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.