On the festival circuit at least, every calendar year starts with a bang. First Rotterdam, then Berlin—two gargantuan magnets dwarfing all around them. Flabby ships the pair of them, one might say—their programs developing each year by way of a bigger-not-better approach. How nice it is, then, to find oneself, in the weeks prior to Cannes especially, at a festival that appears to have actually rejected films in order to arrive at its lineup. Taking place once again toward the back end of April, and running into May, IndieLisboa—Lisbon’s international festival of independent cinema—showcases some of the better independent productions unveiled in Rotterdam, Berlin, and elsewhere while pruning out much of the filler.
It’s all about timing. And also maybe money. In Miguel Valverde and Nuno Sena, IndieLisboa has two expert co-directors whose curatorial acumen has allowed the festival to negotiate the unpredictable tides of a fiscally fraught Europe. For the 11th edition, Valverde and Sena’s tellingly small programming team once again delivered a lineup whose emphasis was on quality control and individuality. In addition to its international competition (won by Sundance-winner To Kill a Man), IndieLisboa features several other programming strands as well as a comprehensive, high-quality shorts program. After two years in the financial wilderness, the festival’s “Independent Hero” retrospective also returned, dedicated this time around to Claire Simon. It’s a shame a festival so dedicated to traditional ideas of cinephilia doesn’t in its current situation attract more international press; this critic was one of only four attending from outside of Portugal.
Save for IndieJunior, the program section dedicated to younger audiences, IndieLisboa’s daily screenings don’t begin until four or five in the evening, which allows attendees to spend their mornings and early afternoons wandering and getting lost in the varied streets of Lisbon itself. On one such meander, I had the grand ambition of walking across the 25th of April Bridge, into the municipality of Almada south of the Tejo River. Ambitions quickly dimmed: While the bridge boasts six car lanes and two railway tracks, walking across it is strictly prohibited. For river-related jaunts, two festival films had to suffice.
The first of these was Tiago Hespanha and Frederico Lobo’s Industrial Revolution, which world-premiered as part of the festival’s Emerging Cinema sidebar. The 72-minute documentary shows how industrialization along Portugal’s Ave River conditioned and was conditioned by the surrounding landscape. Unfolding as a boat journey down the Ave itself, the film is a casual, meandering work that begins with a succession of monochrome slides depicting textile workers before moving into a digital foray through present-day locales. An unassuming, cap-wearing boatman steers us onward, whispering, “It’s still here…we can only see a little bit from here.” Initially, what he’s referring to isn’t quite clear, but then we see a small factory building through an opening in the trees ahead.
“It was a spinning factory,” an elderly interviewee says later. “I was in charge of lubrication.” As is gradually revealed, industrial output from the region has all but ceased. And so the film comes to probe two changes at once: the impact that this physically imposing fortress of modern labor had upon local residents, and how its eventual and apparently inevitable decline has left a deep sense of melancholy to linger over the beautiful, surrounding greenery. Such palpable sadness is exemplified late on, when a local man tells of how his brother died when his kayak broke in two along the river. How does one find justice against an invisible, natural killer, he asks? The question has allegorical import: By extension, how does an entire region find justice against an industry that disappeared as quickly as it was formed?
Another river journey depicted at IndieLisboa was that in Same River Twice, in which multimedia artists Effi Weiss and Amir Borenstein return from Belgium to their native Israel and journey down the River Jordan in search of a nation to which they feel they no longer belong. The film received an honorable mention from the jury overseeing the festival’s World Pulse program. Inspired by a similar journey undertaken in 1869 by Scottish explorer John McGregor, the filmmakers—making their first feature-length documentary—employ a diaristic form that lacks any discernible structure in order to record and probe ever-shifting feelings about their own national identity.
Same River Twice has a built-in problem. While on the one hand, Weiss and Borenstein are able to document a number of encounters with people they personally meet, there’s something immovably irritating about the degree to which they place themselves at the film’s center. As a result, the film is self-absorbed from its outset; its stronger passages are undoubtedly those in which the filmmakers give screen time to others. These include conversations with Tach, a happy-go-lucky oarsman, and a brief but heated exchange with a group of local lads who claim the filmmakers stopped being Israeli the moment they emigrated. The weakest moments, in contrast, are when Weiss and Borenstein place themselves in front of the camera, in scenes that are the semi-contrived, moving-image equivalent of a selfie.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game is at once similar to and different from Same River Twice. In it, the Romanian filmmaker sits down to watch a video recording of a 1988 soccer match between Steaua and Dinamo, Bucharest’s two most famous teams, with his father Adrian, who refereed the game in question. Like Weiss and Borenstein, Porumboiu features heavily in his own film, though he remains off screen. Essentially, this is a 97-minute retroactive audio commentary, as Porumboiu Jr. exchanges reminiscences with his father about the changing rules of the game as well as refereeing strategies. It’s also part of the director’s ongoing fascination with film form as well as the ongoing ramifications of the Ceausescu regime.
In the first instance, we have an absolute minimalism here, whereby it’s easy to overlook the fact that we’re watching images recorded with a contemporary digital camera, so transparent is the gaze of Porumboiu’s own tripod-fixed camera as it watches the television set on which the soccer game unfolds. In the second instance, Porumboiu uses this otherwise innocuous match—which, after all, ends in a nil-nil draw—as a primary historical artifact, returning again and again to the institutional corruption of the period, which the incessant snowfall of a late-‘80s winter literally and symbolically covers.
While The Second Game stresses the virtues of looking, the best feature-length film I saw in Lisbon emphasizes the need to listen. Mehran Tamadon’s Iranien, which premiered in Berlin, is its director’s second feature-length documentary following 2009’s Bassidji and follows the two days he spends with four supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran, trying to convince them of the merits of a secular, pluralist society. Iranian-born Tamadon moved to Paris in 1984 at the age of 12, before returning to his birth nation in 2000 as an architect, and only made his first short film in 2004. Iranien places a refreshing emphasis on the power of the dialectic, and the result is frequently absorbing.
Unfolding like a gentler, less derisive (because more participatory) version of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, this unexpectedly amusing film pits Tamadon against four apparently unified men on a number of seemingly irreconcilable points: self-control versus human nature; the individual versus the social; secularism versus dictatorship. Deferring to their de facto leader (a handsome, commanding, formidable figure), Tamadon’s guests appear intransigent, and the logical fallacies they cunningly and even charmingly put forth in their own defense speak of the insidious ways in which institutional religion can enable a number of prejudices, the most recurrent of which here is misogyny, as well as its implied logical extreme: rape culture.
A large number of their arguments boil down to apparent self-doubt: Since men are sexually aroused so easily (a speak-for-yourself claim if ever there was one), laws must be made and upheld to “protect” women from the natural conditions of masculinity. Tamadon’s own eagerness to persuade his guests away from their beliefs often results in he himself being stumped. You can’t reason somebody out of a position they arrived at through a failure in reason in the first place—or so the argument goes.
But perhaps you can. Toward the end of the film, exhausted by debate and dinner, and with the end of their experiment in sight, the four mullahs begin to indulge Tamadon’s Western sensibilities, and work with him in drawing up a new constitution that’s tolerant of all (or most) human rights. Tamadon and other pluralists’ hopes may lie in arguing their case with four people at a time, then, and so good luck to them. They’ll certainly need it, for the social roots of religious doctrine run much deeper and thicker than a jovial 48-hour experiment in one’s own well-to-do country home.
IndieLisboa ran from April 24—May 4.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man