The 9th edition of the IndieLisboa Film Festival came to a close this weekend in the Portuguese capital. The fest’s top award, the Feature Film Grand Prize of the City of Lisbon, went to Chilean family drama “Thursday Through Sunday” from female director Dominga Sotomayor, while in the national competition, docu “Jesus for a Day,” about Portuguese inmates putting on a Passion play for Easter, walked away with the best feature accolade.
With a name like IndieLisboa and its placement on the edge of the European continent, it's the perfect festival to explore what “indie” really means outside the U.S.
Nuno Sena, one of the festival's three directors, said the “definition of indie in Europe is quite different from the one in the U.S., since basically any film whose primary goal is not to sell tickets and be commercially viable can be considered an independent film – and this applies to most films made in Europe today. There aren’t separate funding and distribution channels for European indie films (compared to European blockbusters) and in a way a European indie is really the equivalent of what we might call an auteur film, though we don’t use that term for the festival because it’s quite pretentious.”
The festival unspools in three cinemas across the capital has another reason for preferring indie over auteur: “Another advantage we have with the word indie is that in the festival name we can underline that we are a totally independent festival,” says Sena. “There is no pressure from institutions or sponsors higher up to program a particular title or go in a particular direction, which gives us a lot of freedom.”
This year’s competition lineup, composed entirely of first and second features that don’t have a Portuguese distributor, contained only one American indie: “The Color Wheel” from Alex Ross Perry (named Best Unreleased Film in Indiewire’s 2011 year-end poll). The black-and-white mumblecore comedy about two siblings and an ex-lover is emblematic of IndieLisboa’s selection this year in that it explores the subject of family relations but has formal qualities that sets it apart from most other films about similar subjects.
“Wheel” is the only true indie in the American sense of the word, though one film that screened at Sundance, albeit in the international competition, was also part of the lineup here: the idiosyncratic Greek film “L,” from director Babis Makridis, about a honey-jar transporter with a love of motorized vehicles who gets fired. Part of the Greek wave that was launched with 2009 Un Certain Regard winner “Dogtooth” and also includes “Attenberg” and “Alps” (the latter also screened in one of the sidebars at IndieLisboa), “L” takes the Greek film’s by-now trademark absurdity one step further into semi-abstract territory (begging the question if this is the direction that the entire movement is going or whether this is simply debut director Makridis’ own style). It certainly feels like the wave’s non-sequitur way of storytelling and humor and the robotic, almost lethargic way of acting deliver diminishing returns in this entry. It can't be denied that it tries hard to resist becoming any kind of mainstream entertainment, though sometimes that’s not enough.
Less esoteric in its approach to narrative are a couple of other films that, like “The Color Wheel,” explore family or couple dynamics, including the subtle yet very impressive winner “Thursday Through Sunday,” Romanian film “Everybody in Our Family” from director Radu Jude and “Formentera” from German debutante Ann-Kristin Reyels. “Family” almost fits into the mold of the Romanian arthouse films that have flooded the international market since the success of “The Death of Mr Lazarescu,” though Jude, like in his debut feature “The Happiest Girl in the World” (and the films written by his countryman Razvan Radulescu), seems more focused on streams of unending and often very colorful dialogue rather than the all-telling silences of works such as “Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” On the other side of the spectrum, “Formentera” is predicated on the idea that a married couple needs to talk to each other but both husband and wife try to avoid it while on a holiday on the titular Spanish island (they’ve left their kid at home in Germany), leading to all sorts of pressure and suspicions. Both films are quite conventional in the choice of their subject but resolutely indie in their sensibility in that they have an auteurist – sorry Nuno! – bent in the way they approach their subjects.
One of the major discoveries of this year’s IndieLisboa is a Brazilian film — perhaps no surprise, since Portuguese audiences have always been more attuned to Brazilian cinema than most other countries because of historical ties and the shared language. “Neighboring Sounds,” the directorial debut of Kleber Mendonça Filho, is set in a single street in Recife. The film nominally investigates the lives of the streets’ inhabitants at the moment a security company has offered to protect the entire street for a small fee from each homeowner. But the story is only window-dressing for an exploration of ideas and themes that lie much deeper, including violence, class, racism and the effect of history on Brazilian society, offering a very detailed and complex portrait of contemporary Brazil in the process. Far from crowd-pleasing Brazilian fare (a telenovela this is not) but neither an inaccessible experimental title, “Neighboring Sounds” offers a combination of surface narrative action and underlying thematic richness that make it that rare indie that could become a crossover hit.
A hard-hitting indie came from Austria: “Still Life” from Sebastian Meise, about an apparently average family composed of a father, mother, son and daughter whose relationships come undone when the son discovers that his father has had a secret crush on his sister since she was little. Like the Austrian pedophilia drama “Michael” (which premiered at Cannes and screened out of competition in IndieLisboa), its uneasy frissons come from the film’s icy and detached observation of something absolutely horrendous, underlining the shocking banality of most evildoers. But by placing the act in a larger family context, “Still Life” transcends its particular subject and asks larger moral questions about the way families function and to what extent, if any, any shared blame can be assigned beyond the actual perpetrator.
Other sections in the fest also helped shape the idea of what an international indie might be, including the Observatório section, which screened international fest circuit darlings such as Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” Werner Herzog’s death-row docu “Into the Abyss,” which program director Sena singled out as a film that represents what the films in IndieLisboa are all about; “Dark Horse” by Todd Solonz; Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” and the moving drama “A Simple Life” by Hong Kong director Ann Hui.
More independent features from the U.S. and beyond could be found in the Cinema Emergente sidebar, including Sundance titles “Take Shelter” and “Terri,” Cannes alumni “17 filles” and “The Fairy” and a handful of films that were presented at other festivals. The section also includes most of the new Portuguese films, including eventual winner “Jesus for a Day.” The feature documentary directed by Helena Inverno and Verónica Castro looks, like the recent Berlinale Golden Bear title “Ceasar Must Die” from the Taviani brothers, at jailbirds trying their hand at acting in a difficult play (the Passion play for Easter in this case) that creates some interesting though not particularly focused intertextuality about their own situation and station in life.
Though the fest suffered a severe 20% budget cut compared to last year (and last year’s budget was already 20% less than the year before), the festival did manage to program a solid overview of independent-thinking cinema, with an especially strong presence of young filmmakers that deserve to be followed.
A tenth anniversary edition for 2013 is already confirmed (though exact budgets are uncertain) and there is no certainty about any type of culture budgets for 2014 and beyond. Hopefully this showcase can weather the storm of the financial crisis that’s a major problem for the entire cultural sector in Europe.