realism can heighten the power of good fiction. Ever since it won Un certain regard at Cannes last year, Puiu’s film (described in the press notes as inspired by ER and Eric Rohmer but looking more like an unholy alliance between Dogme-days Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh and Franz Kafka) has become the arthouse buzz foreign film of 2005. It’s a devastatingly bleak, quietly disturbing meditation on modern society, revolving around a dying pensioner being bounced around Bucharest’s hospital emergency rooms over one fateful night. I believe it deserved to win the festival’s Grand Prix for the best film in competition (more on that later), but it did receive a special mention from the jury (among which Sundance director John Cooper and Senses of Cinema’s very own Michelle Carey).

Curiously, the one film that hits the nail on the fiction/documentary connection was shot in 1969: Milton Moses Ginsberg’s recently rediscovered Coming Apart (presented in the Director’s Cut sidebar) had sunk without a trace upon original release but, seen today, is an eerily prescient forefather of reality TV. Ginsberg uses a hidden-camera device evidently indebted to Jim McBride’s revolutionary underground classic David Holzman’s Diary (1967) to ostensibly record the sexual encounters of a married New York psychiatrist but effectively charting his nervous breakdown. The film was carefully scripted to create a perfect illusion of cinéma-vérité, but it seems as if Ginsberg thought its Big Brother-like conceptual device was enough to sustain a narrative. It isn’t.

The Grand Prix went, ironically, to one of the most “classic” narratives in the selection, Chilean debutante Alicia Scherson’s charming not-quite-love story Play, a wistful comedy on modern loneliness making unlikely connections between a newly-separated, depressed architect and a lonely nurse who finds his stolen briefcase. Scherson, who also scripted, refuses to structure the film linearly and playfully twists the plot along the way, jumping back and forth in time until its two parallel storylines converge, making its female lead a curiously innocent and unmalicious stalker. Play shares the sweet, heartwarming quirkiness and candy-coloured wide-eyed optimism of Miranda July’s leftfield romantic comedy Me and You and Everyone We Know, the festival’s opening film, equally shot on brightly-hued digital; while July can’t resist a happy if offbeat ending to her unconventional comedy, the rather more sophisticated Play ends on a hopeful but ambiguously downbeat note.

Play’s endearing seduction easily outshined its fellow Chilean competition entry, Sebastián Campos’ La Sagrada Familia, where Dogme 95 meets a less brutal Lucrecia Martel over a Easter weekend. Campos charts the way the new, older girlfriend of a still naïf twentysomething plays the “agent provocateur” at a familial weekend retreat with his overbearing Catholic parents. Mostly improvised on location by a tight ensemble cast and shot in handheld DV, it’s an impressively accomplished debut with a bitter, somewhat misanthropic view of contemporary society. It’s baffling why La Sagrada Familia was so ardently disliked by critics and audiences, especially when compared against the better-received but much less interesting Asian entries.

Mang zhong (Grain in Ear), sophomore effort from Korean-Chinese novelist Zhang Lu, and Shinju Elegy (Double Suicide Elegy), Japanese director Toru Kamei’s first big-screen credit, share a common wry deadpan wit, all the best to face the quiet, desperate tragedy at the heart of their plots. But Double Suicide Elegy, a suburban adultery seen from the overlapping points of view of the two couples involved, would be non-existant without its elaborate Rashomon-style framing device; and Grain in Ear (winner of the FIPRESCI award), the tale of the growing humiliation of a long-suffering Korean Chinese single mother, loses itself in static formalism.

Formalism is also the problem of Czech debutante Maria Prochazkova’s Zralok v hlav (Shark in the Head), about the hallucinations of a schizoid pensioner waiting to be taken to a retirement home; it’s a breathtakingly shot moodpiece, proving the director as an undeniable visual talent, but it offers no discernible reason why it should be a feature rather than a short. The only US competitive entry, Andrew Bujalski’s no-budget b&w comedy Mutual Appreciation, was also appreciated well above its merits; it’s an amateurish jumble of film-buff references (Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Hal Hartley among others) whose on and off charms fail to sustain a two-hour running time.

Slightly Smaller than Indiana

However, look no further than the single homegrown competition entry for the festival’s cause célèbre. Portuguese photographer Daniel Blaufuks’ feature debut Um pouco mais pequeno que o Indiana (Slightly Smaller than Indiana) packed both its screenings and was the talk of the town for days after its cool, baffled reception, something that seemed to please the director. In interviews, Blaufuks said his road-movie — a documentary collage of period and contemporary footage in search of a national identity that may have never existed, hung together by a stilted narration and a wondrously evocative instrumental score — was not so much a documentary as a “commentary” on the state of the nation, and, as such, meant to open a debate. It did, but mostly over the film’s misanthropic, navel-gazing, self-fulfillingly prophetic mood; though not without its merits, it is an intriguing, half-baked objet d’art that would have probably made quite a good short but gets lost in feature length.

Slightly Smaller than Indiana was one of four Portuguese films presented in the festival, scattered among the various sections and competing for the prize of Best Portuguese Film. It was the biggest local presence so far, though still a sadly unrepresentative one: the absence of a local film industry and the consequently small amount of films produced each year, along with the fact that better-known directors prefer to hold out for a selection in top-league fests such as Cannes or Venice, have meant that Indie hasn’t been able so far to be an ideal showcase for local cinema. Three of this year’s entries were documentaries; two of them (Slightly Smaller than Indiana and Catarina Mourão’s À Flor da Pele, which unfortunately I didn’t get to see) are unlikely to see commercial release any time soon. And Serge Tréfaut’s 2004 documentary Lisboetas, winner of the Best Portuguese Film prize in Indie’s maiden edition, has opened in theatres only last month (although it has proved an unexpected hit).

It’s not Indie’s problem alone; the Coimbra-based Caminhos do Cinema Português festival, a yearly confidential event that took place the exact same week as Indie, simply showed last year’s bumper crop of releases. This included two well-received mainstream debut features, Marco Martins’ low-key Alice and Tiago Guedes and Frederico Serra’s Shyamalanesque thriller Coisa Ruim; João Pedro Rodrigues’ controversial follow-up to O Fantasma, Odete; and new work from veterans Manoel de Oliveira and João Botelho. Indie organisers tried to show some of these and more in the first edition of the professional-only Lisbon Screenings sidebar, aimed at showing festival programmers and sales agents more than the usual run of festival-oriented auteurs (Paulo Branco’s productions, among which Alice and Coisa Ruim, were conspicuous for their absence, since the well-connected producer runs his own foreign sales out of Paris). But it’s unlikely even the festival’s heightened profile this year will convince local producers to premiere their films at what is still an essentially local event, when they can hold out for bigger paydays: as if to prove this, Pedro Costa’s Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth) and Teresa Villaverde’s Transe will be premiering at Cannes, in the official selection and Quinzaine des Réalisateurs respectively.

So it’s sadly ironic that the bland, anonymous race-issue period melodrama Pele, third feature from TV director Fernando Vendrell (producer of Zeze Gamboa’s Sundance winner O Herói), was the sole representative of local fiction in the festival. It’s a well-meaning but dramatically banal mainstream film that never rises above TV movie level, wasting an interesting premise and a period setting (the fascist regime of the 1970s) that Portuguese cinema has studiously avoided.

Perpetual Movements

If anything, Indie’s Portuguese entries have underlined arthouse as the preferred way forward for local directors, whether by accident or by design. A storyteller frustrated at only having had the chance to direct two fiction features in the past 20 years (though currently finishing a third), Edgar Pêra became an auteur by accident, since the difficulties in getting films made in Portugal put him on a mostly self-financed, DIY path that strongly informed his filmmaking style. Pêra is the first Portuguese filmmaker honoured by IndieLisboa in the Independent Hero retrospective section, by presenting a selection of his lengthy, idiossyncratic body of work and premiering his latest film, Movimentos Perpétuos (Perpetual Movements), a tribute documentary to the late Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes.

Pêra’s 20-year oeuvre has always been articulated in a breathless experimental homemade visual grammar that takes in multiple film stocks from super-8 to digital video, audiovisual manipulation and crude animation, revelling in a lovingly obsessive handcrafting of its most minute formal elements while avoiding any sort of conventional linearity. Movimentos Perpétuos is probably the best possible introduction to his work, coupling a more accessible narrative momentum than is usual for him with a streamlining of his fragmented aesthetics, revealing as much about its subject as about its director. Since Pêra follows an obsessive compulsion to filmmaking similar to Paredes’ perfectionist, obsessive approach to composing and performing, it is no wonder that the film (a composite of period footage, documentary interviews and audiovisual illustration, connected by a voiceover by the late guitarist himself, cobbled together from various sources), succeeds as a singularly human portrait of the musician as well as of the director, who seem to share a resilience, stubbornness and independent spirit much needed by any artist working in Portugal. Justly awarded the Best Portuguese Film prize by the jury, it also went on to win, rather surprisingly, the Audience Award; its general release, only two weeks after the festival’s conclusion, will be the first serious litmus test of Indie’s ability to influence a film’s theatrical career.

Le Temps qui reste

That is why local distributors are rushing to open some of the festival’s premieres, among them two standouts that will certainly show in the year-end best-of lists. French director François Ozon’s luminous, heartbreaking melodrama Le Temps qui reste (Time to Leave) is, hands down, one of the year’s most magnificent films, a restrained yet lyrical masterpiece about a fashion photographer who learns he is terminally ill with cancer and, with only three months to live, decides to keep it a secret from everyone. Ozon’s usually clinical, distant style is better suited to the film’s stubbornly unsentimental approach than to some of his previous work, while managing to wring every single drop of emotion out of Melvil Poupaud’s inhabited performance. A close contender was Abel Ferrara’s Mary, a passionate, intriguing labour of love the American renegade director made with French and Italian financing, tackling head-on contemporary religious controversies. The story of a talk show host who undergoes a spiritual crisis and finds a kindred spirit in an actress who gave up her career to wander the Holy Land in search of the divine inside herself, it is a film as maladroit and uneven as it is powerful and poignant; a provocative meditation on faith and spirituality in a seemingly lawless world, carried by the riveting performances of Juliette Binoche and Forest Whitaker.

That IndieLisboa’s 2006 edition screened these — along with other films such as John Hillcoat’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, the new cut of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Dave McKean’s lavish fantasy MirrorMask — is a welcoming sign that Lisbon’s Independent Film Festival is being taken as seriously as it should and wants to be. And that it is well on its way to becoming a regular mark on the calendar of discerning filmgoers, Portuguese or otherwise.