Blue Karma Tiger

7-15 July 2007

Vila do Conde is a friendly beach town near Oporto, the second largest city in Portugal. Every July since 1993, it hosts one of the most relevant Portuguese film festivals dedicated to short films, the Curtas Vila do Conde. This relevance can be extended to a European context, attested by the UIP/European Film Academy prize that chooses at Vila do Conde a candidate for the European Film Awards. Curtas is now 15 years old, a beautiful and tender age in a country where cinema is somewhat difficult to make.

The main sections of the festival have always been the international and national competitions, bringing to Portugal some of the best international shorts made in the past year. Now, however, Curtas isn’t just a film festival: it has gradually fashioned itself into a visual arts festival. In recent editions the Curtas Metragens CRL organisation expanded the festival with several extra sections, the most important of which are Work In Progress, In Focus, Take One and Remixed. In accordance with these sections Curtas created a cinematic art gallery, Solar, that remains open all year round, effectively expanding the duration of the festival. Solar is concerned with contemporary artistic practice related to cinema, such as installations or short-film exhibitions employing multi-projection or a combination of media, and engaging with concerns of spatiality, etc.

In these alternative sections there’s also place for Film Concerts (with local bands performing before a live film), Masterclasses (with invited directors whose work is having a retrospective at the festival or whose work is present in the competitions) and Workshops. They turn the festival into an exceptional meeting place for filmmakers, critics and enthusiasts, where one can immerse oneself in theoretical inquiries, endless screenings or just plain fun. Directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hou Hsiao-hsien (2006), Luc Moullet (2004), Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Mike Hoolboom (2003), and Roy Andersson and Dominique Gonzalez-Foester (2002) have marked the festival with their presence in recent years. Others, like Manoel de Oliveira, Artavazd Pelechian, Gus Van Sant, Matthias Müller, Peter Greenaway and Alexander Sokurov, are well known names that visited or had their work in Vila do Conde since 1993.

This year, a significant event was the premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof in Portugal, as it inspired an associated program – Highway to Hell: Sex, Drugs & Grindhouse. These screenings benefited from the presence of curator Jack Stevenson and comprised of several works made for the grindhouse theatres, such as Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974) or Savage Streets (Danny Steinmann, 1984), works of 1970s Scandinavian sex cinema, or works that underscore the relationship between drugs and cinema. In the In Focus section, a retrospective of David Lynch’s shorts and Peter Whitehead’s work, alongside Anna Sanders’ productions, proved to be another discovery, since these works were virtually unknown in Portugal.

At Sea

Along with a retrospective of his work, American filmmaker Peter Hutton conducted a Masterclass where he discussed his working method with the audience. He spoke about the influence on his films of his days as a merchant seaman (in order to pay for college). This was a time where he learned two fundamental skills: the use of the eyes and the love of silence. Hutton screened his latest film, At Sea, which is about the life cycle of merchant ships from the beginning to ship breaking. The film, at time of screening still a work-in-progress, evokes beautifully the director’s idea of constructing an intimate relationship with the image and creating an alternate state of consciousness – that Hutton, with some amusement, described as somewhere between hypnosis and sleep. With many minutes to contemplate each shot, the viewer is indeed held in the suspense of slow, subtle shifts of in-frame movement and light.

Under Hitchcock was another interesting section, featuring a panel discussion, two screening sessions and an exhibition in Solar that underscored the influence of the British director and the rapport between contemporary art, cinema and collective imagery. Several works presented at Solar were specially commissioned for the event, among which was Johan Grimonpez’s Looking for Alfred, in which a bewildering series of Hitchcock look-alikes move in and out of character, chasing each other’s steps, surrounded by the very objects Hitchcock’s films turned into icons (bowler hat, umbrella, stuffed birds, etc.). Another example is Imaginary Film Set #5, by Carlos Lobo, where a light box suspended from a tubular structure presents the viewer with a fixed image, effectively creating the feeling of a movie screen. This image is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s shot from Psycho (1960) where the sinister house at the top of the hill can be seen. It’s this double reading of the cinematic frame and double reading of the image that is the foundation of this piece.

Psychedelic Liquid Videos and Electronic Graffiti were Workshops revolving around the theme of lighting. The first, under the guidance of Laurent Simões, was inspired by the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s and was engaged with the manipulation of materials using completely manual processes. The second, led by André Rangel and involving the graphic modular programming language of Max Msp/Jitter, explored recent technological developments and the increasingly available electronic resources which produce new forms of graffiti.

Expectations are always high at Vila do Conde on the national competition front. This is, after all, an annual meeting for several directors and their films and a measure of the quality of the Portuguese short films in a given year. In short, everyone wants to be there. In recent years, registrations have increased significantly and for 2007 the festival received around 2000 candidates to the national competition. Twelve made it to the final selection to be judged by jury and audience.

Because of this scrutiny, Curtas has managed to single out certain tendencies in Portuguese short film over the years. The well-known national film critic, Augusto M. Seabra, named the 1990s generation represented at the festival as Geração Curtas (The Shorts Generation). With some great shorts and directors, this generation created a very similar mood to internationally known Portuguese filmmakers such as Pedro Costa or Teresa Villaverde. Pedro Caldas, Sandro Aguilar, João Pedro Rodrigues, Miguel Gomes, Jorge Cramez, Inês Oliveira and João Figueiras proved that the short format isn’t just a step to feature filmmaking but a genre in its own right, with its own codes and style of narrative. For this year’s edition, some of these directors came back with their brand new shorts.

The prize for best Portuguese film was given to Europa 2007, directed by Pedro Caldas. As the title indicates, it’s a film well connected to the present, a journey that could take place anywhere in Europe: two men drive a van where they keep a black woman imprisoned. This is a woman who is being forced into prostitution. The narrative is elliptical and fragmented, allowing feeling, rather than understanding, to seep through. It’s certainly a short film indebted to the cinema of Pedro Costa.

China, China, directed by João Pedro Rodrigues (who has two internationally acclaimed features: O Fantasma and Odete), is the story of a Chinese family living in Lisbon, with emphasis on the young mother. She is a dreamer, not particularly happy with her family role, her husband and child. The film observes a new Lisbon and maintains the perspective of its main character. With a completely different tone, José Maria Vaz da Silva’s Sereia (Mermaid) concerns the adventures of an old sailor, now living in the backstage of a theatre. An example of classical film, the static plans and the prominence of the dialogue reminds one of Manoel de Oliveira. Indeed, Vaz da Silva was Oliveira’s assistant director throughout the 1990s.

Of the 1990s generation, Sandro Aguilar has steadily created a complex body of work with some great shorts such as Sem Movimento (Without Movement, 2000) and Corpo e Meio (A Body and Half, 2003). With such a illustrious background, this year’s Arquivo (Archive) was a bitter disappointment. The film seems lacking in purpose and goes dramatically wrong when Aguilar decides to film the slow death of a fish by asphyxiation. It’s a three-minute long shot and the film ends with an off joke as the end credits feature a statement of non-cruelty to animals during production. It feels rather distasteful and the anti-realistic look just doesn’t fit in with Aguilar’s work at Vila do Conde hitherto. A question remains: where does he want to go from here?

Gonçalo Galvão Teles’s Antes de Amanhã (Before Tomorrow) is set on 24th April 1974, the last day of dictatorship in Portugal. The narrative follows a young man who has an appointment to help him to flee the country on the 25th and is on the run from the political police (the Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado). In Jeanne Waltz’s Agora Tu (Handing Over), a young married couple want to buy a summer house. Its owner reluctantly opens up the house for the prospective buyers. His family memories are there, in every corner. Exposing the passing of time, this short concentrates on this duality of feelings, between expectation and longing, the present and the past, happiness and sorrow.

Finally, some words on the experimental film Lost in Art – Looking for Wittgenstein, by Luís Alves de Matos and João Louro. Mixing assorted images of airports, highways and traffic with Wittgenstein’s discourse, this short searches for a middle ground between art as “political decoration” and “a conversation between illuminated people” (directors’ statements, quoted from the festival catalogue). For us, this was the only experimental Portuguese film deserving such classification. In conclusion, with the comeback of the Shorts Generation, this year’s national competition wasn’t so much about the discovery a new talent. Maybe Vila do Conde is still looking for a new breath of fresh air, just like the one these directors gave it in the late 1990s.

Nymph

On the international competition front the level of cinematic quality was high. Ken Jacobs, Erik Nelson and Flo Jacobs (USA) made use of two stereographs from the turn of the twentieth-century in Nymph and Capitalism: Child Labor. The first depicts a crowd of men around a beautiful woman, and the latter is a Keystone and Underwood image of children working in a factory. Both rely on a play between two- and three-dimensional space that is also a play between celluloid and digital manipulation. But most of all they rely on a play between what is shown and what is hidden in the image on the screen. Nymph examines the objectification of women’s bodies and Capitalism about the simultaneous process of recording and forgetting the role of child labour in western society. In the festival catalogue, the filmmakers said of the films, “Evident truths may seem nearly subliminal when hidden in plain view…”. Both works were given the Grand Prize Vila do Conde.

In Light Work I, Jennifer Reeves (USA) demonstrates that film is a tactile medium, that it can be assembled with the hands, as here the filmmaker uses melted down pharmaceuticals affixed directly to the film. She further shows that HD abstractions don’t detract from this tactility. Looking at Reeves’ work one is drawn to a world where scale is completely different, it is the scale of the imprinted object that rules in order to perceive the complex texture of the film. On the other hand, this scale inhibits identification with the objects so that pharmaceuticals, symbols of science and industry are difficult to distinguish. Instead they become vibrant rhythmic forms that feel almost organic.

Plot Point, a world premiere from Nicolas Provost (Belgium), deals with the American cop land with its howling police cars, uniforms, ambulances and crowded streets, turning it into an almost abstract filmic scenery that questions not only the boundaries of reality and fiction, but also those of the narrative codes of cinema – tension, curve, climax, plot point. Awarded with the UIP Prize, this film will soon be competing for Best European Short. Another premiere from Provost, Gravity, shakes up the reassuring world of the cinematographic kiss. Multiplied, subjected to a stroboscopic effect that plunges and loses us in the dizzying vertigo of the embrace, the kiss is now a battle. Who is desiring? Who is desired? It’s such a jolt to see a classically heterosexual male icon such as Cary Grant kissing himself.

The Turkish director Nesimi Yetik presented his ironic documentary Annem Sinema Ogreniyop (My Mother Learns Cinema) at the festival. The premise was a simple question: “how can a young Turkish director bring home to his old-fashioned mother the significance of the great names of cinema history?”. Apparently, by teaching her how to pronounce their names: “Rainer”, “Werner”, “Fassbinder”, “Jean”, “Luc”, “Godard”… Before long, however, it’s his mother who turns out to be the real film buff in this amusing short awarded the Experimental Prize. A wholly different kind of documentary in its aesthetics was Blue Karma Tiger, a Swedish animation directed by Mia Hulterstarm and Cecilia Actis. It’s a colourful documentary about graffiti in which three spray-painters who leave their marks on walls, tunnels and trains voice their reasons and inhabit the bodies made for them by the two directors. Blue, Karma and Tiger are unmasked painting girls who tell us why they do it so convincingly the short was awarded best animation.

Coming from nearby Spain, Jorge Tur Moltó presented De Funció (The Last Performance), awarded best documentary. Filmed in a funeral parlour, it depicts the daily routine of dealing with death in the back room as a kind of performance is prepared for the representation of the funeral ceremony – on stage. Dealing with another kind of hidden evidence, in Amin, David Dusa (France) tells the story a sensitive kid of Arab descent discovering about injustice, not just between authorities and individuals but also between father and son. The short is creatively shot and intended as the forerunner of a longer project the director spoke about in the screening session.

Compilation: 12 Instants d’amour partagés (Compilation: 12 Moments of Unshared Love) was Frank Beauvais’ contribution to the eroding of fiction’s foundations. A series of twelve tableaux of a young man listening to different types of music and showing in close-up his reactions to it, Compilation makes its point by the director’s statement: “Last June I met Arno, a 20 year-old boy. I fell in love with him. He didn’t. To be sure I’d see him again I asked him to take part in a project. All summer long, everyday from June 21st to September 21st, I asked him to come to my place to listen to music. This music was to become the sole form of dialogue between us two…”. The film was given the Fiction Prize.

The Bohemian Rhapsody Project

Daughters arrived from Malaysia by the hand of Liew Seng Tat. Daughters get around in the world in their little vespas, wearing their colourful long dresses and covering their heads with their scarves. Apparently, what they can’t cover successfully is their own hearts, broken again and again in the process of love. Then, someday, “they become the mothers of your children”. But daughters are not alone in this ironic world. Tzu Nyen Ho, from Singapore, tells us about justice and injustice in The Bohemian Rhapsody Project. Shot almost entirely inside a courtroom, the film is based on Queen’s 1975 hit “Bohemian Rhapsody”, voicing the will of survival with operatic-rock lyrics and harmony. The final result comes from editing over two months selected excerpts of the auditions held for the role of the film’s own protagonist. Sam Morrison (UK) gives yet another take on the dwellings of the world in Rocket Science, a clever animation in which captain Jack Hersey embodies all stereotypes of the male white cop in a whodunnit. As the story goes: “A local hood burnt beyond recognition. An unexplained crater out on the flats. Power draining from all the car batteries. And a scientist asking police captain Jack Hersey a load of awkward questions. How will they make sense of the labyrinthian complexities with the city’s safety at stake?”. It’s a given the scientist is a female.

At the end of the Curtas Vila do Conde festival what emerges from all the materials is the blurring of boundaries (of genres, media, etc.), to which the awarded films are one prime example: My Mother Learns Cinema, awarded best prize experimental, is a documentary; Blue Karma Tiger, awarded best prize animation, is also a documentary; Compilation: 12 Moments of Unshared Love, awarded best prize fiction, is not based on narrative evolution but on an external premise, making us wonder what is narrative, what is reality and what is fiction; in these questions it’s joined by Plot Point, an experimental work and UIP Prize – best European short film. Also working within this blurred line were the curators of Under Hitchcock, questioning the links between cinema and the visual arts – where does one end and another begin, under the aegis of the iconic British director. In effect, since the Under Hitchcock program includes both cinema sessions and installations, it configures these same doubts. Curtas is on the search for some sense in the contemporary panorama: grounded in the present it’s a fundamental place for distribution and exhibition and, of course, it’s always a place to work out if we’re going on an extended blurred trip or if we’re marking lines again.

Vila do Conde Short Film Festival website: http://www.curtas.pt

About The Author

Daniel Ribas is a scriptwriter and regular contributor to the Portuguese newspaper O Primeiro de Janeiro. He is preparing his PhD thesis on the Portuguese filmmaker João Canijo.

Bárbara Barroso is a higher education teacher at the Technical University of Bragança, Portugal, and a PhD student at the School of Fine Arts of Vigo, Spain.