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Is Portuguese Cinema in Danger, or Does It Just Reflect a Country in Turmoil?

Is Portuguese Cinema in Danger?

“Portuguese cinema is in danger” reads a recent op-ed that appeared in the Portuguese daily newspaper Publico by filmmaker Miguel Gomes and his producer Luis Urbano. It’s a strange assertion for Gomes, who simultaneous with the publication of his opinion piece premiered his found-footage short film Redemption at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Just last year his feature-length Tabu opened at the Berlin Film Festival, winning the FIPRESCI award.

On the festival circuit of late, Portuguese cinema has been a prominent player evidenced in the slate of films showing at this year’s New York Film Festival. Along with Gomes’ Redemption, highlights include Joaquim Pinto’s deeply personal documentary What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me), Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ historically-themed short The King’s Body (O Corpo de Afonso) and an entire program devoted to the avant-garde films of Sandro Aguilar. Many are filmmakers at NYFF for the second or third time. So why is Gomes ringing alarm bells? It’s the economy, stupid. 

The major source of funding for Portuguese auteurs is the Portuguese Film Institute (ICA). A government body funded by taxes levied on pay TV operators it offers financing to filmmakers without the pressure of profits. Since it’s not a private investment directors are left to focus on the art of filmmaking and not worry about box office returns.

Amidst a crippling financial crisis the Parliament ratified a law slightly raising the tax that directly funds the institute hoping to augment its budget. Turns out the big media companies were not onboard. So, they decided not to comply. Since last year they’ve refused to pay the tax and the ICA is penniless. For the second year in a row there has been a complete shutdown of funding for new films by the institute. It is not hyperbole when Gomes asserts, “a paralysis of the film sector is a very real threat.” [translation mine]

The dried up well of funds in Portugal has already affected its film output. Since 2010 national productions have steeply declined. Still, a few high-profile films are making the rounds at the year’s biggest festivals — including the 51st New York Film Festival.

Most of the Portuguese films at NYFF were shot in the midst of the financial crisis. Ranging from the historical to the political and the personal they wrangle with despair and uncertainty in turbulent times albeit often with humor. The personal becomes political and the political, personal. 

Joao Pedro Rodrigues constructed a biographical reimagining of a historical figure that takes place completely in the present. The King’s Body (O Corpo de Afonso), produced for the celebration of Guimaraes being chosen as the European Union’s Capital of Culture in 2012, takes on the often mythologized Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Galician men in various states of undress answer questions about Portuguese history standing in front of a green screen with muscles and tattoos blazing. None of them, including the guy awkwardly standing there in his pink Calvin Klein underwear, can name Portugal’s first king. Then, a simple question about their profession offers some insight into the hardships that currently plague the country. Most of them are unemployed and looking for work. Others are hobbling together an income through various odd jobs: electricians, personal trainers, and teachers all moonlight as go-go dancers, strippers, or work bar jobs. Suddenly, a Portuguese saying that flashed on the screen early on comes to mind, “From a whore and a Galician the first Portuguese was born.” By engaging these men in a conversation about Portugal’s royal history the director provided an opportunity to testify to their present-day struggles.

In Redemption, Gomes focuses on four characters: a young boy in Portugal, an older man in Italy, a father in France, and a young bride in Germany all reveal intimate thoughts. Through melancholic and pensive voiceovers, the former film critic transports us across the globe and weaves back in forth in time. A tapestry of found footage, archival materials, and Super-8 home movies recounts their struggles with guilt, poverty, national politics, or a fear of betraying the socialist revolution. In their collective search for redemption once again politics becomes personal.

What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me) is Joaquim Pinto’s video scrapbook of a trying year in which the longtime filmmaker turns the camera on himself. After exhausting the treatments available for HIV and Hepatitis C he enrolls in a grueling clinical trial in Madrid. The investigational drug has toxic side effects that at times leave him bedridden and forgetful. Lying down with the camera not far from his face he confesses that he’s in a complete state of inertia; it’s as if he’s become disconnected from his body. He always finds a way to relate his pain poetically, “It’s hard to breathe, lights and sounds hurt me.” With old pictures, album covers, newspaper clippings, and book excerpts together with candid footage of the life he shares with his long-time partner and three dogs — including their sex life — we are drawn deep into his psyche. Close to three hours long it is a visual treatise of human existence, his development as a filmmaker, living with AIDS, politics, mortality, and his fading memories of, “moments written on the wind.” Even in this intensely personal portrait a common theme returns. As Pinto watches the news Portugal’s financial woes and steep unemployment rates are often the topic of discussion. At one point his medical treatment is in jeopardy. The Spanish government, in hopes of reeling in years of a recession, has made cuts to its social healthcare system and excluded foreigners from receiving medical benefits. The repercussions of a bureaucrat’s political decision compound his already excruciating recovery. 

With the global economy in decline and Portugal being especially hard hit it’s no surprise that government film funds are in jeopardy. But a more intriguing effect is how the economy has become a narrative thread woven into vastly different stories. The arts are a reflection of the culture they exist in, and contemporary Portuguese cinema is no exception.

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year’s New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

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