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Unearthing Truth at Doclisboa 2018

Doclisboa offers a vertiginously eclectic and vast lineup, with a mishmash of old and new films from a multitude of countries.

Unearthing Truth at Doclisboa 2018
Photo: Doclisboa

The wall is festooned with graffiti, great curlicues of colorful paint, ornate designs, words and phrases in English, Portuguese, and French. Scrawled affably in green: “Welcome.” In white: “Luck.” There’s a face, bulbous, its mouth a large O, apparently in an act of orotund laughter. Elsewhere, rococo caricatures adorn the sides of buildings, as well as grotesque animals—rabbits, dogs, ambiguous winged creatures, and a cadre of galloping horses—in phantasmagoric eruptions of color. Everywhere, spray-painted scribbles and extravagant portraits—every concrete surface a potential canvas.

Street art is prevalent in Lisbon, as part of the city’s culture as the cobblestone streets and tile-covered facades. It erupted, like a spray can under pressure, after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, when the art of Portugal became more perfervidly political. But street art is ephemeral, effaced by the rain and wind; sections are missing or faded. The art that bespangles the metal shutters outside of stores, the walls of coffeeshops, and the sides of movie theaters is—from the moment of its inception—temporary but also public: Artists can, and will, alter the works of other artists, adding their own flair, turning simple, silly paintings into political statements.

Amid the graffiti, mottled on the wall, is a blue-and-red poster proclaiming, in large slanted print, “Doclisboa 2018,” which, torn and tattered, resembles a piece of street art. But it’s an advertisement for one of Europe’s most renowned documentary film festivals. The posters are ubiquitous around the city, plastered on walls, poles, and the sides of newspaper stands. Their proliferation in the weeks leading up to the festival suggest that the city is proud to be the host. Doclisboa offers a vertiginously eclectic and vast lineup, with a mishmash of old and new films from a multitude of countries.

There are films about charcoal, the history of the yo-yo (invented, I was surprised to learn, in the Philippines), the origins of our planet, the first transsexual on Argentina’s Isla Apipé, cows in the Swiss Alps, a shift at the 112 medical emergency center hotline at INEM’s Lisbon headquarters, the life of a fisherman, William Friedkin (also playing: Friedkin’s first film, The People vs. Paul Crump), Fresnel lenses, old and emerging musicians, demagogic politicians, the history of cinema and history itself, et cetera. It’s an almost comically diverse lineup, and I must admit that I felt a twinge of bitterness that I only had four days to take in as much of it as I could.

The festival’s press office is located in Culturgest, a culture center housed in a massive building with a shimmering glass facade and entrances on four different streets. It’s been, for over 25 years, a fundamental part of Lisbon’s culture, and it’s almost too much for a tourist to take in: 11 meeting rooms and two auditoria (one with 616 seats, the other with 147). And that jarringly large foyer on the second floor, with its red carpet and thick pillars and sundry of cushioned seats, may make you feel as if you’re in a Stanley Kubrick film. This bastion for the arts is glorious and intimidating.

Later, after a screening of an experimental Canadian documentary, I got turned around and had to walk around the circumference of the entire building, which took me approximately 15 minutes. I left the screening at the same time as Agnès Godard, one of the festival’s jurors, and she, while smoking a cigarette, walked at probably double my pace, moving quickly in the sultry humidity up one of Lisbon’s many daunting hills while I trundled behind her. By the time I had made it a block, she had disappeared beyond the apogee of the hill. (Later, when I told her that my favorite film is Trouble Every Day, she replied, “Oh, that’s a weird one,” which is certainly true.)

The best new film I saw at the festival is Monrovia, Indiana, an open-eyed look at a small Midwestern town, made with Frederick Wiseman’s usual patience and attentiveness. Wiseman, the most empathetic of American documentarians, casts his unblinking, unprejudiced gaze at a piece of rural America, where animals are mass-processed for food, college basketball dominates classroom conversations, Freemasons still exist, and tractor auctions are a thing. Wiseman shoots Monrovia with an arcane curiosity, so that the hulking green tractors, sucking up the land’s undulating stalks of wheat, have the allure of exotic beasts. After the 2006 presidential election in the United States, there’s been much discussion on the people of the Bible Belt and the Midwest—their beliefs, problems, and ways of life. Without defending or vilifying the population of Monrovia, Wiseman gives everyone the time and space—and freedom—to just be themselves.

On the more esoteric side of the Doclisboa program, Mike Hoolboom, of this year’s two invited filmmakers (along with the inimitable James Benning), presented his new feature, Aftermath, as well as a new 50-minute cut of his infamous House of Pain, which was shot in the early ‘90s, on a Bolex 16mm, and with old, ill-kept black-and-white stock, which gives the film a high-contrast look—all glowing whites and deep inky blacks. House of Pain, the more difficult of the two works—and, consequently, the one that has lingered in my mind—is garish, gaudy, and unapologetically indecorous, a transgressive look at the political body, made following a period of tumult in Hoolboom’s life, beginning when he was diagnosed with HIV six years earlier.

House of Pain

While rife with scatological and urinary sexual acts (a man smears shit all over his hairy chest; another drinks piss through a funnel), a cornucopia of large hairy cocks, more than one close-up of a woman peeing, and torrents of bodily fluids cascading over and into the bodies of willing participants as a soundtrack of grating noises churns, House of Pain never aims to simply shock. The squalid but oddly beautiful imagery is at once enthralling and execrable (one of the film’s four acts is called, aptly, “Shit Eater”), and offers an edifying look at outré desires. It’s not for everyone, but Hoolboom’s sincere dedication to his craft will be obvious to most.

The festival often pairs two shorts together, and this forced relationship illuminates the featured works in often intriguing ways. For example, Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund’s mesmeric Communion Los Angeles, a melange of time-lapsed images and enmeshment of sounds depicting the car-bound life of a Los Angeles denizen, was paired playfully with John Carpenter’s short The Gas Station, which isn’t a documentary, and premiered originally as part of the 1993 made-for-TV anthology film Body Bags (which included two shorts by Carpenter and one by Tobe Hooper).

Carpenter’s film, about a young woman who, while working at a gas station late at night, encounters a roulette of creepy men and one machete-wielding maniac, is possibly his most purely fun project. Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, David Naughton, and Robert Carradine all make appearances. (In the full-length feature, Carpenter also plays the host, a macabre man, all gaunt and ghoulish, with stringy hair and pallid skin, who cracks wise and sips formaldehyde, and recalls the Crypt Keeper, who was, at that time, still hosing Tales from the Crypt on HBO.) It’s an intriguing prelude to Communion Los Angeles, which, with its stuttering images and static-laden soundtrack of voices and noises culled from radio, from television, from diurnal happenings, depicts modern L.A. as a place that’s at once static and always erratically moving. The highways and buildings remain still, like the burning orange eye of a pigeon, the divider between lanes, and the bridges overhead, and all while shadows waver, cars jump forward, and corrugated rivulets of water glint and gleam. It’s easy to get sucked into the film’s undulating images of the slipstream of life.

For me, the highlight of the festival was a comprehensive retrospective on filmmaker Luis Ospina, who’s spent his 40-year career excavating Colombia’s ugliest truths. Though he’s all but unknown in America, he’s an integral figure in the Colombian film world, and seeing his films on a big screen was a treat. A founding member of the Grupo de Cali, an interdisciplinary group of artists who strive to explore the unacknowledged hypocrisies and atrocities of Colombia, Ospina helped to engender his country’s film scene in the ‘70s. Ospina, who survived a seemingly insurmountable cancer diagnosis two years ago, said this retrospective has an ontological quality to it, as if he were watching his life pass before his eyes. He has made films about artists, political movements, his own friends, as well as himself, and each one is imbued with an earnestness that aches one’s bones.

Ospina’s 1977 short The Vampires of Poverty follows a skeleton crew of filmmakers as they prowl the streets of Bogotá and Cali, looking for beggars and street urchins, shoving cameras in their faces and giving them directions (“shake the cup,” “move to the left”) in order to enliven the footage. The mendacity of the documentarians, their lack of empathy, questions the nature of political filmmaking. Ospina has spent much of his career exploring the annals and possibilities and limitations of political filmmaking. He’s dedicated most of his attention to his hometown of Cali, in films such as Listen, Look!, Act of Faith (Redux), Artisans Block by Block, and Goodbye to Cali, and has worked with collage and found footage (The Bombing of Washington), addressed problems with the Colombian health care system (You Have to be Patient), and made a “gothic opera” about one of Raúl Ruiz’s workshops, where students are turned into zombies. His film From Illusion to Bewilderment chronicles the history of Colombian cinema, and is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Latin American film.

Though known for his documentaries, Ospina has also made two seminal feature-length fiction films: Pure Blood, considered the first Colombian “vampire” film, though Ospina’s definition of “vampire” is quite liberal, and Breath of Life, the first Colombian noir. In the slow, sardonic Pure Blood, three killers, at the behest of their bespectacled, blackmailing employer, abduct, rape, murder, and exsanguinate young boys, 28 in total, so that they can give the blackmailer’s geriatric, dying father blood transfusions. The old man—clad in his spotless hospital gown, enfolded by white curtains and walls, with his long white beard and scraggly hair—looks antipodal to a typical vampire, and the ubiquity of white on his person and in his room reflects his innocence—and ignorance of the purloined blood that keeps him alive.

Based partly on the real-life story of a child killer who was never caught nor even identified, and the urban legend about a vampiric Howard Hughes-type eccentric recluse that the murders spawned, Pure Blood is a brooding examination of the oligarchy of Colombian society, as well as cultural paranoia and our willingness to place blame on the easiest target, or make up tall tales to assuage anxieties about the unknown. In its realistic, tragic, non-supernatural depiction of vampirism, it recalls George Romero’s Martin, a shoestring masterpiece of loneliness, despair, and libidinous longing. Despite being a somewhat visually flat film—Ospina is a practical filmmaker rather than a stylish one—and, ironically, bloodless, reserving the violence for off screen, Pure Blood conjures up its share of chilling images of humanity at its most pitiless and selfish. One can see this cryptic, often cruel film garnering a massive following in the West should it ever get, say, a Criterion Collection release. (Pure Blood is on Ospina’s Vimeo in its entirety, though it is password protected; he said he hopes to have it available for free soon.)

Pure Blood

Breath of Life, Ospina’s second and final fiction feature, is a delirious paean to American, French, and Mexican film noir, with its entanglement of lascivious, ignoble characters and violence. It’s also much sillier than the achingly serious Pure Blood. In the film, a former police officer with a shady past is asked to investigate the background of a promiscuous woman who’s been murdered, possibly by a former boxer, or maybe a matador, who, gored by a 1,000-pound bull, retired in shame. Or maybe she’s part of a political conspiracy. It’s a venal and ludicrous film, and the performances have a parodic rigidity to them, though the sultry, sinister score is utterly sincere. Corrupt politicians and police abound, but it’s one of Ospina’s least politically incisive films, a love letter from a filmmaker to a globe-spanning genre.

After Breath of Life, Ospina “said goodbye to fiction,” he told the audience before the screening of the film, but this isn’t entirely true. Since then, he’s often melded fiction and nonfiction by turning his camera on filmmakers and himself, using cinematic techniques to tell stories the way the New Journalists in America used literary techniques; he plumes the depths of lies lurking in facts. He considers Pure Blood to be a mix of documentary and fiction, which is also how he views his documentaries proper. His formal and thematic exploration of fact and fantasy, of the seedy side of politics, brings to mind Lisbon’s greatest living filmmaker, Pedro Costa.

I’d be remiss if I traveled all the way to Lisbon, walked around the city, and didn’t say a few words about Costa and his films about the ignominious side of his home. Lisbon is a gorgeous city, one of the oldest in the world, but not all of it is so lovely. Consider the poor and squalid Fontainhas neighborhood, which once sat on the fringes of Lisbon, but has, in the last decade, been wiped off the face of the Earth—in its place erected gleaming buildings made of glass. It existed in severe contrast to the rest of the culturally rich, beauteous, baroque city, and one can’t help but feel some sense of regret at its demise. The vicinage was kept like a shameful secret, a shantytown rife with immigrants and proletarians trying to scrape by, and is mostly known to outsiders because of Costa’s films, which chronicle, with a commingling of voyeuristic objectivity and oneiric fictualization, the plight of the poor.

With In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, Costa captures undesirable lives on splotchy digital video, immersing his audience (and himself) in the banalities and quotidian endeavors that the filmmaker imbues with the unease of bad dreams. These films offer a painful look at poverty, rendered beautiful by the gaze of carefully placed stationary cameras long static takes, chiaroscuro lighting and the prominence of inky-black shadows that are like ineffaceable stains on the city of Lisbon. In Colossal Youth and Horse Money, a lanky, indolent man, Ventura, traipses through the Hadean ruins of Fontainhas. In Costa’s adroit eye, Lisbon’s forlorn neighborhood is a liminal, ethereal space, rife with derelict buildings and decay like plaque on unclean teeth. He compiles a heap of broken images, a heap of broken lives.

Compare The Vampires of Poverty, its meta, guerilla-style approach, its unflinching politics, to, say, Colossal Youth. Both films are “about” poverty, about people taking advantage of the poor, and while they look nothing alike—Costa has a rigor and precision that belies Ospina’s loose, naturalistic way of filming—they actually compliment each other in odd ways.

A festival, at least a well-programmed one, should be enlightening. And Doclisboa is a great festival not only because it brings to Portugal an array of essential and obscure films, many of which would otherwise go unnoticed and unseen, but also because of the way it extrapolates otherwise unconsidered meanings in tangential relationships. You can see, in a two-day span, a salacious film by a largely unknown talent like Mike Hoolboom, a loquacious examination of rural America by Frederick Wiseman, a little-seen John Carpenter short about a deadly gas station, and an experimental documentary about California’s Highway 110. To have all of these films collated into one program is a rare privilege, and reflects the vitality of Doclisboa.

Doclisboa ran from October 18—28.

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