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Documentary Filmmaking is Having a Moment — in Portugal

Documentary Filmmaking is Having a Moment — in Portugal

“The Glory of Filmmaking in Portugal” is the title of Manuel Mozos’ new film, which recently competed for the main prize at Doclisboa, Portugal’s largest documentary film festival. But it’s also an apt summation of documentary’s current state in the country.

Settled like a lowered fog over the city, with movies showing throughout the day in four of the local cinemas and cinematheques, the festival offers an array of diverse programs, each in their own way about as bold as it gets: an international competition of startling breadth and quality; several retrospectives encompassing a vast array of archival treasures known and unknown, largely presented on celluloid; contemporary sections embracing multifarious strands of documentary film, from cult music to populist politics and vice-versa; and a rich national section of new movies, attended by scores of interested citizens. Collectively, these ingredients speak to a thriving community for non-fiction filmmaking in the southwestern European country.

Real Audiences

In Diogo Varela Silva’s “Celeste,” about the Fadista Celeste Rodrigues — one of Portugal’s greatest voices (and, perhaps more recognizably to cinephiles, the star of Manuel Mozos’ seminal “Xavier”) — Celeste’s disconnected commentary is made to contrast the widescreen images of her face set, almost as if by superimposition, against the chessboard Lisbon cityscape behind her.

It’s a community from which — the film implies — Celeste seems to be the product. In subsequent scenes, you watch as she visits the neighborhoods where she grew up, touring the crew through the streets (“We gave this place life,” comments a friend who joined her in childhood late night ballads, staged on the streets and in living rooms). The audience for “Celeste” harkened back to something difficult to find in the Anglophone world of late: a group of people for whom the movie held both a personal and a communal connection.

Though the movie itself was often inert — it’s narrative a little sedentary, and images a gauzy blur of mixed-bag digital — it was enlivened by the spirit of community that its subject, Fado of old Lisbon, seemed to embody.

Throughout, I heard singing around me, cheers, waves in Celeste’s direction (on-screen and in the wings, where she watched and waved, monarch-like). I took my seat between several groups of older people who later recognized each other, simultaneously, and seemed to share fond memories of Celeste and her music. Rather than the usual populist fare that festivals tend to sprinkle in between their more adventurous programs, “Celeste” connected with a very distinct audience of people in the mood for some shared nostalgia.

A Place for the Little Guys

Music also defined Doclisboa’s smallest movies. In Isabel Cordovil’s “Orizaba,” still images of a real-life love affair are animated by the descriptions, and proscriptions, of an unseen narrator; their unmoving surfaces given life by her discursive reminisces off-screen. “What Remains” (“O que resta”), the best of the Green Years films that I saw, is built out of images of an ornate apartment as its riches are plundered after the death of the owner.

As you watch these soft 16mm images — of furniture being removed piece by piece, as if torn from an invisible web; of mirrors being lifted off the walls to leave ancient seared dark spots in their place — the soundtrack makes you privy to some of the living that was involved in the place, as a series of letters, from 1918 to more or less the present day, chart the off-screen blossoming of an entire family. Listening to characters develop, disappear, reproduce, rebel, like a radio play, makes the languid destruction of the place even more difficult to stomach.

“Wake up, Leviathan,” directed and written by Carlos Conceição and produced by Primeira Idade, begins with the slow-building rhythm of various angles on a crashing river. Conceição quickly set ups Angola as an alien landscape, the images’ rich 16mm giving an idea of the climate and feel of the place. These early images — the disc-like orbit of a crown of gulls circling overhead, the sun frying on the horizon like an egg — are vibrant and sedentary.

But the movie gradually, less successfully, shifts towards abstraction; it takes the form of a sci-fi film, staged in all seriousness, about an astronaut “recovering from a broken heart” who returns to Earth “when he realizes all water is gone.” It’s a work firmly in the Gabriel Abrantes mode of filmmaking, where shifts from total documentary to total artifice (and to total silliness) are commonplace. We are treated to an austere 360-degree pan of the Angolan desert. It ends, drolly, with the word “Disappointment,” whispered on the soundtrack in one moment, and a Frank Capra-like trip to twinkling bacterial galaxies in the next.

State of the Unions

It’s a welcome deviation from the sophistry of certain elements of the modern Portuguese film. After seeing “Rio Corgo” and “Where is the Jungle?,” I must admit I was baffled why it is that filmmakers create staged documentaries ostensibly as test-runs for the arthouse. Of the two, “Where is the Jungle?” goes so far as to announce itself as firmly within the blossoming arthouse subgenre of the Cricket Movie, a term coined by the critics David Phelps and Daniel Kasman at MUBI to describe middle-of-nowhere movies in which deadly still, backyard photography and murmured, beer-bottle discussions between laconic subjects/characters allow the endless chorus of crickets on the soundtrack to speak for themselves. So why conceive of documentary as operating like a conventional art film, phony mysticism and all?

When put up against “Il Solengo,” which won the festival’s main prize on Sunday, “Rio Corgo” seems listless and hopelessly contrived, if also as competent. In “Il Solengo,” several arthouse-like elements are saved from the brink of the void by their clever juxtaposition: the talking heads are shaded with a documentary edge, the staged scenes with a kind of mannered reality.

The story: a hermit who lives in a cave somewhere near the province of Vejano in Italy is described posthumously by several local hunters. It’s a premise that has all the possibility of being overbearing, but instead is handled with a self-conscious care. There’s a sharp clarity to its images, mannered but probing and intelligent. The subject’s essential mystery develops into a central drive for the movie while the filmmakers, like the gregarious hunters who regale them with stories, become fascinated by his non-presence, his non-history.

“Rio Corgo” also features the story of an itinerant vagrant; he enters a village and befriends a young girl, soon finding himself in a hospital haunted by strange ghosts from his past — a trope in the Pedro Costa and Apitchatpong mold. In the movie, as in “Where is the Jungle?” — unlike in the more sensitive “Il Solengo” — life is strangled by mannerisms; the limitations of both approaches are laid bare.
Meanwhile, Anabela Moreira and João Canijo’s “Portugal – One Day at a Time” seemed to echo the work of
Frederick Wiseman, whose “In Jackson Heights” played concurrently in the international competition. Like Wiseman, the movie’s directors are aware of the seduction of watching the gestures or expressions of their subjects play out in full; scenes are built around the presence of single characters, whose startling shifts in emotional states lurch the movie’s tone from one extreme to another.

Canijo and Moreira excel at outdoor photography, capturing the landscape of Trás-os-Montes with a graceful placidity, framing it as a slanted background to their toiling subjects. The movie’s portentous, throat-clearing tone aims at covering (or uncovering) the stories of the Portuguese citizens whose lives are played out in media darkness; the many vocal subjects, as you see more significantly in Wiseman, come to constitute a rich net of types, and as a result the film accrues a staggering level of narrative detail.

The film ends with a parade that the filmmakers suggest — as Wiseman does with the fireworks that close “In Jackson Heights” — an encroaching positivity, the suggestion of a unity between people. In light of the electoral disaster that occurred in Portugal just days into the festival, “Portugal – One Day at a Time” offers at its close a reason to come together and stay strong, a suggestion of solitude, if not exactly a fully-fledged resolution (or revolution).

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