Profit motive and the whispering wind

24 April – 4 May 2008

Rather appropriate that a festival run by three directors should have three names. Officially, it’s the Festival Internacional de Cinema Independente. For short, IndieLisboa. Among organisers and attendees, that tends in practice to get shortened just to Indie – Portuguese-speakers being, in sport (Pele, Eusebio, Ronaldinho) and in life (Lula), famously and irresistibly fond of nicknames. For the purposes of this article – an overview of the 5th edition, which ran from April 24th to May 4th, 2008 – we shall abbreviate even further, simply to IL.

Admittedly, those initials have a slightly more clinical feel than Indie, which is a nickname of the chummy, cosy sort – and thus perfect for the kind of atmosphere which the ruling triumvirate (in alphabetical order, Rui Pereira, Nuno Sena and Miguel Valverde) have always tried to create and sustain, with considerable success. Set up in the hope of giving Portugal the internationally renowned film festival that its contribution to the medium – past and present – deserves, IL has grown quickly over its five editions to the point where it’s the nation’s best-attended event of its type, and a potent addition to the European “circuit”.

Crucially, the festival seeks to celebrate and promote non-mainstream work: this is, mercifully, no kind of “red carpet” event, its adventurous programming (which could do with a greater emphasis on pre-1990 titles) placing it in the tradition of, say, Vienna and Rotterdam rather than Berlin or San Sebastian. The “indie” tag is, therefore, something of a mixed blessing: in the USA and UK, “indie cinema” has of course become, over the last couple of decades, something of a genre in its own right, quite distinct from what one might term genuinely “independent”, transgressive, challenging or cutting-edge work, and often (lavishly) funded and/or distributed by “specialty” wings of major studios.

Crash, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno are thus “indie” films – a world away from the nation’s explicitly political, uncompromised provocations of, for example, James Benning (casting a glance), Travis Wilkerson (Who Killed Cock Robin?) and Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), just to pick out three of my own personal favourites. IL tends, commendably, towards the latter end of the spectrum: most gloriously this year, via John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind.

It represents and epitomises a “high-concept” sort of non-fiction filmmaking that, in lesser hands, might have ended up as a rather off-puttingly pious conceit. Taking a leaf from Benning’s “still-shots” playbook, and mining a similar kind of agit-prop seam to Wilkerson – who’s been a Visiting Artist at Benning’s stamping-ground, CalArts – goes on a journey around America, training his (almost entirely static) camera on historical monuments and gravestones which relate – sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly, and in strict chronological order – pretty much the entire history of the country’s injustices and political strife, and the valiant resistance of the oppressed.

“Don’t iron while the strike is hot,” wittily conjoins one memorial, rousing housewives into action. Another informs us “It takes too much energy not to care.” From the 1880s, we’re invited to recall the “struggle for the eight-hour day” which remains sadly topical 120+ years on. The 1891 Morewood Massacre reminds us of the bloodshed involved in strikebreaking. The tombs of Frederick Douglass and Susan B Anthony are shown, without explanation or comment. Harriet Tubman Davis is commemorated as the “Moses of her people.” An inscription prophetically warns that “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today”, while another posits that “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.”

On one level an elegy for America’s left – many of whose members evidently died violent and/or premature deaths – Profit motive and the whispering wind is also an inspirational record of achievement, piecing together the efforts of individuals and groups into a single, radical continuum – which the documentary itself, by implication, seeks to uphold and, indeed, expand. Although one of the most hushed and calm films you’ll ever see, it’s also one which speaks in the loudest and clearest of voices – a lest-we-forget meditation which also acts as a rousing call to arms.

It’s emphatically my pick as the finest single work on view at IndieLisboa 2008 – among the non-competing titles, my other standouts would be Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, Ulrich Seidl’s Import Export, Grant Gee’s Joy Division and Kriv Stenders’ Boxing Day. Of that quartet, Ferrara and Seidl’s films have been much-chronicled since premiering at Cannes last year – and all I have to add is a paraphrase of Kenneth Tynan’s comment about Don’t Look Back In Anger, namely that I don’t think I could ever love anyone who didn’t at least like Ferrara’s exhilaratingly wayward brand of joie de vivre. The achievements of Gee and Stenders, however, have yet to receive the recognition they deserve, and so, before moving on to the competition entrants, I’ll devote a quick word or two to each here.

There have been several “one shot” films before – movies apparently consisting of a single, extended, “real-time” take – but seldom, if ever, can this particular device have been put to better use than in the remarkable character-study-cum-dysfunctional-family-drama Boxing Day. On one level, the picture (reportedly made for only AU$175,000) is something of a technical marvel: there are 12 cuts in the picture, but only the most eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot a single one of them. Most of the time, however, you’ll be too engrossed to even notice.

The plot treads what seems to be rather familiar turf, but manages to make potentially hackneyed material fresh and surprising. A grizzled ex-con and recovering alcoholic, forty-something Chris (Richard Green) is trying to lead a quiet life in a sleepy Adelaide suburb – but his resolve is tested when old partner-in-crime Owen (Stuart Clark) turns up, asking him to hide a stash of drugs. In the middle of the ensuing argument, what’s left of Chris’ broken family – his ex-girlfriend, her current boyfriend and her daughter – arrive for a post-Christmas visit. Violent complications rapidly ensue…

Stenders wrote the pared-down script with Green, whose nuanced, painfully vulnerable work provides the rock-solid foundation upon which the film is constructed. He’s seldom off screen from start to finish, his every step, indoors and outdoors, accompanied by the relentless scrutiny of Stenders’ claustrophobically intense camerawork. The result: an admirably tough, unsentimental, no-nonsense little picture, which for me ranks alongside Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, Cate Shortland’s Somersault, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Rowan Woods’ The Boys among Australia’s finest exports over the past decade.

Joy Division

While Gee’s Joy Division falls (perhaps inevitably) short of last year’s big film about the band, Anton Corbijn’s shattering minor-masterpiece Control, it’s still an emphatically superior example of the music-documentary form. Joy Division will likely to prove informative, absorbing and worthwhile even for those indifferent to the cultishly downbeat band – which, following Curtis’ suicide, became global bestsellers New Order.

“Indifference” is on very short supply, however, in the film itself – and it’s testament to the skill of Gee and his key collaborator, editor Jerry Chater (who consistently works rough-edged wonders with a dizzying variety of extant footage), that the overall tone is one of heartfelt tribute rather than hagiography. A major help in this regard is the way Joy Division (like Control) finds flinty humour in what’s essentially grim material, and carefully avoids being just another telling of the “Ian Curtis Story” – indeed, Gee is at pains to examine the band as a whole, within their geographical and industrial context.

IndieLisboa is nothing if not a broad church – allowing attendees to experience the likes of Profit motive and Boxing Day alongside some of the relatively more expensive, elaborate fare to be found in the world’s high-end arthouses: this year’s opening film was Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, while the main individual-focussed retrospective was devoted to Johnnie To, the vast majority of whose career has been spent within the confines of commercial Hong Kong cinema.

In terms of filmmaking, “independence” is a word of quicksilver elusiveness – very much in the eye of the beholder: one can validly describe James Benning and George Lucas (who could, if he wished, mount a sci-fi-inflected, megabucks, 20-hour remake of Lav Diaz’s Jeremias) as “independent”, and indeed the more one tries to pin down the term, the more unhelpful and diffuse it becomes. In the end, festivals like IL become de facto workingdefinitions of independence: satisfy the tough criteria of the gatekeeping triumvirate, and you’re in.

The official mission-statement aim is “to discover new films and new directors” in what it calls “the universe of independent cinema.” And, just like the real universe, independent cinema is a dizzyingly vast, rather amorphous and controversial space – one which contains all manner of planets, comets and assorted heavenly and not-so-heavenly bodies… plus numerous deadly zones of negative energy.

Navigating this microcosmos: not only lisboetos and lisboetas (a hefty 35,000+ tickets sold this year) but also to an assortment of international press, programmers, guests and jury-members. Among the latter: myself, on my second consecutive visit to IL, serving on the International Competition Jury alongside Catherine Bizern (artistic director of the Belfort International Film Festival in France), Charlotte Garson (Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris), Daniel Blaufuks (award-winning Portuguese photographer and filmmaker) and Jody Shapiro (Canadian producer, filmmaker and photographer, best known for his work with Guy Maddin).

Our jury-duties involved watching a total of 16 films: 12 in the international competition, five in the national competition – with one title, Sandro Aguilar’s Uprise (A zona) common to both. In our gift: the Feature Film Grand Prize, “City of Lisbon” (€15,000); a Special Mention (no cash) and the TOBIS Award for Best Portuguese Feature Film (€5,000). In addition, another, slightly more nebulous prize, the Distribution Award, comprising €2,500 to encourage a local distributor to take a chance on one of the 16 films – the euros to be spent on promotional activities.

The 12 films competing for the €15,000 main prize were all by first- and second-time directors, although the selectors “bent” the rules to accommodate Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man – reckoning one of this two previous efforts (2003’s Nobody Needs To Know and 2005’s The GoodTimesKid) more of an “experimental” work than a “feature” as such. This first/second distinction is very common among European film festivals’ competitive sections, and I have never been able to work out why. It’s not as if there is a shortage of film, or of filmmakers at the moment: the current system makes it relatively straightforward to get a debut film made and shown; not difficult for a second work. After that, however, things become much tougher – presumably the reckoning being that, by the time a director is onto his or her third movie, his or her merits have become pretty well-established (a nice theory, unfortunately not borne out by the countless examples of major filmmakers who took several steps before they really hit their stride.)

In evaluating the 12 films in the international competition, my guiding principle was this: if only one of these filmmakers were to get the chance to make another film, which one should it be? From my perspective, the films fall into three categories. There are those whose merits I can discern, but which ultimately left me cold: the solipsistic Momma’s Man (which nevertheless won the Distribution prize), Pere Vila’s mannered Railroad Crossing (Pas a nivell), Alexander Voulgaris’ uneven Pink (Roz) and Aguilar’s Uprise. Then there were the slightly more successful films which justified their presence in competition, but for me didn’t do enough to make them worthy of prize consideration: Pablo Fendrik’s tense, terse The Mugger (El asaltante); Thanos Anastopoulos’ engrossingly grim Correction (Diorthosi), nicely-observed family-documentaries The Flower Bridge (Podul de flori; by Thomas Ciulei) and The Mother (La Mère; Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov), Serge Bozon’s quirky La France and Wonderful Town by Aditya Assarat.

The latter was a particular favourite among my fellow judges, with myself the sole hold-out. A slow-burning, ill-fated romance unfolding in a coastal Thai area devastated by the Christmas tsunami, it’s the debut feature by a writer-director, born in Thailand in 1972 but who went to the USA at 15 and whose previous output consists of a handful of shorts and the concert documentary Pru Raw Velvet.

Wonderful Town

Wonderful Town, which won one of the three Tiger Awards at Rotterdam earlier this year, is most successful as an evocation of particular moods and atmospheres, providing a claustrophobic setting (“mountains on one side, sea on the other… feel trapped sometimes”) for the tentative courtship of city-educated hotel-worker Wit (Anchalee Saisoontorn) and Ton (Supphasit Kansen), a guest who’s working on the reconstruction of a nearby village.

Umpornpol Yugala’s camera glides ominously around the slightly-dilapidated hotel, while Akritchalem Kalayanamitr’s soundscapes are a wonder of tidal rumblings, distant bells, industrial thrumming, incessant insect-chitter. Zai Kuning and Koichi Shimizu contribute a string-heavy score that’s deployed to judicious effect, these various elements skilfully choreographed by Assarat in a manner which suggests he’s very much a name to watch among the younger generation of East Asian filmmakers – although hopefully his future works will make more of a break from the kind of aesthetic so profitably explored in recent years by his much-lauded countryman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (no surprise to learn that the latter’s editor Lee Chatametikool fulfils cutting duties here).

And Assarat is still some way from the finished article on the scriptwriting front. We’re encouraged to root for Wit and Ton as they establish an easy-going, unforced kind of intimacy – and to disapprove of the suspicions of Wit’s no-good-nik brother (Dul Yaambunying), who has an instinctive mistrust of the newcomer. Rather frustrating, then, that the final reel explicitly endorses the brother’s narrow-minded prejudices via a revelation regarding Ton’s private life back in Bangkok. As well as unhelpfully eroding out sympathies for Ton at a crucial stage, this “twist” sets up an incongruously violent and melodramatic climax which allows Assarat to fade out on a note of rather cheap ironic pessimism.

For all its merits – and at times it achieves a sublime kind of “sensurround” effect – Wonderful Town is archetypal of a wider problem afflicting much of world cinema, especially when it comes to young/youngish filmmakers. I see countless examples of writer-directors whose skills as directors far outstrip their abilities as writers – a symptom, perhaps, of the priorities of film schools around the globe. The dramaturgical aspects of cinema often seem a long way down the list of priorities, and it’s distressing how many supposedly serious and/or highbrow films are undermined by their screenplays’ reliance on absurd coincidence(s) – though as long as contraptions such as Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven receive “official” and specific recognition for their scripts (Akin won Best Screenplay at Cannes last year), then this pernicious malady seems set to flourish even further.

One film which skirts this kind of danger – but carefully and nimbly avoids it ­– is the film which I would have named as the IndieLisboa prize-winner for 2008. It’s Night Train (Ye Che) by Diao Yinan, born in Xi’an in 1969 and previously responsible for 2003’s Uniform (Zhifu), a moderately promising debut. This “sophomore” effort, however, confirms him as one of the more talented in a particularly large crop of young and Chinese directors – a personal selection from which would include Li Yang (Blind Mountain), Ying Liang (The Other Half and Taking Father Home) and Peng Tao (Little Moth).

The majority of these filmmakers operate “underground”, i.e. they choosing not to run their work past the state’s censorship bodies. The chief consequence of this is that their movies can’t be shown within China itself, but instead obtain exhibition – and, in many instances, considerable acclaim – on the global film festival circuit.

Night Train was made with financial help from France and the USA, and while its budget can’t have been more than modest, the results (shot by cinematographer Jingsong Dong, whose sole previous credit is Uniform) look at least as impressive as many expensive productions from Hollywood or European studios. Not that the visuals could ever be described as picturesque or pretty: the action is set in particularly grim and grimy corners of western, heavily-industrial China.

Night Train

This is the suitably dour backdrop for the unsentimental tale of Wu (Dan Liu), a woman in her early thirties who works as a court bailiff. Her duties occasionally encompass executions – the Chinese government remains one of the last holdouts of, and most enthusiastic supporters of, capital punishment. Among her “victims” is a young woman whose bereaved boyfriend, stunned by grief, tracks Wu down – setting up what becomes a most unusual, ambiguous and enthralling kind of “relationship”.

According to Diao, “I’ve been having this recurrent dream, in which I’m sentenced to death for no particular reason. I admit that I fear death… and wish I had a brave heart. There came the idea for this film.” He plunges us straight into the chilly world of his lovelorn protagonist, somehow maintaining a mood that’s relentlessly sombre and even icy without ever becoming either gloomy or morbid as the story builds to a climax of truly startling intensity.

What I especially like about Night Train is the way Diao constructs a solid, engrossing, almost thriller-like plot which he then uses as a framework to explore psychological and social issues. With only slight modification, this could be a pretty straight mainstream movie – one could envisage American remakes of the indie (Patricia Clarkson starring) or mainstream (Ashley Judd?) variety – and the film could easily “play” at countless arthouse venues across the world. The fact that it almost certainly won’t get such exposure says more about the distribution system – which, in the UK, picks up all manner of inconsequential tat simply because it’s French – than the merits of this admirable, engrossing film.

What’s especially irritating about UK distributors’ love of all things Gallic is that so often the very best of the nation’s output is mysteriously overlooked – among the recent “refusees” are Kim Chapiron’s trash-masterpiece midnight-movie Sheitan (which eked out a mere fortnight at London’s ICA, enabling me to rank it my number one among UK “releases” of 2007), Antony Cordier’s Cold Showers (Douches froides), Franck Guerin’s A Summer Day (Un jour d’été)and Gerald Hustache-Mathieu’s April In Love (Avril). We can probably add to that list Isild Le Besco’s disarming second feature Charly, as it’s likely too “rough-edged” and confrontational for the gentle sensibilities of British arthouse denizens.

Born in Paris in 1982, Le Besco is, for now, better known as an actress than a director: she’s been on screen since 1990, and has notched two Cesar nominations (for 2000’s Sade and 2001’s Roberto Succo). Her first stint behind the camera produced the hour-long mini-feature Demi-tarif (only demi-successful), which attracted ecstatic praise from legendary documentarian Chris Marker – who just so happens to be Le Besco’s godfather. It turns out that Marker’s praise was peremptory rather than inaccurate: Charly is a quantum leap ahead in terms of achievement.

Making a virtue of its shoestring budget, this is the video-shot story of a 14 year-old runaway and the force-of-nature young woman (perhaps no more than a teenager herself) who takes it upon herself to knock him into shape. If Nicolas (tousle-haired Kolia Litscher, Le Besco’s brother) is emphatically feckless, his new amie Charly (a powerhouse turn from Julie-Marie Parmentier) is inescapably feckful: the result is, oddly enough, a Harold and Maude for the YouTube generation, a disarmingly direct and unvarnished miniature which does make room for a handful of haunting, characteristically simple dream-sequences.

Winner of the top prize at the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, Austria, which (unfortunately) overlaps with IL, Le Besco’s film went away from Lisbon empty-handed, unlike Night Train which I championed to the point that it was granted the jury’s “special mention”. No such lobbying skills were needed for the national competition, however, as we were pretty much unanimous in selecting a film by another relatively youthful Parisienne, Nathalie Mansoux’s Access Road – ahead of Aguilar’s good-looking but pretentiously muddled Uprise, Teresa Prata’s clunkily manipulative Sleepwalking Land (Terra sonambula) and a pair of pretty solid (albeit TV-style) documentaries, Antonio Borges Correia’s Endgame (O Lar) and Jorge Silva Melo’s Alvaro Lapa – Literature (Alvaro Lapa – Literatura).

Access Road

Access Road (Via de Acesso), meanwhile, is in-your-face reality from start to finish. Mansoux read Anthropology in her native city, then also studied ethnographic cinema before moving to Portugal to gain experience of documentary work. Her debut feature is the chronicle of a doomed shanty-town, just over Lisbon’s borders in the neighbouring municipality of Amadoras. The area of Azinhaga de Besouros is an example of what Mike Davis, in his recent, ferociously unignorable polemic Planet of Slums, calls a “peri-urban” development.

And, as Davis notes in his final chapter, the way governments handle such “clandestine constructions” is going to be one of the defining dynamics of the 21st century. Access Road, a rousing example of old-school agit-prop cinema, illustrates how such tricky situations can be clumsily mishandled by over-bureaucratic councils: the soundtrack is full of the robotic, uncaring letters from the council to the residents, baldly informing them that, because of Kafkaesque regulations, most of them are ineligible for rehousing.

For me, the major injustice of IndieLisboa 2008 was that the one “national” entry to be reckoned worthy of a slot in the “international” competition should be Uprise rather than Access Road. Indeed, Mansoux’s proudly DIY approach strikes me as the most genuinely independent form of filmmaking on view in the whole festival: “I have never stopped to work during the making of the film,” she says. “I’m an independent worker in translations and subtitles for the Cinemateca Portuguesa and film festivals. So I’ve bought the tapes and paid the transports with my money. And a students’ association lent the camera because they believed in the project. The persons who worked on editing, sound and colour calibration didn’t receive any money (they also believed in the project). We used my computer and my house for editing.”

There’s nothing wrong with independent filmmakers taking finance from funding bodies – or even, as Abel Ferrara shows, collaborating with major Hollywood studios and/or making films in such legendary facilities as Rome’s Cinecitta complex. But while Access Road has a rather downbeat conclusion – to paraphrase William Blake (via Mark E. Smith), this “road of access” turns out to lead to a modern shopping-mall “palace of excess” – the film shows one very viable way for all those “new directors” which IndieLisboa seeks to discover and champion. In Portugal, and far, far beyond: act local, think global, indeed.

IndieLisboa website: http://www.indielisboa.com