Ten years is always a nice age for any film festival to reach, especially in a country in a deep recession where the investment in culture has shrunk to almost non-existent numbers. It’s to its credit that IndieLisboa has grown from strength to strength to become the premier Portuguese general interest film festival, freshening up (alongside DocLisboa) a small pool centred around the niches of Vila do Conde (short film), Queer Lisboa (LGBT-themed film) and the venerable Fantasporto (horror and genre), and serving arguably as trigger and inspiration for later events like producer Paulo Branco’s Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival and a myriad of smaller fests.

But in a country in the throes of a weak economy, undergoing a series of social and economic shocks and an ominous shrinking of the film market (DVD sales have bottomed out, and box-office admissions have fallen by a fifth from last year in the first four months of 2013 alone), even an occasion for celebration must be tempered with the harsh reality. Though the number of films and screenings remained pretty much in line with previous years, attendance was down from last year, to 30,000 admissions – reflecting as well that Indie’s 2013 program was stronger in discoveries and experiences than in high-profile premieres. Outside the centerpiece screenings – Pablo Larraín’s No as opener and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight as closer, with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers as a special screening, all of them going into general release soon after the festival – there was a lack of big-ticket titles or programs that might have enticed filmgoers.

There was no major retrospective like in previous years, replaced by smaller focuses on Ulrich Seidl and Patrick Jolley. Even stalwart sidebars such as the music-documentary series IndieMusic or the recent Pulsar do Mundo documentary section had smaller and less interesting selections than in earlier years – though this last sidebar did screen Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s astounding The Act of Killing. All of this, coupled with an ill-advised graphic image and somewhat gimmicky marketing, suggested a festival forced to scale back its ambitions due to budget constraints and heightened competition from other events feeding from the same pool, making the best of what it had available.

Plutão

Plutão

Nowhere was this more visible than in the Portuguese selection, where despite the presence of solid or interesting work, no major films premiered either in the short-film or feature-length selections. Of the twenty selected shorts, the best was Jorge Jácome’s Plutão, a brightly-coloured piece of pop-romantic melancholia, closely followed by the winning short, London-based António da Silva’s exploration of red-haired sexuality, Gingers, and by two borderline genre entries: the silent-film pastiche of Paulo Abreu’s Facínora and the Burtoniana-Gothic melodrama of André Gil Mata’s O Coveiro. But short film is by nature more of a calling card with little to no exposure outside festivals, so full-length features are the “proof in the pudding” as to the “state of the nation”. The pudding seemed seriously undercooked this year.

The Battle of Tabatô

The Battle of Tabatô

With six Portuguese features spread across the festival’s various sidebars (two of them, Lacrau and A Batalha de Tabatô, qualifying for the international competition), 2013 might have seemed strong in numbers, but in terms of quality it was severely underwhelming. The six entries included two films presented at this year’s Berlinale sidebars: from the Generation youth film section came Pedro Pinho’s amiable but banal hour-long look at project youths, Um Fim do Mundo (The End of the World). From the Forum, where it got a special mention from the jury, came João Viana’s endearingly naïf tale of African myths and war memories, A Batalha de Tabatô (The Battle of Tabatô). Both were debut features almost entirely shot on location in black and white, but still lacking a visible identity, both of them more interesting as unwitting documentaries than as stilted dramas.

É o Amor

É o Amor

Among the features, there was one only established director present. João Canijo premiered the full-length version of Obrigação, originally commissioned as a short film for Vila do Conde’s 20th anniversary. Expanded from 60 to 135 minutes and retitled É o Amor (That’s Love), though, his look at the daily routines of the wives of Northern fishermen turned from an admirable redux of his recurrent themes to a lesser, sprawling, unfocused work.

The really interesting battle, though, was among two essay-films sharing a common vision of independent, conceptual filmmaking. Both the jury and most of the press seemed to fall head over heels for the eventual winner of the best Portuguese feature award, João Vladimiro’s Lacrau, a stubbornly opaque meditation on nature vs civilisation, suffused with the spirit of a mythologised primi. The sophomore feature of a young filmmaker with documentary experience, Lacrau’s striking imagery and non-linear construction (punctuated by quotes from Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Stig Dagerman) suggest a poetic, symbolic aspiration to the pure-cinema territories of António Reis or Michelangelo Frammartino, skirting the edges of experimental film, occasionally suggesting a noble, aesthetic vision of cinema as a trip or an adventure. (No DVD screeners were sent out to make sure people would see it on the big screen, and the director gave no interviews, preferring to let the film speak for itself.)

No wonder Lacrau won the prize in an edition that gave its main award to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s stunning Leviathan – both are films where process and aesthetics take precedence over narrative.

Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos

Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos

By contrast, André Príncipe’s Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos (Flamingo Field Without Flamingos) was a more open, more playful and less self-important take on the same subject, with an observational tone and a wrier sense of humour (suggesting Nikolaus Geyrhalter if he’d found some Latin bonhomie). It’s also more conventionally accessible than Lacrau, inviting the viewer to join in the road trip Príncipe’s three-strong crew took around the Portuguese borders (a road trip that had already generated a photography book, since the director is also known for his photography and gallery work).

Taken together and in the context of the selection, both Lacrau and Campo de Flamingos sem Flamingos are revealing of what IndieLisboa has to face whenever calling for local work, and suggest that some of the issues surrounding Portuguese film production are not so much circumstantial as they are endemic. The boutique aspect of Portuguese film production has generally meant Indie hasn’t been able to attract big-name features, with established directors preferring to take their chances at bigger, top-shelf festivals. This is compounded by the small pool of productions, much of which has since become self-financed on minimal budgets; now sought out by more festivals (DocLisboa, Lisbon & Estoril…), such a pool does not guarantee enough quality work to go around.

Most of the national films selected for Indie over its ten-year history have been documentary or essay projects with limited commercial clout, and often go unseen outside the festival circuit. In fact, in Indie’s ten-year history, only twice did a narrative feature win the Portuguese award.  But even the narrative films have had a hard time finding distribution. The median amount of time between an Indie screening and a theatrical opening is in the area of 12 months. And even for those who find distribution the festival berth is no guarantee of finding an audience. The debut film of It’s the Earth, Not the Moon director Gonçalo Tocha, Balaou, won the Portuguese award in 2007 but never saw cinema release (finally coming out on DVD in 2012); the 2010 winner, Pedro Caldas’ acclaimed Guerra Civil, remains lost in distribution limbo due to rights issues.

The dysfunction is not exclusive to IndieLisboa but affects it more, as a more general-proposition festival, and is worsened by the fact that most attempts at narrative film are squarely targeted towards mass audiences. There was only one narrative entry among the six local productions: Inês Oliveira’s sophomore film Bobô, a jumbled tale of a depressed woman who gains a new lease of life thanks to an African live-in maid, drowning an interesting premise in a lack of structure and scripting. Neither accessible enough to be mainstream nor distinct enough to be an auteur piece, Bobô drifted along aimlessly, as a symbol of structural problems of scripting and storytelling that have plagued Portuguese cinema for years now. Entries such as this explain why the festival may have opened an additional avenue of exposure but has been unable to change the general perception of Portuguese film as purely festival- or world-oriented. When even Miguel Gomes’ massively acclaimed Tabu underperforms at the box-office, it’s worth asking if things will ever change.

Leones

Leones

The irony, of course, is that this Portuguese festival is so underwhelming when it comes to homegrown talent, all while skimming the cream of the crop of new talent from the sidebars and competitions from top-tier festivals such as Locarno, Berlin, Rotterdam or Venice. That spotlight on films that did not receive due attention elsewhere makes it the perfect venue to discover great, unsung movies. The main competition brought this year remarkable debuts from Latin America that confirm the choice moment the continent’s cinema is going through: Argentinian Jazmín López’s disquieting, Gerry-esque tale of high-schoolers lost in the forest, Leones (Lions), and Brazilian Marcelo Lordello’s gentle tale of a casual punishment leading to a teenager’s social and personal awakening, Eles Vivem (They’ll Come Back). Both films present themselves as twisted, dreamy takes on fairy-tale premises adapted to modern teenage life, cleverly sidestepping any formal and narrative traps – the Hansel and Gretel-ish Leones through a superbly controlled, wise-beyond-its-years construction exclusively in long tracking shots, Eles Vivem twisting Red Riding Hood through the eyes of a lead character discovering the world.

For all that, though, there was also a sense that the festival may be boxing itself in with a certain type of “stock” indie movie, clearly inspired by the Dardenne brothers’ seminal Rosetta. The Belgian brothers’ trademark shot of a handheld camera trudging after a lead character was a recurrent visual element in the competition, underlining how much “auteurism” has become a genre in itself as well as a crutch for young filmmakers. While there were many valid elements in films such as Swiss director Gabriela Pichler’s Äta Sova Dö (Eat Sleep Die) or French debutante Shalimar Preuss’ Ma Belle Gosse (My Blue-Eyed Girl), there was also a sense that the films didn’t really develop as much as they could from their premise. The fact that most entries seemed to adhere to that sensitive, exploratory “indie” template seems in itself one of the reasons why the ultimate winner was the “odd man out”, Leviathan, the rollercoaster ride inside the belly of a North Atlantic fishing boat that has become one of the most written-about films of recent months among the critic set.

While Leviathan‘s win certainly squares perfectly with Lacrau‘s personal, boundary-pushing approach – in a way they’re kindred spirits – it also highlights the strong moment for American personal and independent film, with a massive presence across this year’s program. Joel Potrykus’ Ape, Matt Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot or Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha screened in the many different sidebars. There were also two other entries in the official competition – Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy’s slight, underdeveloped Francine, with an extraordinarily generous performance by Melissa Leo, and Antonio Campos’ half-baked, disappointing follow-up to Afterschool, Simon Killer.

The bigger question, however, is what next for IndieLisboa after ten years. No longer the only game in town as it was for a few years but still an essential presence in the scene, the festival needs to step up its game in response to the many factors that remain outside its control, from having to compete for films with other events to taking into account the depressed that surrounds it. Here’s to the next ten years…
18-28 April 2013
Festival website: www.indielisboa.com

About The Author

Jorge Mourinha is a film critic at Lisbon's daily newspaper Público and maintains film review blog The Flickering Wall.