Overview: Independents Days

in 51st IndieLisboa - International Independent Film Festival

by Vladan Petkovic

The sixth IndieLisboa in Lisbon wrapped up with Lance Hammer’s Ballast, winning the best film award from the jury which was presided over by Marco Muller (Venice) and included Christoph Terhechte, the director of Berlinale’s Forum. Ballast was the oldest film in the competition which consisted of some festival favorites well known on the festival circuit and some that are brand new or have been “under the radar” for too long. On the other hand, the “Emerging Cinema” section also presented some very interesting titles which have gained significant awards at festivals in the past year. One of the three directors of IndieLisboa, Nuno Sena, explained it this way: “We know our audiences so we try to push forward [in the competition] titles that would appeal to them not only in a formal, but also in an emotional and intellectual way.” So, the “Emerging Cinema” section included films such as Radu Muntean’s Boogie, Aida Begic’s Snow, Semih Kaplanoglu’s Milk, Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero, Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy and John Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, all in all, some of the most interesting titles from festivals around the world.

The international competition was very strong. I rarely had the chance to see a competition which was so even. The winner, Ballast, is a strong, depressing American story about a black Mississippi Delta family made in a tempo reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers, with a strong cast of non-professionals. It evokes the naturalistic approach of Nick Cassavetes which turns out to be perfect in the attempt to make the spectator really feel the character’s good and bad sides and sympathize with them and their problems.

Sean Baker’s Prince of Broadway was the second American independent in the competition and, like Ballast, features non-professionals acting marginalized characters in tough situations, but with a much lighter approach and a healthy dose of humor. The main guy Lucky, an immigrant from Ghana, struggles to make a living selling false Nike, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton and Gianfranco Ferre. His boss is an Armenian from Lebanon who married an American girl to get papers and subsequently fell in love with her. They both run into problems. Lucky’s ex-girlfriend, out of the blue, thrusts a two-year-old boy into his hands saying it’s his son and that he should take care of him for a month. Although charming and interesting, the film is unevenly executed and its brightest light is the adorable, funny and sometimes over-the-top Prince Adu in the main role.

The Far East was represented by Chinese Ye Zhao’s Jalainur and Korean Yang Ik-Yune’s Breathless (Ddongpari). Jalainur is a story about two railway workers in one of the last places in the world where steam trains are still running. The younger man is obviously very lonesome and strongly takes to his older friend as he retires one month earlier than expected. This is a film in the best tradition of the Chinese detached and metaphorical approach, with welcome diversions such as a performance of a Chinese opera troupe or singing karaoke in the main square of the closest town. The film’s highlight is the amazing cinematography by newcomer Yi Zhang who makes the best possible use of the vast Mongolian bare lands and their strange light. The film won the distribution award so it will deservingly be distributed in Portugal.

On the other hand, Breathless is a piece of violent Asian arthouse in the vein of Takeshi Kitano. Yang Ik-June, the director, writer, producer and main actor of the film plays a debt collector who never stops swearing and hitting people. Nevertheless, we soon see this cruel and superficially tough guy’s love for his little nephew and his new friend, a high school girl who stood up against him when he (accidentally or not) spat on her school uniform. His painful past is revealed through another very violent flashback scene in which his father killed his mother. A very dynamic and fun film, excellently executed, it still struggles with too many endings which weaken its effect.

Argentina represented South America with Green Waters (Aguas verdes) by Mariano De Rosa and A Week Alone (Una semana solos) by Celina Murga. Green Waters tell the story of a family which is partly dysfunctional because of its patriarch Juan who takes them on a vacation in their battered 1970’s Peugeot. The teenage daughter Laurie meets the biker vagabond Roberto who follows them to Aguas Verdes, the titular seaside resort. Juan tries very hardly to make this a “proper vacation” and, as any father would, suspects bad intentions from Roberto towards his daughter, revealing a history of paranoia through discussions with his wife. The main question of the film, paranoia vs. reasons to be paranoid, does not come out convincingly and the very interesting and engaging first two thirds of the film fall a victim to a sloppily executed ending.

Celina Murga won the best director award in Thessaloniki for A Week Alone, and quite deservingly so. A bunch of elementary school kids stay alone in a rich neighborhood as their families go away for a week. Their high-class background and upbringing show their dark side as they ruin a neighbor’s house from sheer boredom. With nothing obvious really happening for most of the film, this scene is also subdued and subtly produces an unnerving feeling for the spectator when it happens. There are almost no adults among the cast and the director’s work with children is impressive as they come out as fantastic performers.

The Russian Boris Khlebnikov’s Help Gone Mad (Sumashedshaya pomoshch) is a pretty crazy film about two unlikely friends, a young man from the provinces who arrives to Moscow to work only to fall prey to local thugs on the first day, losing all his money, clothes and cell phone. An old man finds him sleeping in the underground and takes him home. The old man’s insanity is infective and soon the two embark on hilarious actions to “do good against dark forces that are all around”. Borrowing atmosphere and some of the ideas of Russian writers ranging from Gogol to Daniil Harms to Viktor Pelevin, the film is fantastic fun and manages to see the state of modern Russian society through its characteristic weirdness.

The Irish-UK co-production Helen by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy won the Grand Jury prize at the European Film Awards. Although the basic idea of a lonesome, orphaned girl standing in for her high school colleague in the reconstruction of the latter’s kidnapping is brilliant as a device for an identity story, the film seems to take all the wrong paths on the way to the unsatisfying ending. However, this may be just the matter of taste as the film is actually very well executed and there must be a reason for the Grand Jury EFA prize.

The Dutch experimental film Winter Silence (Winterstilte) by Sonja Wyss was the most refreshing film in the international competition. With almost no dialogue, it presents a small community in a snowy mountain region in what looks like the 18th century, but might just as well be happening today as the community is obviously very religious and keeps to itself, like the Amish in the USA. After an accident in which the father of the family dies, the wife and their four adult daughters are left in mourning. Hooded men with antlers (“Deermen”) appear as they signify the period of grief, but are not purely metaphorical — they have real, very earthly, passionate sex with the daughters. The dreamy atmosphere and snow-white background, with eerie Deermen and a big owl, provide the feeling of a pleasant disorientation for the viewer, with many little details which clearly explain the main subjects of the film: femininity, religion, sex, loneliness.

April Showers by Portuguese Ivo M. Ferreira was, in this critic’s opinion, the only really bad film in the festival competition. Attempting to tell a significant story about the 1974 revolution (the end of fascist rule in Portugal) through a young man’s search for his father, missing for 26 years, it is a baffling affair which falls short in all film-making aspects. The characters are unconvincing, their actions unmotivated, the metaphors too obvious, and the direction unreasonably and unsuccessfully ambitious.

All in all, IndieLisboa is a very interesting little festival with good films. It definitely fulfils its primary function as a showcase of important new film-making for the Portuguese audiences who duly filled most of the screenings. Retrospectives of Jacques Nolot and Werner Herzog proved the right move, and the IndieJunior section does a great job in educating new cinemagoers in the era of video games and film downloads.