Youth in Motion, Among Other Things By Stefan Ivančić

in 50th IndieLisboa- Lisbon Festival of Independent Film

by Stefan Ivancic

The original title of Colossal Youth, the most relevant Portuguese production of 2006, is Juventude em Marcha: Youth in motion, active. There is a perpetual and circular feeling to Pedro Costa’s film, as it is set out in that title. The auteur explains it thus: “Youth is a risk that needs to be taken. Cinema is a risk that needs to be taken. And it is necessary to know how age as a filmmaker, too, similar to Bach’s cantata: ‘Your own oldness equals your own youthfulness'”.

The story of São Vicente, the patron saint of Lisbon, says that when his dead body was taken back to Lisbon from Sagres Cape (the Southwest point in Europe, also known as Cabo de São Vicente), crows accompanied him along the way, only leaving his body alone when it arrived in the city. This historical legend is captured in Lisbon’s flag.

IndieLisboa, the young film festival that the capital of Portugal has hosted since 2004, has chosen a crow as its symbol. Its international competitive section focuses on new directors with first or second films, a detail revealing the strong mixture of past and present (and even future) that the festival (sub)consciously holds up, a treat that can be extended as essential in all kinds of Portuguese culture.

IndieLisboa’s directors, Miguel Valverde, Nuno Sena and Rui Pereira, are perfectly aware of the fact that the festival holds many films as working examples for all these: Paz Encina’s step to the development of Paraguayan cinema in her debut requiem Paraguayan Hammock (Hamaca Paraguaya); Tsai Ming-liang’s return to Malaysia, his birthplace, in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan); Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s vision of his own personal history in Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat); Grain Nugroho’s fusion of ages, cultures and arts in Opera Jawa. And these are just some examples taken from the “New Crowned Hope” project. But the past, present and future mixture of things is not the only consideration, and not just in the festival’s competitive section. Olaf Möller, curator of the essential German Cinema Retrospective, writes that the films in his program “make things possible by doing what is possible”, but it’s a definition that captures the spirit of IndieLisboa as well.

This year’s IndieLisboa program was full of powerful calls to audiences, offering George Bush’s fictional death in Death of a President, Slavoj Zizek’s lessons in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, John Cameron Mitchell’s excessive (in all the meanings of the word) Shortbus and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. These films function on a level where global issues rule beyond those of individuals. In a way, some of them also reflect a sort of megalomaniacal aspect of filmmaking, too, refusing to confine themselves to “independent cinema” status, but struggling to illuminate that cinema’s failure to acknowledge the individual dimensions of the world itself, a syndrome of this century that exists around the globe.

This even affects Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, screened in the festival’s “Observatory” section (and still unreleased in Portugal), and embodies what Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma is about: An actor (Argentino Vargas) who is completely out of context at the screening of his film at the historical Teatro San Martín of Buenos Aires.

It should be convenient that a festival like IndieLisboa keeps an eye on this kind of thematic absence, because some similar symptoms were detected elsewhere. The too-extensive selection of this year’s festival program — around 250-300 films — was wide enough to marginalize two essentials from the “Independent Hero” diverse retrospectives: A section that offered the unique opportunity of watching almost all Shinji Aoyama’s works (he accompanied the collection to the festival, and sat on the international jury) and some of the axis of post-Fassbinder New German Cinema revealed at its own retrospective, respectively. Indispensable names such as Romuald Karmakar, Valeska Grisebach, Thomas Arslan, Christian Petzold and others were the leading stars in the latter. It is important to remember that, when cinema is concerned, the number of films in your festival is less important than the films themselves, and the conversation they generate.

The most remarkable cinematographic qualities were to be found not in the competition films, but in the rest of the IndieLisboa program, evenly distributed between the “Observatory” and “Laboratory” sections. Both of them collected films radically separate from the ones on the previous list, creating singular and intimate worlds much more tangible than the purely universal visions, and even much more evident to the collective subconscious than those films which focus on the global rather than the personal. Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, Daft Punk’s Electroma and the short film The Signs (Les Signes) prove all these.

The importance given to short productions at IndieLisboa is easily justified just by watching The Signs, by festival favorite French director Eugène Green, who presented in previous editions The Living World (Le Monde Vivant) and the acclaimed Le Pont des Arts. Static takes, dynamic dialogues and the force of its off-screen action create a miniature film which sublimely illustrates the infinity of art, the world and the human being: As is simply said in the film, “it’s magic”.

The creation of an individual and intimate reality that overwhelms global issues was also essential to a few titles in the international competition. And perhaps it is not just a coincidence that they were all big winners at IndieLisboa: The Malaysian film Love Conquers All (which won the FIPRESCI award in Pusan and a Tiger in Rotterdam last year, among other prizes), where Tan Chui Mui proves the virtues of digital film-making; the Argentinean El Amarillo and the most simple and sincere of all the films in competition, Gonçalo Tocha’s self-made Portuguese documentary Balaou.

Last but not least, it is de rigueur to finish this article by making a simple statement: Film festivals such as IndieLisboa are risks that need to be taken.